After the first three years of Horizon 2020, as of 1 January 2017, only one-fourth of the budget´s programme has been allocated (Horizon 2020. Key findings from the interim evaluation. 2017). From €74.8 billion budget just about €20.4 billion has been granted. Meaning that there is a lack of balance between the period of the programme that passed already and the money that was supposed to be allocated during that time. Also, this will result in a correction needed to be performed during the remaining 3 years with the correlative cost and burden to the administration.
Applicants know now that the success rate is a scary 11.6%, 6.8pps less than previous programme (Seventh Framework Programme, FP7 had a success rate of 18.4%) so is extremely important to analyze what lies behind these figures and all the implications behind.
Figure 3. Key Indicators. Horizon 2020, Interim evaluation. 2017
As we can see in the graphic above, efficiency reviewing proposals did even increase, thanks to a high externalization of the management and simplification of the application process. But, Horizon 2020 has received more than 100.000 applications during the first 3 years of its life. It is a 65% increase between FP7 and H2020. So, is clear that this delay in allocating the budget is mainly caused by oversubscription. And oversubscription, combined with a low success rate is a dangerous thing that could turn into demotivation for future applicants, especially newcomers, leaving European citizens without reaching the benefits of high-quality projects.
The idea that get a grant is almost a matter of luck is spreading fast. The achievement rate can vary heavily depending on the part of the programme the applicant chooses, for example, under the food category the rate is 13.3% and in transport, it goes up to a 17.7%. Calls are considered too general, so is hard to decide to which specific part of the programme to apply. Another problem related is that the quality of feedback significantly decreased from the previous programme, this leaves applicants without the proper tools to improve their chances to get into H2020 in the future or at least improve their projects according to the high standards of the Commission. Between applicants that not get the level required by the Commission and the doubts about personal interpretations by the evaluators, this all is being translated into money wasted by applicants and the EU.
In conclusion, is not only that is harder now to get a grant and that the next three years evaluators could face even more problems in order to distribute more money in less time. But it´s also about the fact that an estimated of 62.4 Billion euros will be needed in order to cover all top quality projects submitted.
Is it a big budget counterproductive?
Horizon2020 being the “largest Framework Programme budget ever” (Horizon 2020. Key findings from the interim evaluation. 2017) is not only bringing closer the programme main goal “To contribute to building a society and economy based on knowledge and innovation across the Union” (Horizon 2020. Key findings from the interim evaluation. 2017) but also causing more than one unexpected effect.
After the economic crisis of 2010, some countries, like Spain or Italy, found the perfect excuse to reduce their expenditure in research on the national level, leaving researchers with no option but to apply for European money. Horizon2020 could be being used as a smokescreen to hide austerity.
Another direct consequence of such a big budget is that individual grants are also big, with an average of two million euros per grant. Mainly top quality researchers get into H2020, only the crème de la crème, people with many articles published in prestigious scientific journals. Ironically, theses skillful personnel sometimes need to stop focusing on their scientific work to become project managers of their projects. With too few big researches instead of smaller enterprises, we end leaving out of the field early-career researchers and also losing talent where is really needed.
Working towards gender equality is not only one of the five main objectives of the European Commission it is also a specific key element of the Horizon 2020 programme. It´s true that there are specific calls aiming to increase the number of women into research and innovation or large scale projects focusing on science education whose objective is to increase the number of female scientists and engineers. But this is all too little or too long-term if we consider how important is to reduce the occupational segmentation in fields covered by H2020 or the fact that “in 2012 women accounted for 47 % of Ph.D. but made up only 33 % of researchers and 21 % of top-level researchers” (Eurostat, 2017). Effective and low-cost practices such as require gender equity in the applying teams or even in the applying institutions are not even considered, maybe because of the size of the projects.
Post-socialistic member states are complaining lately about being unfairly treated. Issues like restrictions of free movement of workers and advised two speed Europe, food double standards and many other reasons do not call for integration. And knowing that researchers from eastern Europe have little opportunities of getting an H2020 grant is not help towards unification. H2020 funds mainly big projects located in countries with an extensive investigation background leaving out low-performing countries. Between the 15 top countries most funded by H2020, we can find Norway and Israel –not EU members- but not a single eastern country, not even Poland that is the sixth most populated country inside the EU. With all that, is not surprising that some newspapers are calling Horizon 2020 a “Reversed Robin Hood scheme, given that most ERC funds go to well-off countries” (The Guardian, 2014).
Large budget and high quality only could sound like a bulletproof strategy, but as we can see now maybe the European institutions need to develop some action plan to correct unwanted consequences.
Brexit and Horizon 2020, what is ahead?
By 23:00 of March 29th, 2019 the United Kingdom will leave officially the European Union. And even with all the uncertainty that surrounds Brexit, there are important factors that will directly affect Horizon 2020 and its relation with the UK.
Fears are high for British researchers. Won´t Young scientists be able anymore to move freely inside the Community anymore? Losing the international collaboration that H2020 implies will make harder for them to publish in prestigious journals? Many big research companies are also publicly expressing their intention to leave the UK after Brexit, ending with several British scientists losing their jobs. All moves into unknown waters, but the UK, being a scientific power is really in a difficult position.
On the other hand, Brexiters ensure that nothing will change. Britain will sign an association agreement (like Norway or Turkey) and will keep business as usual. But the reality seems to be not so simple. Cases like Swiss could be a good indicator to know what is ahead for the UK. Swiss being known as an anti-immigration country had to change their policies with this regard “in 2004 they allowed free movement of people to and from the EU, partly to qualify for EU research programs” (Technology Review 2016). Therefore, UK could have to choose between the dilemma of allowing free movement of people (the main reason that lead into Brexit) or having to pay an extra cost of around 20 percent. There is a serious issue for the country with most H2020 funded projects and the second with the highest EC contribution allocated. At the end of the day, numbers speak clear and loud “Between 2007 and 2013, it paid 5.4 billion euros into the EU research budget but got 8.8 billion euros back in grants” (Technology Review 2016).
With Brexit negotiations undergoing, Commission says that maybe UK grantees may have to leave after Brexit. And UK government reassure participants that they will pay participants if necessary. Nevertheless, what will happen after March 2019 is unclear, but what we know is that even if Brexit supporters are right and the UK get into the associated country category, UK will have to pay its own way into European projects and lose their right to vote in how to allocate that money at the same time. Brexit also means that England will take away from the general progress all their expertise and professionals. At the end, what seems clear is that we would all end losing.