Research funding over the horizon

Irish researchers urged to claim their share of €70 billion in European funding up for grabs under the Horizon 2020 programme

Dr Imelda Lambkin, national director of Ireland’s National Support Network for Horizon 2020: “Irish researchers are often getting involved in small activities, but I would urge them where possible to look at leading or co-ordinating a project.”

Dr Imelda Lambkin, national director of Ireland’s National Support Network for Horizon 2020: “Irish researchers are often getting involved in small activities, but I would urge them where possible to look at leading or co-ordinating a project.”

Mon, Nov 11, 2013, 01:00

You might not think of it amid the fireworks and champagne corks, but when January arrives European research will enter a new phase.

That’s because Horizon 2020 formally kicks off in 2014. It’s the new research and innovation funding programme for Europe, and Irish researchers are being encouraged to get involved.

Between 2014 and the eponymous 2020 date, about €70 billion of funding will be in the combined pot, and groups of researchers from EU member states can apply.

Horizon 2020 takes over from the current set-up, Framework Programme 7. By the time the tally is in, Ireland will have brought in about €600 million in research funding through FP7. For Horizon 2020 the stakes are higher – this time Ireland is looking to potentially draw down €1 billion of the pool.

At Science Foundation Ireland’s annual summit in Athlone last week, researchers were urged to seek European funding, to lead on more European projects over the coming years and to encourage “new faces” to apply.


Step change

“The target of €1 billion for Ireland is a sensible one, but to get there we need a step change – business as usual is not going to be enough,” says Prof Mark Ferguson, director general of SFI, who wants the new SFI-funded research centres (seven to date, which involve and are part-funded by industry) to play a large part.

“Instead of putting in small applications I want us to be running the game for other people, or running very major applications,” says Prof Ferguson. “The research centres SFI has funded are at a scale where they should be able to co-ordinate some of these European projects.”

He also wants to see younger researchers get a chance to apply and win funding, particularly from the European Research Council, which supports fundamental “blue-sky” research.

ERC grants are notoriously difficult to land and Ireland has had some success, but Ferguson wants to see more Irish researchers apply. “We need to aim high,” he says.

And he insists that the push for more research funding from Europe is one that complements rather than replaces the national purse. “This is an ‘as well as’ not an ‘instead of’ strategy,” he says.

Start now
Horizon 2020 will be launched in Ireland next month, but researchers here need to be on the case already, according to Dr Imelda Lambkin, national director of Ireland’s National Support Network for Horizon 2020, who spoke at the summit last week.

She has practical advice to researchers: look at the projects and people that have already won research funding from Europe, become a grant evaluator to get an insight into how the system works and get involved with communities of researchers in your area in Europe.

With 35 designated “National Contact Points” in Ireland and financial support to travel to Brussels for meetings, Irish researchers are “well resourced” for support in applying to Europe, and we need to work on getting bigger grants, according to Dr Lambkin, who is based at Enterprise Ireland.

“Our applicant success rates are up there with the best in many of the programmes, but overall our financial take is not,” she says.

“Irish researchers are often getting involved in small activities, but I would urge them where possible to look at leading or co-ordinating a project, where you can have a larger slice of the funding on it and where you are more in control.”


New faces
Dr Lambkin would also like to see fresh blood coming into the system, and she says there will be a drive to encourage younger researchers to apply. “We are looking for newcomers,” she says. “It’s a key issue – we don’t want to keep seeing the same faces applying, that’s not good enough.”

However, there can be problems with eligibility due to the nature of contracts for early-stage researchers in higher education, notes Prof Dermot Diamond from Dublin City University, who raised the issue at the summit.

“Younger researchers are barred in many cases from submitting grants under their own names because of contractual issues,” he says. “We need to come up with a contractual model that enables them to build their own research careers, and at least offers talented young researchers long-term contracts.”

Sean Sherlock, Minister for Research and Innovation,restated the target of a €1 billion drawdown while at the Athlone conference. He reckons that Ireland chairing the Horizon 2020 negotiations earlier this year during the Irish Presidency of the Council of European Union has put us in good stead. “We got Horizon 2020 over the line and I think you can’t underestimate the goodwill that brings,” he says.