Horizon 2020: top-level sport, but not winner takes all

I started writing a series of blogs more than a year ago, as an experiment. Thanks to your help, the experiment has been a success. The blogs became columns and are being distributed to a broader readership. Starting in January, Wim van Saarloos and I will share this column. We welcome your comments!

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of giving the opening address at a symposium celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Marie Skłodowska -Curie Actions (MSCA) at the NEMO Science Museum in Amsterdam. With the European Research Council (ERC), the MSCA is one of the largest components of the European Commission’s Eighth Framework Programme for Research and Innovation.

The Eighth Framework Programme – in EU jargon known as ‘FP8’ or ‘Horizon 2020’ – is the first such programme to combine EU funding for research and innovation on such a grand scale. Its budget exceeds that of its predecessors, with 74.8 billion euros in funding being provided over a seven-year period.

FP8 rests on three interconnected pillars: ‘excellent science’, ‘industrial leadership’ and ‘societal challenges’. The Netherlands is doing well under FP8, comparatively speaking. The funding obtained by the Dutch research world under the programme is even comparable to that of the NWO. As a result, Dutch researchers have been very active in the programme, not only writing proposals but also developing programmes and reviewing submissions.

The Netherlands is also scoring top marks in the MSCA. This programme specifically encourages young researcher mobility between countries, both EU and non-EU, and between sectors, including the private sector. This means that the MSCA promotes diversity in outstanding research groups. The research undertaken by such groups has already led to a number of Nobel Prizes. For example, Nobel laureate Ben Feringa’s research team is tremendously diverse, and much of its research was funded by the MSCA. I recognised the same trend that afternoon at the NEMO Science Museum as I watched young Dutch and foreign researchers give their presentations. Benefits through diversity – that was precisely what the Dutch Science Minister emphasised in the closing address of the symposium.

In short, Horizon 2020 is crucially important to the Netherlands, to Europe, and to the world at large. At the same time, the programme is facing challenges. For example, the success rates – the number of applications ultimately awarded funding – of all countries participating in the programme are too low. The Dutch enjoy a relatively high rate of success in FP8, but we have nevertheless seen a decline in all three pillars in the past year.

The biggest drop took place in the ‘excellent science’ pillar, where the success rate fell from 17.4% to 11.6%, as reported in the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 Monitoring Report 2015. The main reason for the decline is the fierce competition for funding. We all agree that the success rates must improve. But how? The connection between the pillars could also be stronger. And finally, the EU’s new member states – usually the smaller economies – turn out to have the most trouble succeeding in Horizon 2020.

Weak links do not make the European chain any stronger. The challenge lies in maintaining scientific excellence on the one hand while engaging in broad cooperation on the other. In EU jargon, that's known as ‘spreading excellence and widening participation’. Science is top-level sport. But it must never become a ‘race to the bottom’. I don’t believe that a ‘winner takes all’ approach will have the effect that we want, because it is science’s task to connect – as we argue in our strategic agenda. I therefore hope that the High Level Group recently appointed under the chairmanship of Pascal Lamy to conduct Horizon 2020’s Mid Term Review will succeed in ‘spreading excellence and widening participation’ in a way that makes all of us winners and no one a loser.

The High Level Group has invited the public to comment on how best to improve FP8 and on what lessons can be applied in FP9. The Commission has initiated a public consultation for this purpose. I would like to call on readers to take part and share their ideas. The public consultation runs until 15 January 2017. And if you have not yet managed to obtain FP8 funding for your proposals, then I hope that you succeed in the second half of Horizon 2020, not only for the funding itself, but also so that diversity can leverage research and innovation to the highest possible levels. I’m sure you agree that there could be no better wish for the New Year. May 2017 be your best year yet, and an outstanding year for science!