Horizon 2020: What’s in it for Young Scientists?


After 2 years of debate, Horizon 2020 (or H2020 as it is often abbreviated)—the pan-European funding program that is to support research and innovation in Europe, starting in 2014 and finishing in 2020—has been given the green light as both the European Parliament and the European Council (which gathers E.U. member states) gave their final approval to the budget and the overarching legislation. H2020, which is to replace the Seventh Framework Programme  (FP7) and will for the first time bring research and innovation under the same roof, is now ready for launch. Today, the European Commission released its first calls for proposals along with details of the funding opportunities available in the 2014 to 2015 period, the program’s first 2 years.

While many were hoping for more, the H2020 budget—nearly €80 billion (in current prices—that is, with projected year-on-year inflation factored in), all to be invested in European science over the next 7 years—is much larger than the FP7 budget. That’s good news for scientists, and for early-career scientists in particular, at a time when many European national science budgets are dwindling.

Early-career researchers will need to time their application well, relative to their scientific maturity: ERC Grants have become so competitive that if you don’t reach a certain quality threshold in 1 year’s call, you will be barred from applying the following 1 or 2 years.

But what exactly is in H2020 for early-career scientists? Science Careers reviews the H2020 opportunities that young scientists can benefit from most directly.

Training opportunities through the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions

In previous European framework programs, the Marie Curie Actions were a cornerstone of European support for young researchers. Over the next 7 years, the newly named and slightly different Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) program will offer €6.2 billion (8% of the H2020 budget) for a range of training and career development opportunities—about 30% more than in FP7. “The new budget will support more than 65 000 researchers, of which almost 40% will be PhD candidates,” the European Commission stated in a press release.

H2020 will continue to support the new training and doctoral programs through the Innovative Training Networks (ITN, formerly known by the same acronym but a different name: the Initial Training Networks). H2020, charges ITN with training “a new generation of creative, entrepreneurial and innovative early-stage researchers, able to face current and future challenges and to convert knowledge and ideas into products and services for economic and social benefit,” according to the 2014 to 2015 work program, which was released today. In brief, universities, research institutions, and companies will partner to develop collaborative research training programs that promote mobility across countries, disciplines, and employment sectors.

The training programs will take one of three forms: European Training Networks, European Industrial Doctorates (EID), and European Joint Doctorates (EJD). Training in all three programs will be based on individual research projects and include transferable skills (such as entrepreneurship, research ethics, and communication) as well as exposure to nonacademic sectors. The two doctorate programs (EID and EJD) will also offer joint supervision, with EID providing doctoral advisers from both academia and industry and EJD leading to doctoral degrees from multiple institutions. All young researchers will be encouraged to draw up with their supervisors a career development plan that states their research goals and training needs.

The European Commission will give partnering organizations funding to pay young researchers a salary, mobility and family allowances when applicable, and part of their research and training costs for up to 3 years. Trainee researchers will receive an employment contract from their host institution, with full social benefits. To get involved trainees will need to be recruited by one of the partnering organizations.

Early-career researchers (and also more senior researchers) may benefit from the MSCA’s Research and Innovation Staff Exchange (RISE) program, which is similar to the former Industry-Academia Partnerships and Pathways program.  RISE is intended to promote international collaboration between academia and other sectors, so it too will have a strong focus on industry and entrepreneurship. Partnering organizations will work on common research and innovation activities and share knowledge and staff via placements of up to 12 months.

As in previous years, H2020 will offer postdoctoral fellowships to individual researchers who already have Ph.D.s. The prestigious MSCA Individual Fellowships (IF) will now fall into two broad categories. European fellowships are for researchers based in Europe who wish to do their postdoc in another European country and for overseas or returning postdocs wishing to come to Europe. Global fellowships will go to Europe-based researchers who want to do their postdoc in a non-E.U. country. The fellowships will last 1 to 2 years, and global fellows will have to return to Europe to work for a minimum of 1 year following their overseas experience. Research proposals may be submitted by postdocs from any field of research and innovation—and of any nationality. Applications must be made jointly with the prospective host institution (in academia and beyond).

