“Horizon 2020 wordt een loterij”

Interview originally printed in the Dutch science newsletter “Onderzoek Nederland” (September 2015 issue, nr. 372) and based on an earlier article I wrote myself. In the interview I explain the real risk that getting H2020 funding under the Industrial Leadership and the Societal Challenges Pillars is starting to turn into a lottery. Many researchers – particularly those at the mid-stage of their career where the need to publish is highest – opt to participate in as many proposals as possible hoping that at least one will succeed. The solution to the problem for these pillars is to focus the evaluation not on scientific excellence, but on the participation of industry (e.g. Impact). After all: these specific pillars are meant to solve real-world problems and create real-world jobs for Europe. Only if proposals score equally on Impact the evaluators should consider scientific innovation to make a decision on who gets funded.

‘Impact’ should be leading evaluation criterion in funding proposals under H2020 SC and LEIT


Illustration taken from www.Buzzle.com.

In last week’s interview published in the Dutch science newsletter “Onderzoek Nederland” (September 2015 issue; click here to access the text of the Published article) I argue that the only way to keep the Societal Challenges (SC) pillar and the Industrial Leadership (LEIT) pillar viable, is to change the order and emphasis of the proposal evaluation. Instead of “scientific excellence” as the first evaluation criterion, emphasis should mainly be on which proposals have the most meaningful “industry participation” (e.g. Impact), including a detailed commercial roll-out exit strategy. After all: these specific pillars are meant to solve real-world problems and create real-world jobs for Europe. Only if proposals score equally on Impact, should – in my view – the evaluators consider scientific innovation to make a decision on who gets funded.

Now many may argue that science comes first, otherwise you do not have anything to manufacture or build in the first place. I don’t necessarily disagree with that view, but if you take a close look at what the expected results listed in the proposal Calls are, then it is clear that SC and LEIT are essentially about applied research and not so much fundamental resarch, for which there is a separate pillar. Combining existing science and technology and applying them through prototyping and demonstrations is what companies do best. If they participate in projects in a serious way with their own knowledge and capacity, I think the evaluators can safely assume there is a real-world demand and a route to that market. So if proposals are judged on the Impact-criterium first (or with a heavier weighting compared to the other sections), then many proposals which start from scientific curiosity can quickly be filtered out of the evaluation process.

Yes, you might say, but that will only cause more pressure on the third H2020 Pillar (Scientific Excellence). I agree that this will probably happen, but in that specific funding pillar it is only good and natural that only the absolute top X% get funded. That’s what scientific curiosity is all about! At the same time I also fully support the view of many that national governments should restore (and even increase) national funding for scientific research to pre-2008 levels as well, so that the research phases between fundamental and applied are also covered. I think there was never a realistic chance that H2020 could cover and finance all aspects of European research. It cannot replace national funding so the responsibility for maintaining Europe’s scientific excellence must lie mostly with the national member states.

The interview – which is in Dutch – also covers a few other possible ideas to improve H2020 success rates, among which the suggestion that proposals that do not even meet the EC’s threshold (on any of the three evaluation sections) could be told they cannot resubmit their proposal for two years. My argument for this is that even if the resubmission proves better than the first-time submission, these projects are unlikely to shoot from below-threshold to the top 10%-20% that are so good that they have a realistic chance of being funded.