The Horizon Europe proposal consists of 3 fundamental sections: Excellence, Impact and Implementation. Each section has its unique requirements. As you work on your application, it is important to understand what is expected in these sections in order to write them successfully. Since we already have dedicated Impact section and Implementation section articles, this present article will focus on the Excellence section in Horizon Europe. This is the section through which you have the first real opportunity to impress and intrigue the reviewers with your project proposal. Successfully impressing them is an extremely important task that can significantly increase your chances of success. Continue reading for a thorough explanation of how to successfully address this section in your proposal.
*Note – in this article we will offer a thorough explanation of the ‘Excellence section’ in the context of Horizon Europe RIA/IA/CSA project proposals. Should you be applying for alternative funding schemes (EIC Pathfinder Open or EIC Transition Open) – begin with the first part of this article, and then continue on to our dedicated article for (EIC Pathfinder Open or EIC Transition Open grants.
What is the ‘Excellence section’ in Horizon Europe?
The Excellence section in Horizon Europe is where applicants are expected to present:
- the motivation for the project
- the project’s objectives & concept, and finally
- the chosen methodology and approach
In other words – the Excellence section is the place to define WHAT it is that your project aims to achieve. This should be conveyed to the reviewers in a clear and exciting fashion. Later on, it is the Implementation section that will address the question of HOW the project will be executed to achieve the project’s objectives.
In addition to the above-mentioned aims of the Excellence section – one of the more significant roles of this section is to present the novelty (and/or importance) of the project. The way to clearly manifest the novelty and motivation for the project is by establishing the knowledge gap in the field of interest, and showcasing how the project goes beyond the State of the Art in order to bridge this gap. We’ll elaborate on how to achieve this further down.
The structure and content of the Excellence section in Horizon Europe
While the Excellence section template instructions may seem straightforward, the highly competitive Horizon Europe grant requires more than simply ‘ticking the boxes’ and following the general instructions in each sub-section. In order to present a highly competitive proposal – we must aim much higher than that.
Note: The Excellence section in Horizon Europe consists of 2 sub-sections for RIA/IA-type proposals and 2 sub-sections for CSA-type proposals. While the essence of most of the Excellence section is very similar for both RIA/IA and CSA proposals, we will discuss the differences between them below. Additionally, note that EIC Pathfinder and EIC Transition proposals, though essentially describing an RIA project, have a different structure and we will address the differences in a separate article.
Sub-section 1.1 – Objectives and Ambition (RIA/IA/CSA)
The first sub-section within the Excellence chapter refers to the objectives and the ambition of the research project. In most cases, for RIA/IA-type of projects, we recommend allocating about 2 pages for describing the objectives and an additional 2 pages to discuss the ambition. Overall, the recommendation is that section 1.1 will not exceed 4 pages in length. For CSA-type projects, which are shorter and do not focus on performing ambitious R&I work, it is recommended to dedicate 2 pages to section 1.1.
To stay within the recommended page length and propose a successful objectives sub-section, we recommend adhering to the following guidelines:
- When presenting the objectives, refer to the specific topic’s scope, focus and terminology. This is very important, as the reviewers are well-informed about the topic description before reading your application.
- Be clear and to the point. This means avoiding long background texts at the beginning of this section (the opening text of the full application). The best practice is to immediately declare the project’s subject and its objectives. Preferably, we recommend placing this information as part of the opening 1-2 paragraphs of the first page. A clear message to the effect of: “The main objective(s) of this project is/are …”, is a perfect way to start. The reviewers will highly appreciate a clear answer to the first question that they have in mind: “What is this project all about?”
- Include specific conceptual objectives. Aside from stating the overarching objective of the project, a set of specific conceptual objectives (unlike operational objectives which we refer to directly below) should be listed. These objectives should be clear, measurable, realistic and achievable within the duration of the project. If possible, we recommend adding means of verification or indicators of achieving the objectives. This can help in turning the objectives to be more tangible, hence more attractive to the reviewers. Additionally, adding these will enable ‘measuring’ the overall performance of the project. This will be highly appreciated by the reviewers, and will also assist you during the project’s execution phase, alongside the detailed work plan (in section 3). Keep in mind that the objectives are expected to be consistent with the expected outcomes and expected impacts of the project (as described in Section 2 – Impact).
- Clearly differentiate between conceptual objectives (in this sub-section), and the operational & technical objectives that complement them in the work-packages (sub-section 3.1). To better understand the difference between these two sets of objectives, consider the first one (in sub-section 1.1) as the macro-level objectives of the project which provide a ‘bird’s eye view’ on the project, and the second set (listed within the work plan description in sub-section 3.1) to be the micro-level, operational objectives of the project. It is the second set that serves as the project’s tangible building blocks, going step-by-step through the operational tasks to achieve the project’s goal. If done correctly, the accumulation of achievements in the second set (operational & technical objectives), will eventually lead to the full achievement of the first set of objectives (the conceptual objectives).
