Many grants are innovation-based – and this is certainly the case for the prestigious EU grants: Horizon Europe and ERC. This means that a successful and competitive proposal in the eyes of the reviewers must successfully convey that a novel project is at hand. Unfortunately, this is not such a straightforward and simple task. From experience, many researchers go overboard when attempting to claim the novelty of their research. Some opt to explain that their research project is ‘bleeding-edge’ / ‘highly innovative’ / will have ‘unprecedented outcomes’, or any other fancy declarations to decorate the novelty claim. But, when it comes to highly competitive grants such as Horizon Europe and ERC, fancy words alone are simply not enough. On the contrary, such claims, if not supported well by the described project, may even antagonize reviewers and create a negative feedback cycle about the project at hand. To facilitate positive feedback from the reviewers, it is crucial to support any novelty claim with proper, clear, elaborated (scientific/technological) reasoning and justifications. In this article, we will present the right step-by-step process that constructs such justification to support the innovation claim of your research project.
NOTE: Innovation, although being very important in many EU grants, may not be a central element in all types of grants, for example the Coordination and Support Actions (CSA) grants in Horizon Europe. In case you are targeting calls for proposals which are clearly not seeking innovation, you can disregard this article.
Step 1: Realizing the right novelty orientation of the target call for proposals
When approaching a specific call for proposals, it is essential to position the research project in line with the specific requirements of the grant. This is specifically true when assessing the novelty required in the specific grant, and is thus the first (and crucial) step in the process of proposing competitive projects with the expected novelty nature.
Assessing whether your project has the right novelty orientation starts by understanding the overall nature of the grant and its mission statement in regards to innovation. For example, the ERC and EIC Pathfinder Open (previously FET-Open) grants are at the forefront of science and innovation, focusing on fundamental science leading to significant breakthroughs. Therefore, for these two grant types, the ‘innovation bar’ is at its highest possible position. For Collaborative Horizon Europe projects in the form of Research and Innovation Actions (RIA) and Innovation Actions (IA) the ‘innovation bar’ is positioned lower in comparison to ERC and EIC Pathfinder Open but still, it is a central feature of the grant. RIA-type projects will typically span from early-stage research to validation and proof of concept. IA-type projects will be closer to market and typically span from late development stages up to ‘go to market’ activities.
With this in mind, the innovative nature of your suggested project must be aligned with the targeted grant and its expectations regarding the innovative nature and scale of projects funded through this grant.
The next step in reaching the right novelty orientation is to refer to any relevant information provided in the official documentation of the target grant and call for proposals and assess the suggested innovation accordingly (this part is relevant to all grant types under Horizon Europe, excluding the ERC). This means to clearly review the call’s Specific Challenge, Scope and Expected Impact. Look for any direct instruction or clues about the expected innovation. They can be presented in the call’s texts in an explicit or implicit manner. An example which appears in many calls is a direct indication about the expected novelty, in the form of expected TRL (Technology Readiness Level). In the lack of direct instructions (which could happen quite often), look for clues stemming from the way the call text is articulated.
The above preliminary step, which many tend to skip, is an essential step in the process of supporting your novelty claims. Failing to have the right novelty orientation at the very beginning will essentially lead to a flaw in all the steps to follow, which will render the project proposal to be less (or non-) competitive. To help in this process, we offer our complimentary Go/No-Go screening service geared towards this immensely important step in the proposal preparation process.
Step 2: Presenting a focused State-of-the-Art
Having successfully 1. selected the target call for proposals and 2. ensured the novelty of your suggested project has the right orientation to the target call for proposal, the next step is to present the relevant State of the Art briefing in light of the right orientation identified in Step 1. This State of the Art is a mandatory building block of the ‘Excellence’ section of the application.
Briefly, the State-of-the-Art should present to the reviewers what has been done to date in this research area. This statement has two main objectives: (a) to inform the reviewers about the direct (and sometimes indirect) competition that you consider for the suggested project; and/or (b) to convince the reviewers that you, the researcher (and your consortium when relevant), is an expert in your field of research.
The State-of-the-Art discussion should refer to any relevant field regarding your research project. In many cases, this means to first cover anything that is relevant from the scientific point of view of your specific research area. However, sometimes the relevant scope can (and should) be wider, and refer to the potential impact on other disciplines or applications, impact on other dimensions (such as economy, society, environment), and so on. As long as these aspects/dimensions are relevant, meaning they can help the reviewers to assess the novelty of the project, it is essential to include them in the text. Vice versa – information that is not / less relevant for the assessment of the novelty should be left out of this analysis.
