Cracking the Code: Strategies for Sustainable Support in Horizon Europe Proposals

Securing EU funds extends beyond scientific excellence, becoming a web of challenges. With Horizon Europe proposals now embracing non-scientific elements, the role of research support services has become paramount. Yet, the scarcity of resources poses a formidable hurdle. In our pursuit of insight, we consulted research support colleagues, seeking guidance on crafting a sustainable process for Horizon Europe proposal coordinators. Join us in this blog post as we uncover key insights, serving as a compass for those refining and elevating their funding support activities. Oh, and by the way, ChatGPT lent a hand in weaving these words of wisdom.

Navigating Choppy Waters:

Since 2021, the Research and Project Services at the University of Oulu have been offering enhanced support for researchers venturing into the labyrinth of Research and Innovation Action (RIA) or Innovation Action (IA) proposals for Horizon Europe calls. From proposal writing training to impact workshops, our arsenal of support includes in-depth call analysis, process coordination, and even a helping hand in filling out administrative forms. Strategic funds have allowed us to cover a month or two for the Principal Investigator (PI) or an assisting postdoc to prepare the proposal. With an internal call for coordinator candidates twice a year, around 5-8 coordinators annually benefit from this enhanced support, yielding impressive results—40% of the participating proposals have secured funding.

The proposal preparation process resembles a stormy sea for both researchers and support staff. With fierce competition, proposal writing has become an art form, placing researchers under increasing pressure to secure external funding. Universities are investing in grant writers and research funding specialists, but the challenge lies in wielding these resources wisely. To unravel this mystery, we hosted a workshop at the Research Services Days 2023 in Aalto University, Finland. This gathering of approximately 70 participants aimed to distill the wisdom of research services colleagues on what constitutes a sustainable support process for Horizon Europe proposal coordinators. The focus: Services for coordination support and the all-important question—How to avoid burning out? Post-workshop, we tapped into ChatGPT to categorize the insights under six themes: Wellbeing, Tools, Proposal Writing, Training, Impact, and Other. Let's dive into the main takeaways:

Wellbeing: Nurturing the Team and Scheduling:

Colleagues stressed timely coordination, a dedicated team with ample resources, and early task initiation. Appreciation for the work, structured schedules, networking, and peer support emerged as crucial elements.

Tools: Streamlining the Journey:

There's a resounding call for more streamlined tools and uniform templates to simplify the proposal process. The revelation that tools and templates vary even within the same organization signals a clear need for at least in-house standardization.

Training: Empowering Expertise:

Clear timelines, diversity in applicants, internal mentoring, guidance on budgeting, and increased networking opportunities were identified as key training needs. Some colleagues highlighted a lack of senior expertise in their organizations and advocated for hands-on training for new coordinators.

Impact: Maximizing Collaborations:

Identifying non-academic collaborations at relevant stages of proposal preparation emerged as a need. Colleagues expressed a desire for more support from innovation services in this regard.

Proposal Writing: A Structured Approach:

Colleagues underscored the importance of guiding templates, dedication to deadlines, and early engagement with researchers. They also emphasized the need for well-rounded teams for Principal Investigators and a clear task division.

Other: Fostering Collaboration:

The wish list includes meaningful and timely contributions from partners, a higher success rate in proposals, knowledge of upcoming coordination plans, clear communication of roles, and sufficient resources for Principal Investigators.

In Summary:

To enhance your support process for any grant activity, securing ample resources is paramount. Encouraging researchers to engage with support services early on facilitates better support. For a structured approach that prevents burnout, champion early initiation, define processes with clear work division, allocate time for tool and template development, and foster networking opportunities. In the realm of research funding, a well-prepared ship is more likely to weather the storm and reach the shores of success.

This blog was written by Kirsi Ojutkangas and Pirjo Koivusaari from the Research and Project Services at the University of Oulu (and Chat GPT). Special thanks to all colleagues who provided us with food for thought in our workshop held at the Research Service Days 2023 at Aalto University, in Espoo, Finland.