**Read more about this second set of objectives in the dedicated article about the implementation section.
Section 1.1 should also demonstrate to the reviewers how and why your proposal addresses the scope of the targeted topic in the work program. This should be done within the page limit of course. Providing such an overview is not a simple and straightforward task.
For help, consider our guidelines:
- We recommend that this text is no longer than about a single paragraph.
- Next, we strongly recommend avoiding repeating the same story, using the same words and terminology, as expressed in the rest of the text under sub-section 1.1 and the project’s abstract. The reason for this is simple: the reviewers may read the proposal in a sequential manner. If they do so, we do not want to bore them with repetitions of text, sentences and messages. Instead, we want to give them a fresh view and added value in this sub-section, different from what they have already read in the opening of the proposal and in the project’s abstract.
- Finally, if possible, let someone else who was not involved in the proposal development process to read and review the full proposal. Then, have them write a one-paragraph summary for the purpose of conveying this required message. Doing so may result with a different ‘voice’ describing the same project, which will be a refreshing point of view for the reviewers as they read the entire proposal.
This part (still under sub-section 1.1) requires applicants to refer to and establish the need/motivation for the suggested project. This is done by clearly describing the State of the Art within the relevant field, which in turn defines and establishes the knowledge gap. Establishing the knowledge gap is an essential step for explaining how the project plans to go beyond the State of the Art in the field. It is this leap forward beyond the State of the Art which will establish the project’s novelty and enable to portray an ambitious project proposal.
When describing the State of the Art, do so in the context of the problem you wish to solve. To achieve this – scan, analyze and present the field of interest to clearly show the State of the Art and its current implications. Needless to say, you should avoid missing the most recent and updated published work relating to your project, not only within academia but also in other relevant sectors such as industry, if applicable. While it is important to show you are fluent with recent updates and knowledge gaps in your field, avoid extra texts about the State of the Art and the knowledge gap that do not add real value to the evaluators.
Be sure to explain how your novel project provides a solution to these needs. Namely, how it expands the current State of the Art and closes the gap in the knowledge you have just described. It is here that you are required to clearly explain the innovative potential of your project in terms of breakthroughs, new products, services, business, organizational models, or anything else in this context.
Sub-section 1.2 Methodology (RIA/IA/CSA)
The second sub-section of the Excellence section in Horizon Europe proposals is the place to present the project’s concept & approach, as well as the selected methodology that will enable these. As such, it serves as the bridge to the more technical & operational Implementation section. This sub-section is the place to convince the reviewers that the project brings a novel concept and is constructed on sound methods that will allow the successful delivery of the project’s objectives. Again, this is not a place for simply ”ticking the boxes”. This sub-section calls for presenting a project concept that showcases a deep understanding and thinking about how to ‘deliver the goods’ and facilitates the novelty that was presented in the objectives sub-section. The expected overall page allocation for section 1.2 is 15 pages in RIA/IA-type proposals and 6 pages in CSA-type proposals.
In both RIA/IA- and CSA-type proposals, you should pay close attention to the topic description for specific requirements regarding particular organizations, networks, associations, initiatives, related projects, or any other expected collaboration that should be addressed in the application. The recommended length for describing these elements is one page.
Since this sub-section serves both as the ‘heart’ of the excellence and as the ‘bridge’ to the implementation, it is expected that sub-section 1.2 will be exciting, intriguing, highly competitive and detailed. Allocate about two-thirds of this section (around 10 pages in RIA/IA-type proposals and 4 pages in CSA-type proposals) for presenting the main segment, including the concept, approach and methodology. The additional pages allocated to section 1.2 should be dedicated to other elements, as explained below.
The concept of the project
In the context of describing and explaining the overall concept of the project – main ideas, models, assumptions, etc. should be listed and presented in detail. The novelty of your project should be reflected in this sub-section. Therefore, do not hesitate to dive deep into the scientific reasoning of the suggested concept. The reviewers are going to look out for this. Diagrams, graphs, pathways, mechanisms, techniques, methods, mathematical formulas and expressions, description of algorithms, preliminary findings, etc., are all welcome and even required to fully justify the scientific novelty claim. In case there are interdisciplinary aspects, or your project is hypothesis-driven – this is the place to address and stress that out as well.
Other elements that should be addressed in this segment, specifically in RIA/IA-type proposals, are the positioning of the proposal in R&I terms, namely the maturity level of the project in the spectrum of ‘from idea to application’ or from ‘lab-to-market’. In this context, refer to TRL levels relevant to your project (i.e., what is the current TRL and where will it be by the end of the project). Make sure you have noted any reference to TRL levels in the targeted topic description. Some topics may define the expected TRL levels at the beginning and/or the end of the project, and therefore the presentation of your project’s concept must comply with that.
