Wednesday, 14 May 2014

H2020: Taking Stock


We're now five months into Horizon 2020. We've had the first call deadlines, and it's time to take stock.


Background

The UK did well out of H2020's predecessor, FP7. It received some €5.2bn, 15 of the overall budget, and second only to Germany. UK participants were involved in 8,100 projects.

The budget for H2020 is €20bn higher, and the priorities for the new Framework Programme are twofold:
  • to help the EU exit the economic crisis;
  • to support sustainable growth.

Work Programme

The Work Programme (WP) is the document that tells you all you need to know about applying for an H2020 call. And it's a beast. Whereas the FP7 WPs were divided up into separate parts, which were a bit of a drag to track down, the H2020 WP is one monster 1,000 page, 18 section document. It covers two years of calls, and set out the challenge that the research should address, the scope the projects should cover, and the outcomes from them. Most of the practical information is hidden away at the end of the behemoth. 

Types of Action

In previous Framework Programmes there were a number of 'actions' (i.e. funding schemes), such as 'STREPs', 'Networks of Excellence' and 'Integrated Actions'. Things have been simplified somewhat, and there are essentially two major types:
  • Research & Innovation Action/Innovation Action. This is a project grant, and the difference between the two is how close they are to market. RIAs are more basic or blue skies research; IAs are closer to commercialisation.
  • Coordination & Support Action. This is not funding for research, but for all the activities that underpin research, such as networking etc.

Costing

Costing was a nightmare under FP7, and required a degree in theoretical mathematics to understand, let alone calculate. H2020 has simplified things. For universities, they can apply for 100% of direct costs, and a standard 25% for overheads. That's, essentially, it.

Eligibility

This has remained the same: you need three partners from three member countries, associated countries or 'third countries'. Third countries are, generally, developing countries. They used to included the BRIC countries and Mexico, but these are now excluded under H2020. They can still participate (like the USA and Canada), but they won't receive any funding from the EU. That's not to say excluded countries cannot get funding elsewhere. For instance, the USA's NIH provides match funding for H2020 projects in Health.

Be aware, also, of any specific restrictions on eligibility. Some calls have been set up to provide funding for very specific geographic locations, or very specific partners, and you need to be sure that they are part of your consortium. Which brings us on to...

Interpreting the Topic

So now we get down to business. What does the EU actually want to fund? It's not always clear from the description given in the call. You need to make sure you get all the background detail you can. This can include:

  • The introduction to the WP, which can provide an indication of the broader picture;
  • The introduction to the part of the WP that your topic is in; 
  • Any relevant additional documents, such as roadmaps, strategic directions or policy documents referred to in the WP. 
  • The commercial agenda. Many of the topics in H2020 have been determined by industrial participants. They may have been devised by Public-Private Partnerships, such as Factories of the Future or Energy-Efficient Buildings. Read up on these, as they will give you a clear indication of the direction of travel.

Don't Call Us, We'll (Probably Not) Call You

In FP7 applicants used to be able to call EC desk officers and ask them specific questions about the call and their draft applications. No longer. The EC has clamped down on this, and desk officers now refer applicants to the National Contact Points. You can only call the Commission to talk about the policy background underlying the call, not about the specifics of the call itself. 

Hello? Is It Me You're Looking For?

If you're unsure whether your area of research is of interest to H2020, the Participant Portal has a useful search function. Elsewhere on the Portal are two useful sets of forms:
  • Proposal Templates. These are blank forms that you can download to see what kind of information the EC expects in your proposal. The proposal will be about 70 pages, but don't let that put you off. The EC has improved the form, being more explicit about the information they want.
  • Evaluation Forms. These are the forms that your reviewers will use. It gives you an idea of how your proposal will be scrutinised.
As with FP7 you can submit your proposal at any time before the deadline, and continue to update the submitted form. We'd recommend that you do so to avoid being one of the 1% of people who fluff this and get rejected because their application was incomplete or not submitted in time.

Evaluation

One of the improvements in H2020 is the shortening of the time it took to evaluate and start the project. In FP7 it usually took more than a year; under H2020 they are hoping it will only take eight months. This is good and bad: it's good, in that you don't have to wait around for so long; it's bad, in that there's very little room for negotiation. So if you've costed your project too high, don't expect the EC to get back to you and say, 'we like it, but we don't have that much money to give. Could you slice a bit off?' It's all or nothing now, so make sure you've costed it accurately. 

Similarly, if you're proposal is too long, any excess pages will be watermarked and evaluators will be told to disregard them. 

The evaluation criteria and scoring has remained the same. There are three criteria: Excellence, Impact and Implementation. Each is scored out of five, with a threshold for each of three, and an overall threshold of 10. The difference this time is that Impact has been shunted up to being the second criterion.

When planning impact, think about the specifics.

  • Try and include quantitative indicators and timelines;
  • Plan how you will disseminate and exploit your findings;
  • Resolve intellectual property questions as early as possible. Talk to the IPR Helpdesk if need be.

Interestingly, if two proposals score equally, the following are used to differentiate them:

  1. Excellence
  2. Impact
  3. Size of SME budget
  4. Gender balance
Note that last: gender has now become a dealbreaker, so make sure you don't dismiss this as unimportant.

Open Access

Finally, be aware that, like the Research Councils, the EC will expect the findings of your research to be made available free at the point of access. Funding is available for this, but only during the lifetime of the project. They are exploring whether to extend this beyond the end of the project, but this has not been finalised yet.

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