Having worked in research support and development for nearly a decade now I have had the opportunity to deal with a large range of funders both within the UK and internationally. However, there is nothing like working with European funding.
Home and away
Horizon Europe is the world’s largest research framework. With an overall budget of €95.5bn spread over seven years, and with its three main pillars (main components), it is a big beast to tackle.
The three pillars have different approaches: Pillar one, the Excellent Science pillar, supports mainly bottom-up, frontier research. Pillar two, tackling Global Challenges and European Industrial Competitiveness, has a top-down approach, where the European Commission comes up with the problem to be solved by the consortium it funds, whilst Pillar three, the innovation pillar, has a mix of both.
Different parts of the programme have different objectives and support different aspects of research. At the University of Liverpool through the Excellent Science pillar we support high risk-high gain research for talented investigators with the European Research Council (ERC). This pillar also supports the training of the next generation of scientists and innovators thanks to the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA).
The multitude of funding streams and bodies makes managing Horizon funding a challenge. This requires flexibility and pragmatism, as well as the ability to adapt to different working styles and cultures, particularly when working with colleagues from across Europe and beyond. Despite being based in different countries it is reassuring to see that colleagues overseas face the same challenges, dilemmas, and expectations when working on Horizon Europe projects.
Dealing with Horizon Europe is very different to dealing with UK funders. This enormous framework funded by this equally enormous supranational organisation that is the European Commission is unlike anything at home. It is necessary to understand how the European Commission is organised, its strategic guidelines, and its political plan, to then understand how Horizon Europe works in practice when supporting academic colleagues.
It can also be intimidating when you are looking at a dozen different work programmes, a strategic plan, three main pillars, six clusters, and hundreds of calls for projects. This is compounded even more for academics who want to engage with Horizon Europe but have no first-hand experience of it. This is where people like me step in.
I like to summarise sometimes my role as “I read and watch everything Horizon Europe so you don’t have to”. It is satisfying to be able to demystify long documents filled with technical jargon to help academic colleagues write their proposals, build and manage their consortia, and see them win their, on occasion, very first Horizon grant.
The uncertainty of the last two years has thrown several spanners in the works for our academic colleagues as well as for us as research managers. We have had to learn new ways of working, become familiar with new funding avenues, such as the UK-Horizon Europe guarantee. Some colleagues who were not necessarily familiar with the research council’s systems and processes had to learn how to apply for and operate the live grants funded by the guarantee.
An end to uncertainty
We also had to be there to advise, as best as we could, academic colleagues who have been successful with Horizon Europe but who were losing the well-established prestige that comes with a Horizon badge. For instance, successful ERC grantees had to make a choice: keep the ERC label but uproot their lives and careers with three months notice to a member state (or other associated country) or keep the funding in the UK without the possibility of keeping their ERC title
The uncertainty also had an impact on colleagues working in the international research space, as no-one really knew what was going to happen with the international research funding environment in the UK until recently.
After two years of uncertainty and instability the decision to associate to Horizon has been warmly welcomed by the whole sector including hundreds of research managers such as myself. We are now certainly being inundated with work but I would not trade it for anything else.