EU funding ‘skewed towards previous winners’

Researchers must have grants to win grants, new study says

November 1, 2016
European Union (EU) flags flying
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Academics who have already won European research funding are more likely to secure Horizon 2020 grants, according to a new study of applications from Norway.

The findings, published in the journal Scientometrics, highlight the issues that researchers from countries that are not historically big winners of European funding may face when applying.

Horizon 2020, the European Commission’s flagship science and innovation programme, will distribute €80 billion (£72 billion) in research grants across the continent between 2014 and 2020. Competition for funding is stiff and success rates have recently fallen to a historic low.

Unlike other European Union programmes, which often distribute funds from richer states to poorer ones, the research and innovation programme gives out money through a more competitive process. It is well known that a small handful of wealthy countries that excel in research, including the UK, Germany and Switzerland, do particularly well out of the fund.

Historically less wealthy countries in Eastern and Southern Europe have not performed as well at securing research funding. Recent initiatives, such as the introduction of widening participation activities within the programme, have tried to tackle the problems this causes.

But the new study reveals why further measures may be needed, as potentially excellent science is going unfunded, according to one of the authors.

Researchers Simon Enger and Fulvio Castellacci of the University of Oslo looked at data on applications to Horizon 2020 from Norwegian research organisations, including universities, for the first year of the programme. They compared these with data from national statistics about research and development and registry data on whether the organisations had participated in previous EC research programmes.

They found that research organisations were more likely to apply and secure funding if they had already taken part in previous European research programmes. Other factors, such as the existence of national funding schemes and the reputation of the research organisation, also played a part.

Mr Enger, a PhD student at Oslo’s Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture, said that it was not fair for research organisations in countries with lower national budgets for research to be so much less successful at winning funding than those in countries that are traditionally successful at the European level.

“They are in a position where it is really difficult to access research collaboration networks because they don’t really have the capacity to get into them,” he added.

He added that the commission could look at introducing specific measures within Horizon 2020 and subsequent programmes to encourage researchers to work with academics in countries that traditionally do not do well out of the fund. 

“As long as [the lack of] prior participation might hinder potential candidates, matching them in collaborative research and development projects with other excellent institutions would potentially be fruitful for them as well as for the European research landscape,” he told Times Higher Education.

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