Overheads is dedicated to current issues in research funding and policies from the perspective of research support.
Now that a year has passed since the first calls in Horizon Europe (HE) opened, it's a good time to look back and reflect on how the new programme is working. The University of Oulu has been granted altogether €30 million funding from Horizon Europe for 49 projects. So far 18 per cent of our project proposals have been granted funding, which is an excellent proportion. In addition, a small percentage of applications are still waiting to be evaluated. Compared to the Horizon2020 programme, more projects at the University of Oulu have now received funding than in any previous year. It’s been a busy, but very fruitful year. In this blog post, I share my own experiences with Pillar II Research and Innovation Action (RIA) proposal preparations from a research funding specialist point of view, but also reflect on the findings of recent reports published by the Guild and Science Business on the experiences of applicants and support staff of the Horizon Europe funding programme.
Impact or outcome?
One of the changes in HE I was looking forward to, was the introduction of impact pathways. I thought it was a good idea for the commission to outline expected outcomes (changes happening directly after the results are uptaken by the relevant stakeholders) instead of expected impacts (remarkable changes in science and society happening a long time after the project’s end). I was confident it would be rather uncomplicated for the applicant to create a clear pathway from their expected research results to outcomes and then further to possible impacts. Now that I’ve been training researchers to write good impact sections for their funding proposals, I’ve noticed that it is very difficult for many of them to make a difference between results and outcomes or think about the impact, which makes me wonder, do all reviewers know the difference?
One of the problems with the current format is, that the commission still wants the applicants to tackle the great challenges of our times in terms of expected impacts, but to find out what they are, the applicant has to understand to read not only the topic description (the actual call text) but also the destination description in the Work Programme and the Horizon Europe Strategic Plan. Not to mention other relevant strategies and policies that sometimes are and sometimes aren’t listed in the topic. Also trying to come up with indicators to describe the scale and significance of the expected impacts requires a lot of guesswork, which, for sure, doesn’t come naturally to a scientist.
Necessary and unnecessary changes
One of the biggest changes in the application itself is the application length (Part B). In Research & Innovation Actions (RIA) Part B is now 45 pages instead of 70 long. This didn’t seem to be a problem for most of our applicants. However, the implementation part with its many tables does take up a relatively great part of the proposal (and is very time-consuming). And what about table 3.1.h? Why so complicated? Hands up who can understand this sentence right away: "The record must list cost items in order of costs and start with the largest cost item, up to the level that the remaining costs are below 15% of personnel costs." Why not just list all costs like in H2020? I also wonder, why the commission doesn’t put the recommended budget per project in the call text (topic description in the portal) but hides it in the Work Programme.
The new mandatory sections related to gender and open science & data management take space from the excellence section, which many applicants don’t appreciate. They do also require a lot of expertise which is not necessarily available for every researcher. In Oulu, we are lucky to have excellent data and open science experts and through our gender studies, we have access to information and tools for taking gender and intersectionality better into account in our proposals. I do feel that the amount of work related to these sections in the HE proposal did come as a surprise not only to the researchers but also to my data and gender expert colleagues. However, advancing open science and taking gender and intersectionality into account in research is a must in today’s world.
It should also be noted that filling in Part A (the administrative forms in the Funding & Tenders portal) takes up more time and effort than previously. It seems, that the problems I faced with already saved information disappearing from the portal were not imaginary, but experienced widely, so there are issues there, and the commission should take action to improve the accountability of the portal. In H2020 we got used to being able to change the order of partners in the portal, which now is not possible. The advice for one researcher willing to change the listing of partners from the commission’s helpdesk was to “delete the application and restart”. One can argue that it is not necessary to have the partners listed in a certain order, but for those who want to do it, it should be made possible.
“Evolution, not a revolution"
Horizon Europe has succeeded in improving certain issues. The HE strategy is made better visible through the Key Strategic Orientations and the Strategic Plan 2021-2024 outlines quite nicely connections with each cluster. Also listing expected outcomes in the call text instead of expected impacts is a good change. The current clusters and destinations seem to provide enough flexibility to tackle the rapidly changing world situation. It seems the commission has held its promise to base the structure of the HE on the mantra of ‘evolution, not revolution’. To, conclude, make sure all relevant information such as the expected impacts, recommended budget per project and policy papers are listed in the topic descriptions. Make Part B less heavy with the administrative tables and improve the accountability of the F&T portal.