Failed Horizon 2020 bids ‘cost European universities £6 billion’

Average success rate for European Commission programme stands at 12 per cent

March 21, 2019
rubbish-pile-on-bin
Source: Getty
Excessive waste: the EUA has put the cost of more than 130,000 unsuccessful bids at €6.8 billion

European universities and research centres have spent nearly £6 billion so far on failed bids to the Horizon 2020 funding programme, according to new analysis.

The European University Association’s latest Public Funding Observatory report, published on 21 March, puts the cost of failed applications to the European Commission programme at €6.8 billion (£5.8 billion).

The figure is based on estimates that the EUA has previously made that it costs an average of about €50,000 to submit an application to Horizon 2020.

Statistics published by the European Commission last September show that at that point it had paid out more than €33 billion on almost 20,000 successful bids to Horizon 2020, which started in 2014. But more than 130,000 bids did not win approval, giving a success rate of just 11.9 per cent.

Thomas Estermann, the EUA’s director for governance, funding and public policy development, said that although the calculation was a simplified estimate of the costs, it was a “realistic” figure in light of the complexity of proposals involving multinational research groups.

“For a serious proposal you need…time. It doesn’t work out any more that you say: ‘OK, we have a nice idea, you write it down in a couple of pages and that is it,’” he said. “You have to involve the research support services…and part of the success is that you have experienced staff who know how to write proposals.”

Mr Estermann said that one way to reduce the loss would be to enlarge the pot of money available for grants, so the success rate increased. But there also needed to be a realisation among individual countries and funders that turning to Horizon 2020 as an alternative to cuts made at the national level was contributing to the problem.

“What we see is that precisely due to reduced funding at national level, some are forced to try at European level. We are trying to communicate [that]…reducing at national level and expecting this will be replaced by European funding is, absolutely, not successful,” he said.

Mr Estermann added that it was even possible to link funding cuts at the national level to low success rates in winning grants from European Union programmes.

“There is a need to understand that actually the costs of unsuccessful proposals lie in the end with [national governments] because if it is a publicly funded system, the costs lie with the taxpayer in the end.”

He added that a number of other strategies would also help, including finding fallback ways to fund Horizon 2020 proposals that were deemed “excellent” but were unsuccessful and better “scanning” of proposals by universities before they are submitted to weed out those with a poor chance of success.

Borderline proposals that failed to gain funding were an issue for individual institutions, Mr Estermann said, “but for those that have been evaluated as excellent and didn’t get funding, there needs to be a solution either at the European level or at national level”.

“We hope these numbers…start changing perceptions. We have seen [that publishing them] is having an effect in some areas,” Mr Estermann said.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

No end to austerity for universities

The EUA report reiterates warnings made in preliminary data released last year that several European countries are struggling to turn public funding for higher education around since the financial crisis.

A total of 17 systems are highlighted in the report for their falling funding from 2008 to 2017, with the gravity of the cuts depending on whether student numbers have been rising at the same time. Two systems in particular – the Republic of Ireland and Serbia – are deemed to be “in danger” because of the combination of cuts and growing student numbers.

With Ireland, which had seen some improvement more recently as funding increased, Mr Estermann pointed out that it could be argued that more could be done to reinvest in the system given recent growth in the wider economy.

“I think Ireland is very good case. The university sector there has a very big campaign to reinvest, and the ministry has said, ‘We have increased investment in the past three years.’

“That is true, but you also have to look at what happened 10 years before. [In Ireland] you could say you need to make much more effort to go back to the level of [funding there] was in 2008.”

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Reader's comments (2)

I felt dissappointed with this articles lack of balance. This article is an over estimation of the work required for a Horizon 2020 successful or unsuccessful bid. Personal experience of four proposals of which two have been awarded, 50k is an exaggeration. This does not take into account near misses that can be converted in subsequent years. Even the one proposal that we outsourced to a grant writing cost less than £5k. National funding have a similar success rate and also would involved similar support yet this article seemed to make out thus was specific to Horizon 2020. This format is part of the funding system. The article does not take into consideration how groups coming together writing grants can stimulate collaboration for a future bid. Author of this article cherry picked the stats for the headline. Dr Colin Murdoch Marie Curie Fellow and Horizon 2020 project coordinator.
I felt dissappointed with this articles lack of balance. This article is an over estimation of the work required for a Horizon 2020 successful or unsuccessful bid. Personal experience of four proposals of which two have been awarded, 50k is an exaggeration. This does not take into account near misses that can be converted in subsequent years. Even the one proposal that we outsourced to a grant writing cost less than £5k. National funding have a similar success rate and also would involved similar support yet this article seemed to make out thus was specific to Horizon 2020. This format is part of the funding system. The article does not take into consideration how groups coming together writing grants can stimulate collaboration for a future bid. Author of this article cherry picked the stats for the headline. Dr Colin Murdoch Marie Curie Fellow and Horizon 2020 project coordinator.

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