October 10, 2015      

The grant game

If you’ve ever undertaken the ploddingly herculean task of writing a grant, you know full well what it means to have your odds of getting that grant halved or, if successful, not to realize any grant money for the better part of a year.

Not nice.

Spread those increased odds and slow money out over an entire domain like that of robotics, and it’s easy to see how research can grind to a precipitously ugly halt from which it’s no trivial task to get it all started again, if and when you finally beat the odds and the funds slowly trickle in. Again, cast that gloom out over an entire domain and technological advantage goes into eclipse.

Such is the state of Horizon 2020 grants, and not just for robotics, but for everyone.

The usual suspects: UK, France and Germany win the most and most often.

Small consolation: Winning grants get their hands on grant money quicker than under standard Horizon 2020 funding, which can take up to 18 months, says Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission’s director-general for research and innovation.

Back in June of this year, the European Parliament had already cut 13 percent off the budget allocated to robotics?$211 million to $184 million; and now comes this bit of grant grinding and sluggish money piling on.

See related: EC Slashes Horizon 2020 Budget for Robotics Research

If you are a developer splitting your time between the lab, grant writing, and maybe a family or partner as well, anything to ease the load is very welcome. Scrumming for grants certainly puts many off their innovation A-game, while for some, they just call it quits.

Those looking to enter the EC grant game have also to contend with the “model grant agreement,” an encyclopedic reference text for researchers that runs over 600 pages. It’s “extremely tedious,” as one grant seeker put it.



Mady Delvaux-Stehres, a member of the European Parliament and vice chair of its Legal Affairs Committee, stressed the importance of Europe “at least sustaining and, if possible, increasing its funding to this important domain.”

“We have to make the necessary investments now to be prepared for the future,” she said. “If Europe doesn’t do it, the robots of the future will be built somewhere else, and Europe will simply become a customer but not a provider of this important technology.

“Therefore, we have to reflect on an even more ambitious investment plan to boost the EU robotics industry and to enable our industry to remain a global leader,” Delvaux-Stehres said.

Bottleneck in Brussels?

Over a year and 100 calls for proposals later, the European Commission has seen over 65,000 proposals — hugely popular, say EC officials –all of which cascade into the hands of 11,000 EC employees for first-stage review and evaluation. Almost half of these evaluators are new, Smits points out. “It means we don’t have an old boys’ network doing our peer review.”

That comes out to 5.9 (okay, let’s call it 6) proposals per EC employee per year. Or, put another way, a single proposal every two months.

“Many researchers are dismayed at the bullish competition for money from Horizon 2020,” reported Europe’s Science|Business. “Sixty-five thousand proposals have been submitted already, and the odds of winning a grant have slumped to as little as 12 percent in parts of the program.”

“Jergen Barkhoff, the director of Trinity College Dublin’s Arts and Humanities Research Institute, said researchers’ motivation will suffer if things do not pick up. The program is, ‘in real danger of becoming a victim of its own success,’ he said.”

Jan van den Biesen, a vice-president of public R&D programs at Dutch tech giant Philips, echoed the sentiment: “Our staff [at Philips] are really upset about the results, and I’m not sure they’ll try again.”

Smits told Members of the European Parliament (MEPs): “The small odds of winning a grant is a very sad story at the moment.”

“We are flooded with proposals and success rates are down to between 12 and 14 percent,” said Smits, presenting some of the first year takeaways. “We have to reject far too many excellent proposals.”

Odds were much better under Horizon 2020’s predecessor program, The Seventh Framework: 19 to 21 percent (2007-2013).

By comparison, winning a U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) grant happens 24 percent of the time, which is almost one out of every four.

Or even better, the 90 percent success rate of NSF’s special Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) program [$200,000 and up], which eschews the agency’s usual reliance on outside peer reviewers and puts the agency’s program staff in the driver’s seat.

“It’s one of the easiest paths to NSF funding, at least on paper, with success rates topping 90 percent,” according to a recent NSF analysis. Last year, for example, 399 of 441 EAGER proposals were funded. In recent years, the program has had an even higher batting average — 95 percent in 2011 and 91 percent in 2012.

And the winners are…

The ultimate winners by a wide margin happen to be the U.K., France, and Germany; something that hasn’t seemed to change since Charlemagne.

Almost half of the funding so far has gone to three countries. Germany has pulled in 20 percent of the money, the U.K. 15 percent, and France 10 percent.

Remember, Tesla was a Romanian!

If Vladimir Putin had an extra $50 million hanging around, he could pull off a trifecta: the Crimea, Syria, and the IP rights to the research from a whole bunch of very smart, hardworking but disaffected EU scientists and technologists.

Or, maybe Xi Jinping needs a quick call.