Proposing Horizon 2020 projects – why we need a more efficient process

euro-flagJust two days after Easter was the deadline of the first ICT Call of Horizon 2020, the current Framework for European funded R&D projects, with the official name of “H2020-ICT-2014-1”. As expected the interest from the European research community was immense. In total 1,645 proposals were submitted, of which 1,106 were so-called “Research and Innovation Actions”, 375 were “Innovation Actions” and 164 were “Coordination and Support Actions”. If we are lucky, 150 – 200 projects will eventually be funded.
The huge number of submitted proposals did not come as a surprise. After all there has not been a large ICT Call for quite some time, and the Horizon 2020 funding conditions are for various types of organisations more favourable than the FP7 funding conditions. Fact is that there is a potential overall “success rate” of roughly 1 in 10 proposals – interestingly quite similar to the last large FP7 ICT Call more than a year ago (please read my Blog article of 17 January 2013). The potential success rate varies a lot depending on the different Work Programme topics. It can be lower than 5% (i.e. less than 1 in 20), for example in digital gaming; but also nearly 50%, for example in novel material for OLED lighting.

Let’s discuss some possible conclusions.

The relation of proposal-time to project-time.
If we roughly assume that the average effort for preparing a project proposal takes about 2 person-months (a quite moderate assumption), the total effort for preparing and submitting the “H2020-ICT-2014-1” proposals was about 330 person years. The total funding is 658.5 Mio €. If we assume very moderate 100 k€ average cost per person year, we get about 6,600 funded person years in Call 1. So the ratio of proposal-time to project-time is around 5%, which is quite a high level. On the one hand we need a transparent and open process to achieve the selection of the most promising European projects, but on the other hand 330 European ICT researchers are busy with preparing proposals, of which only 10% are successful – whilst the researchers in other regions are solving their research problems.

The self-fulfilling proposal inflation.
Based on experiences with earlier calls every proposer knows that there is a very low success rate for FP7/Horizon 2020 proposals. The statistics tell that for every successful project statistically it needs about ten submitted proposals. This means that proposers tend to prepare more proposals than they would if there was a higher chance for success. If everybody acts like this, it drives up the number of proposals automatically in a vicious spiral. The only way out of this is a change in the proposal process (see below), or a common agreement amongst the European research community to only concentrate on the strongest proposals which an organisation can really handle. The latter is very unlikely, though.

The influence on the motivation of the proposers.
I don’t believe that the influence of the low statistical success rate on the motivation during the proposal phase is very high. If a team has once decided to work on a challenging proposal, it does not have the success rate in mind. On the contrary: knowing that there is fierce competition, and that only the very best proposals will be funded, could even increase the motivation to submit an excellent proposal. On the other hand, many potentially valuable proposals might not be considered at all, because various potential project teams might decide that with such a low chance for success it is not worth the effort. After the proposal phase there are usually many frustrations if really good and well elaborated proposals have not been selected simply because other proposals were ranked higher – not always with the full understanding on the selection criteria.

Alternative ways for funding European activities.
There are certainly other ways, probably not as transparent and open, but with less effort to the research community for the proposal process, for example:
• A two-stage-proposal process, where in a first stage only short descriptions of the project idea are required. The disadvantage is that a two-stage-proposal selection process takes longer, and the decision on the short first stage description is not so decisive.
• Performing more R&D work through tenders, where the funding party clearly describes what shall be done. This can lead to much more targeted results in targeted areas of benefit for Europe and its economy. Examples for such a system are ESA in Europe or DARPA in the US.
• Funding other European bodies for performing targeted European R&D. A good example for such a method are the standardisation mandates between the European Commission and European standards organisations like ETSI, CEN or CENELEC.
• Also the Celtic-Plus EUREKA Cluster is a perfect example of identifying and selecting good projects. Celtic-Plus has a much lighter process for proposing projects; however the big challenge there is to get the national-based funding after a project proposal has been approved (please read the Blog “FP7 Call Frustrations – Now What?” of 6 May 2013).

I would recommend that the European research community thinks about possibilities for lighter proposal processes requiring less overall experts’ time for preparing proposals, of which 90% are not funded.

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