Tips on writing a winning research proposal for Horizon 2020

Boost your chances of getting funding by identifying EU goals and using keywords. Plus the latest higher education appointments

September 18, 2014

Source: Alamy

Subtlety not required: EU funding applicants should adopt a US-style approach

British academics need to act more like their counterparts in the US if they want to write winning proposals for European Union funding.

That is the view of Renata Schaeffer, European policy manager at the University of Cambridge, who said that the typically English understated style of selling yourself needs to be replaced by more assertive prose.

Winning EU funding is a “totally different ball game” from securing research council grants and academics need to adjust the language, formatting and approach used in a proposal, she added.

The EU’s flagship research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020, was opened earlier this year. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the European commissioner for research, innovation and science, believes that the UK could win up to £2 billion in grants over the next two years.

Ms Schaeffer told Times Higher Education that academics wanting to win funding should concentrate on what the European Commission is trying to get out of research projects. With Horizon 2020, the commission is looking to fund work that includes innovation as well as research, a multidisciplinary approach and industry involvement, so applications should include all these aspects.

“Even in calls where industry participation is not a requirement, we strongly discourage anyone from submitting a proposal that does not have [it],” she added.

However, excellence, above all else, is the prime criterion for funding and should be the starting point of any proposal, she said. “Having a consortium with good relationships throughout Europe is another key one,” she added, stressing that every partner on a project needs to “add value to the consortium”.

While writing the application, academics should keep referring back to the original research call and quote keywords mentioned in it, she said. This helps evaluators work out whether the proposal matches what they are looking for.

The EU’s goals of economic growth, job creation, impact and progression need to be woven within the science, too. Ms Schaeffer suggested reading the call documents through several times before starting, to get an idea of what they are looking for.

Academics tend to forget that there is a person in Brussels paying attention to researchers’ needs, she said. Therefore, successful grant winners should keep in touch with project officers to give feedback on the research milestones and publications. This helps to keep a dialogue going.

“Brussels is willing to listen to what academics have to say and where research is leading,” she said.

Ms Schaeffer added that simply retitling failed research council applications will not work. Research council panels generally have local evaluators who are familiar with the national system, and who are usually native English speakers.

In contrast, EU funding proposals are read by a group of people from 28 countries speaking any one of the EU’s 24 languages. She added that the “chances are” that just one or even none of the evaluators will have English as their native language. “It’s a bit more like an American selling type of proposal writing. It needs to be more assertive: ‘Why me, why now and why I am the best’,” she said.

Other pitfalls to avoid include trying to get a certain strand of research to fit within an inappropriate funding call and not starting early enough. “It does not matter how early you start because you are always going to be late,” she said.


Bath Spa University has appointed Neil Latham as chief operating officer. Mr Latham previously worked at Kingston University as pro vice-chancellor (corporate affairs) and university secretary.

The University of Sussex has appointed its first-ever professor of journalism. Ivor Gaber previously held positions at City University London, Goldsmiths, University of London and the University of Bedfordshire.

The University of Wolverhampton has strengthened its faculty across the board with 11 appointments. The seven professorial appointments are: David Hill, professor of applied microbiology; George Kassimeris, professor of security studies; Paul Kirkham, professor of cell biology; Kristina Niederrer, professor in design and craft; James Tang, professor in pharmaceutics; Laura Ugolini, professor in history; and Weiguang Wang, professor of cancer studies. The four new readers are: David Cox, in criminal justice history; Richard Hawkins, in history; Rosie Miles, in English literature and pedagogy; and Eamonn O’Kane, in conflict studies.

Amy Goodman has joined the University of Winchester as its first artist in residence. Ms Goodman will work with staff and students to create new art and curate campus collections.

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