The chosen methodology for the project
Once the concept is taken care of, the next step is to describe the overall methodology chosen for the project. Begin by referring to the overall work plan of your project and the reasoning behind this approach. In this section, only initial references will suffice, since a detailed description is expected only in section 3 – Implementation. Instead of diving deep into the “HOW”, use this sub-section to elaborate on and explain the scientific and, if relevant, technological methods, models and assumptions which underpin your work in your suggested project. This sub-section should also reflect the innovative aspects of your project presented in sub-section 1.1.
In CSA-type proposals, this sub-section is named “Coordination and/or support measures and methodology”. Although the distinction between concept and methodology in these projects is not as clear as in RIA/IA-type projects, our recommendation is to go ahead and separate the concept from the methodology, as done in RIA/IA proposals. This makes for a much more logical and easier read. When doing so, make sure to first explain the overall concept at the base of your project, its main ideas, approach, models and the assumptions composing it. Once in place, move on to explain the chosen methodological approach for realizing this concept and achieving your objectives. Needless to say, the discussion on TRL levels is not relevant to CSA proposals.
Another central element in Horizon Europe that is expected to be discussed in this sub-section is the role of interdisciplinarity in the project. In this context, describe how elements and expertise from different disciplines will be used in the project in a complementary and comprehensive way. This means you should not simply provide a “list of disciplines”, but also illustrate why these combined disciplines and the collaboration between them are fitting and necessary for achieving the objectives. When doing so, bear in mind that this section is conceptual, and refer mostly to the expertise associated with each discipline rather than to its executive role.
Alternatively, if you consider the inter-disciplinary approach unnecessary for your proposed project, explain why. However, it should be noted that in many cases such interdisciplinarity will be expected, as meeting all the requirements and fully covering the scope of a given topic often require bringing together several expertise and knowledge fields. It is recommended to dedicate up to half a page for this part.
Some topics explicitly demand the integration of Social Sciences and Humanities into the application. This element is intertwined throughout the different work programmes, and will be mentioned directly in some topics. If this is your case, you should refer to it. This part should be no more than half a page. What should be detailed here is not only the disciplines included in the application, but also the way they are combined together in a holistic way which contributes to the research and innovation activities of the project. If you do not consider the involvement of SSH relevant for your project, please provide a justification. This aspect is not required for a CSA type of project.
Sex and Gender
The next aspect to be discussed under methodology and as relevant to your proposal is the sex and gender dimension. If applicable, be sure to explain exactly to what extent it is taken into account in the project’s content. Assess whether concepts, methods and approaches need to be designed differently when thinking of sex and gender differences. Importantly, this is not the place to discuss the gender balance in the consortium (this is done later on in section 3.3), only refer to sex and gender aspects of the content of the project’s activities. If you consider that gender aspects are not relevant to the content of the project, this should be explained and justified. The recommended length for this text is one page. This aspect is not required for a CSA type of project.
This part should introduce the integration of Open Science practices in your methodology, such as early access to research results, open access to scientific publications and data, and co-creation of R&I content with stakeholders and the general public. If none of the Open Science practices are considered as relevant for your project, a proper justification should be provided. However, note that some practices are mandatory, for example providing open access to scientific publications. Furthermore, in light of the importance and emphasis given to Open Science policy in the European Commission’s agenda, it is strongly recommended to implement such practices. The recommended length for this part is up to one page. You can learn more about Open Science in Horizon Europe here.
Data management plan (DMP)
Proposals including collection, generation or creation of data and/or other research outputs (except for publications) are obliged to provide up to one page-long Data Management plan (DMP) detailing how their research outputs will be managed in line with the FAIR principles (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable). This includes type, findability (i.e., identifiers that would help to reach the data), accessibility, interoperability (i.e., the ability to communicate and use the data by multiple people, including relevant standards and vocabularies) and reusability (permissions and tools for reuse of the data, such as Open Science commons and availability of needed software) of the research outputs, and the way they will be stored and its cost. DMPs are updated from time to time during the implementation phase, as the project progresses. Once your proposal is selected for funding, the initial DMP should be developed into a detailed plan. It becomes a mandatory deliverable that should be submitted by month 6 and revised towards the end of a project’s lifetime.
The above thoroughly discusses everything that should be taken into account when developing the Excellence section for RIA/IA/CSA project proposals. Successfully incorporating all aspects will help increase the chances for impressing the reviewers with your presented project.
Should you be applying for alternative funding schemes (EIC Pathfinder Open or EIC Transition Open) – continue on to this dedicated article.