Tips for a well-constructed State-of-the-Art discussion
To construct the State-of-the-art discussion successfully, consider the following helpful tips:
- Though the natural urge may be to include as much information as possible, it is highly important to stay focused and provide only truly relevant information in the context of the specific grant. There is no need to overdo the literature review or the State-of-the-Art in general. In many cases, the page limit of the application will not allow you to do that. But, most importantly – the reviewers will highly appreciate and indeed positively evaluate a concise State-of-the-Art discussion that refers only to relevant aspects of the specific grant and the claimed novelty of the project. Anything beyond this is simply unnecessary, and therefore should be avoided.
- Special attention should be made to the grant’s expected novelty scope, which derives from the grant’s mission statement and novelty orientation. The scope derives from the targeted grant or call for proposals, and the State-of-the-Art discussion should correlate to the expected scope. For calls for proposals that seek limited scope of innovation, we’d recommend providing a corresponding limited State-of-the-Art discussion. However, for calls for proposals that expect a wider scope of innovation, the corresponding State-of-the-Art discussion should be wider. For example, let’s assess a project that aims to dramatically improve machine-learning computation for robotics. Consider a case in which the grant’s expected novelty scope is limited, for example – A Horizon Europe ICT grant in robotics, which enables solving a specific problem in the field of interest (i.e. robotics application). In such a case, the State-of-the-Art can, and should, focus on the specific application itself (i.e. machine learning techniques for robotics only). On the other hand, consider an alternative scenario in which the grant’s expected novelty scope is wider, for example – An EIC Pathfinder Open grant, expecting significant breakthroughs in fundamental research (radical vision), with long-term technological vision, resulting with a wide range of potential applications based on the said fundamental breakthroughs. In that case, the State-of-the-Art should actually focus on the existing fundamental features of the underlying science or technology (i.e.) machine learning techniques) that should be improved / further developed. Such fundamental State-of-the-Art presentation should refer to work that was done in the field of interest in general, regardless of its specific applications in any relevant discipline (i.e. what are the shortcomings of machine learning that limit its application in various areas such as physics, biology, computer science, weather forecasting, etc.) This wider State-of-the-Art discussion will help crystalize the global existing shortcomings of the technology (i.e. machine learning), and this will, later on, show what can be improved and how. The implications of such improvements will have a wider impact, as it will affect all the applications that benefit from the technology (i.e. machine learning, including robotics and all the other relevant applications from all other disciplines).
- State-of-the-Art is not the project’s impact. The State-of-the-Art is here to illustrate the (potential) competition to the said project (and serve as a building block in the process of justifying innovation). It is also a way to establish the need/motivation for the research project and serves as the baseline for innovation assessment. The impact, on the other hand, discusses the benefits, once the project’s goals are accomplished. For more about the Impact – refer to our set of dedicated Impact articles.
Step 3: Identifying the knowledge gap
A clear and focused presentation of the State-of-the-Art sets the ground to the next step: smoothly identifying and declaring the knowledge gap that the presented project aims to close.
It is recommended to identify this knowledge gap either as a summary at the end of the State-of-the-Art presentation, or as an intertwined methodical discussion throughout the State-of-the-Art.
An important tip here is to emphasize the key messages that define the knowledge gap and to make it easy for the reviewers to follow. Therefore, the text identifying the knowledge gap (either as a summary or as intertwined messages) is supposed to be short, concise and highlighted. Make sure to avoid redundancies and repetitions of elements or notions already mentioned in the State-of-the-Art. The reviewers will highly appreciate that.
Step 4: Methods and Skills
Having fully established and justified the knowledge gap, the next step is to show the reviewers that the presented project has the right skills and methods to close this gap.
To do this successfully, present the project’s scientific merits, and the approach and methods by which you will execute the project. Similar to the State-of-the-Art, the reviewers will appreciate relevant in-depth scientific/technological discussions to support the project’s claims. When doing so, make sure that you follow our guidelines about “feeding the reviewer” in general, and specifically about the “inner logic of the proposal” and the “implementation structure guide”.
Indeed, this discussion should be done in the context of the targeted grant, its expectations and ultimately within the official page limit. Still, we recommend going deep into science wherever it is possible. In highly competitive grants – the reviewers will appreciate this. Lack of such an in-depth discussion may prevent the reviewers from properly evaluating your project.
Connecting the dots
So far we have (a) realized what is the right context to present the project to the targeted call for proposals; (b) clearly presented the relevant State-of-the-Art; (c) identified the knowledge gap; and (d) laid down the relevant methods and skills that the project has in hand. Make sure not to skip any of the listed steps above.
At this point, it is time to connect the dots for the reviewers and explain how all the above supports the original claim of novelty and innovation. Use all the elements above and write a short summary text that will convey a clear message to the reviewers about your scientific / technological reasoning that led you to come up with this unique novel project, through which true innovation would be possible. If you need any further assistance with this important process, do not hesitate to contact us!