The fellowships will cover a salary, a mobility and family allowance when applicable, and funding for research and training. MSCA individual fellows will be encouraged to develop a career plan with their supervisors. They will be able to take time out—up to 6 months for fellowships lasting 18 months or more—for a nonacademic placement. The first IF call has a planned publication date of 12 March 2014 and a budget of around €240 million, of which €29 million will go to the global fellowships. The second call is scheduled for 12 March 2015, with a €213 million budget (€27 million for the global fellowships). Particular attention will be paid to applicants who have taken at least a year out of research for parental leave.

Independent research grants from the European Research Council

As in previous years, the 2014 to 2015 ERC Grants will aim to support “frontier research,” with a particular focus on proposals that are interdisciplinary, pioneering, or unconventional. Researchers in any field and in any part of the world may apply, but ERC grantees must work at least half the time at a European host institution. Both the research proposal and the applicant’s track record will be considered in funding decisions. Early-career researchers will need to time their application well, relative to their scientific maturity: ERC grants have become so competitive that if you don’t reach a certain quality threshold in 1 year’s call, you will be barred from applying the following 1 or 2 years.

The first call for the ERC Starting Grants was issued today, with an application deadline of 25 March 2014. The planned budget is €485 million, which should support an estimated 370 grants. Slightly less money will be available in 2015: €411 million for an estimated 315 grants. (The 2015 deadline will be in February.)

The first call for the ERC Consolidator Grants is also imminent (it was scheduled for publication today), with a deadline on 20 May 2014, for a budget of €713 million and estimated 400 grants. In this program, too, less money will be available in 2015: €603 million for an estimated 340 grants (with a deadline for applications in March 2015).

Support for scientists in less well-off countries

Region inequalities in research conditions and performance have long worried the European Commission. H2020 will put in place a Spreading Excellence and Widening Participation program, which aims to help underperforming countries make structural changes, network with other European institutions, and become more competitive for H2020 funding. Following a pilot phase carried out during FP7, institutions in Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia will be able to apply for support (up to €2.5 million for up to 5 years) to establish European Research Area Chairs and appoint professors-level scientists, employ people to join their team, and improve research conditions more broadly within their institutions. Such opportunities may be especially appealing to scientists who trained abroad and would now like to return and give back to one of these home countries.

Young scientists who currently are working in one of these countries may also benefit from the Twinning program, in which underperforming institutions can partner with leading institutions in other E.U. countries to beef up a particular field of research through knowledge and staff exchange, and the provision of training and workshops. In the longer term, entire centers of excellence are expected to be developed through another, more comprehensive Teaming program, again in partnership with leading foreign institutions.

Coming home

Asked about brain drain at a press conference this morning, European research commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said there is a lot in H2020 to bring young scientists back to Europe. Many young European researchers who currently work in the United States apply for ERC Grants, “because they see it as an opportunity … [to get] back to doing their research in Europe,” she said. Underperforming countries, she said, “have been saying to us for a long time that their researchers can never reach the level of excellence because they don’t have the facilities to do the research.” The widening participation program “will help to retain and bring back those who want to do this kind of excellent research in Europe,” she said.

What will be the odds of success in H2020? Geoghegan-Quinn believes that H2020 will be “even more competitive than it has ever been before because we are attracting far more newcomers to the program,” including companies and industrial researchers, she says. She expects the overall success rate to drop from 20-22% in FP7 to 15-22% in H2020. But the simplified, two-stage application process, which will ask for a detailed proposal only from those applicants who have passed a preliminary selection, should ease the pain. “It makes it easier … for people … not to have to go through all the trouble of having a very detailed proposal if at the end they’re not going to be successful,” said Geoghegan-Quinn, who encouraged “as many people as possible” to give it a go.

To learn more about H2020 programs and how to apply, visit the European Commission’s Research Participant Portal.

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