Science - November 26, 2015

Run on Brussels pot of gold

Albert Sikkema

The European Union is generous with research funding. Wageningen UR has benefitted a lot from that, but the good times seem to be over. With more and more researchers wanting a share of the Brussels pie, the odds on success are falling fast. And the required cofounding from The Hague is proving a headache.

‘It is great how much money the EU puts into research and development,’ says Harry Wichers, senior researcher at Food & Biobased Research. ‘The current research programme, Horizon 2020, makes 80 billion euros available over seven years. That is 11.5 billion a year, or 8 percent of total EU spending. The Netherlands just about reaches 2 percent, if you count R&D spending by the government and the business world put together.’

Wichers is impressed too by the levels of the European research subsidies. Formerly the EU only funded half the research costs and research institutes had to fund the other half out of their own pockets or from national funding sources. Nowadays the EU covers 100 percent of the staffing costs plus 25 percent of the indirect costs. For Wageningen UR, which has high overheads, this does not cover the costs. Another 25 percent in cofinancing always has to be found, says Wichers, but that is OK. ‘The EU funds more generously than most of our national research funding bodies.’rima. ‘De EU financiert beter dan de meeste van onze nationale onderzoekfinanciers.’

You spend one and a half years writing just to get one EU project
Harry Wichers

Thanks to its generous funding, the EU is ever more popular with European researchers. More and more research institutes submit proposals in Brussels, partly to compensate for cutbacks by national research funding bodies. 'We are incredibly popular,’ said the Dutch top civil servant Robert-Jan Smits of the Research Directorate in Brussels earlier this year at the European parliament. In 2015 he had already received 65,000 research proposals for the Horizon 2020 programme. ‘We are being inundated.’

Everyone looks to Brussels, agrees Peter Jongebloed, advisor at Wageningen International and ‘our man in Brussels.’ Due to that great interest, the chances of bagging a European project are falling rapidly. According to Smits, the average chances of success went down in September to between 12 and 14 percent.  For Wageningen the chances tend to be above average (see box) but even here the success rate is going down. This means many excellent research proposals are being turned down, says Smits. But according to Jongebloed, the situation is much worse than that. ‘Smits doesn’t even count the proposals that are rejected in the first round – two thirds of them – in his calculations. I think on average only four to five percent of the research proposals get funding.’

As an example, Jongeboeld cites the recent ‘waste call’ by the EU, in which knowledge institutions were invited to submit proposals for recycling projects. In the first phase 183 consortia (of several universities and institutes) submitted proposals. Of these 39 went through to the second round and were invited to write a full project proposal. Ultimately two proposals will be granted funding. Jongebloed: ‘This is a waste of energy. It takes at least three months to write a proposal like that.’

Knock-out competition

Wichers gives examples of this kind of knock-out competition too. ‘Two years ago we submitted a research proposal in the field of future proteins, together with a large consortium. A total of 44 proposals were submitted, but there was only funding for one project. Eleven proposals went through to the second round. We were rejected in the first round, which was lucky in retrospect, because to have any chance in the second round you had to write volumes.’ And this year Wichers applied for two grants from the EU’s Marie Curie programme. ‘This is a fellowship programme for postdocs. The success rate is five percent, because 1000 proposals are submitted in each round and only 50 are approved. That is only two postdocs per year per EU member state.’

These are dramatic examples, admits Wichers. Thanks to Wageningen’s good reputation and solid proposals, the chances of success are higher for Wageningen projects. ‘But still: you spend three months writing a good proposal and you have to write an average of five or six proposals to get one accepted. So across the organization you spend one and a half years writing just to get one EU project. That’s a lot of hours!’

DLO and the ministry of EZ need to organize Dutch cofinancing better
Luc van Hoof


And there is another problem: how to organize cofinancing to the tune of almost 25 percent. Researchers from the university can often get that confinancing from their own budget but DLO researchers have less scope for using their own funding, because most of their research is for third parties.

Formerly, when the EU still covered 50 percent of the costs, the ministry of Economic Affairs (EZ) often matched that amount. The ministry invested in knowledge development at DLO through the Kennisbasis and commissioned the DLO to do policy support research. If the research priorities of the Netherlands and the EU had been compatible, the research manager could have linked these EZ and EU programmes. But what with the establishment of ‘top sectors’, and the abolition of the FES (an economic structure-enhancing fund) subsidies and top technological institutes in the Netherlands, almost all DLO money is now tied up in assignments and DLO staff have great difficulty in finding cofinancing to go with EU funding.

Luc van Hoof, coordinator of EU research at Wageningen IMARES, comes up against this problem in his work. ‘DLO cannot invest in research itself but has to ask third parties for money. For example, IMARES does research for European fisheries management. When it comes to this kind of policy research, the ministry is the obvious candidate for providing cofinancing. We managed that again last time, but it is getting harder and harder because the ministry puts hardly any Kennisbasis funding into fisheries anymore.’

In the past IMARES always looked first at whether a project proposal had been approved by the EU, before going on to seek cofinancing in The Hague. But that is too risky nowadays, says Van Hoof. There is too big a risk that the Dutch government won’t cofinance. So nowadays the rule is that the cofinancing actually has to be arranged before submitting an EU proposal. In practice that is quite a job for the researchers, explains Van Hoof. ‘As a participant in an EU project you might bring in one million euros. So you first need to organize cofinancing of around 300,000. While it is highly uncertain whether the project will go ahead.’

Van Hoof experienced this in the case of a European research proposal on the impact of the fisheries decision to stop throwing bycatch overboard. In this applied research the fisheries sector was willing to cofinance. Unfortunately the project proposal was rejected by the EU.

Meanwhile the Dutch government has realized that there is a problem here for both research institutes and universities. So it has set up a cofinancing fund of 50 million euros for EU research. A good thing, says Jongebloed, but it only deals with a quarter of the ‘cofinancing’ shortfall.

We Dutch were ahead of the game but the competition has increased.
Peter Jongebloed

Falling behind

Along with lack of funding, researchers are also hampered by ever stricter conditions on subsidies. For years Dutch universities and institutes won one project after another. They might for instance get an animal welfare project funded by the ministry of EZ, which would count as cofinancing for an EU project on animal welfare. But these kinds of construction are getting more and more difficult. Combining two projects to get financing is permitted less and less often. Cofinancing with policy support research at EZ is now being questioned, for instance.

Past successes
Past successes

Due to these problems, the Netherlands is falling behind in the race to secure EU financing, states Jongebloed. DLO has to compete with the INRA in France and with southern European research institutes which are still almost fully funded by their governments, or which can get cofinancing from their ministries much more easily. And it has to compete with institutes which are rewarded by their governments for a successful EU research proposal. Swedish universities and institutes, for example, get more money from the Swedish government if they get an EU project that relates to the national priorities. And the Irish government pays knowledge institutions more if they coordinate EU projects. Jongebloed: ‘We Dutch were ahead of the game but the competition has increased.’

That other EU member states support their knowledge institutions better was also clear recently from the research project Define (Designing strategies for Efficient Funding of Higher Education in Europe). In the Netherlands 60 percent of university funding comes from the government, 10 percent from tuition fees, and 30 percent from public and private clients. In the EU only English universities get a lower percentage of public funding. The European average stands at 80 percent. According to Van Hoof, DLO and the ministry of EZ need to make new agreements to improve the way Dutch cofinancing is organized. Attempts to date have too often got mired in conflicting rules. For example, the Dutch government works with a system in which research budgets become available annually. As a result, cofinancing from The Hague does not always dovetail with EU projects, which are multiannual. Van Hoof: ‘This kind of problem drives researchers crazy.’