Heading for new horizons?

With a total of 215 applications to the EU's new framework programme Horizon 2020, researchers from Aarhus University have set a record for the number of applications made to an EU framework programme. The researchers sent the applications in March and April, and each one of them is waiting to hear whether their application will result in a grant. They will be notified in August and September. Also waiting to hear are the department heads, the deans and the rector, who have intensified the pressure on the researchers in order to get them to apply for more external funding.

[Translate to English:] Illustration: Morten Voigt

Head of the Research Support Unit John Westensee assesses that the record number of applications from researchers at Aarhus University to an EU framework programme is due to the focus that the rector, deans and department heads have placed on increasing external research funding, particularly in the past year.

But he thinks there is a slightly different reason behind the fact that far more researchers than in previous years were prepared to apply for funding already from the first round of applications to the EU's new framework programme Horizon 2020 (H2020) here in the spring. According to Westensee, this is at least in part due to initiatives taken by the senior management team two years ago as part of the overall strategy to attract more external funding to Aarhus University.

What’s the solution?

One thing the Research Support Unit did was explore piles of documents from the EU at that time and come up with an analysis that showed interdisciplinarity would be the great revelation in H2020. According to Westensee many researchers would have to get ready for a bit of a change if they hoped to share in future funding in fierce competition with other researchers from all over Europe.

"In previous framework programmes the EU has published very carefully targeted calls for proposals. They’ve said something like: We would like to see some results on this type of cancer and this is what you should examine. So it was easy to see which researchers had the opportunity of getting a grant," says Westensee. He continues:

"When we did our analyses, we could see that instead of telling the researchers what they should be conducting research into, they were more involved in formulating a problem such as, we haven’t got enough clean water, and then asking the researchers: What’s the solution? So whereas the previous calls from the EU had, as it were, given a researcher a grant for being an expert within a narrow field, with H2020 the EU invited the researchers to work in an interdisciplinary way to come up with solutions to complex social problems."

Researchers from all of the main academic areas

Based on this, in August 2012 AU appointed six groups, each of which contained researchers from the four main academic areas. The groups were put together on the basis of (at the time) six topics (which later became seven) in one of the three sections that together comprise H2020.

The headline for the section is ‘Societal Challenges.’

"It’s here you have the most money, and here the researchers participate in collaborative projects with the possibility of obtaining funding from three million Euros and upwards," explains Westensee, providing some background for the decision to focus on this section, which will allocate a pool of DKK 221 billion that researchers can apply for in the period from 2014-2020.

Research ammunition

The expert groups have played a particular role in the lobbying that has taken place in an attempt to influence the content of the programmes in H2020. They have lobbied both the Ministry of Higher Education and Science, the European Commission and the European Parliament.

"We have presented some input that has been academically well-grounded because of the groups. We’ve found that both the Commission and the Parliament have listened more to our point of view,” says Westensee.

AU has also provided input to the Ministry of Higher Education and Science prior to meetings in Brussels, in which the ministry has had to present the Danish position in connection with the framework programme.

"The ministry has also reacted positively to the fact that what we have presented is academically well-founded. And that they attach importance to the fact that input to the Danish agenda comes from a group of researchers reflects the change in attitude towards who it is they wish to support compared to previously, when it was very much the particular interests of the so-called ‘strong’ professors that were promoted."

John Westensee concludes that:

"I think we have had a political impact at both national and international levels because we have managed to influence the Danish agenda, but that effect must be measured in the long run."

Cash from the EU

By contrast, in the short term there will be money available when the grant givers in the EU announce which applications are to receive grant payments to the researchers at universities throughout Europe.

"If AU is as strong in terms of research as we think it is then we ought to lie significantly above the average level in Europe. If all the European researchers who have the opportunity actually apply, which is often the case in connection with a new programme, then we ought to do better than the Southern or Eastern Europeans, for example. I would say that if the success rate averages at around 5-10 per cent, then our own rate should be 10-15 per cent, because we come from a strong research institution."


Despite this, John Westensee does not hide the fact that his nerves are a little on edge because of the new approach to granting funding proposed by the EU.

"I’m a little nervous because we don’t have a clear sense of the actual criteria for the granting of funding. We have recently discussed it in the Research Committee. What if our success rate is lower and we don’t get as many grants as we hope to? How can we then motivate the researchers to keep sending applications? And that’s also a question that is often asked among the department heads, in the dean’s offices and in the Rector's Office just at the moment. Uncertainty reigns.“


Researchers can apply for DKK 592 billion from 2014-2020

Researchers can e.g. apply for DKK 592 billion in Horizon 2020 which is the EU framework programme for research in the period 2014-2020. 

H2020 is divided into three sections, of which the Societal Challenges section has the largest funding with a total of DKK 221 billion. There is also an Excellent Science section that has a total pool of DKK 182 billion, and an Industrial Leadership section with a total pool of DKK 127 billion.

Researchers applying within Societal Challenges must carry out research within seven topics under the following headlines:

  • Health
  • Bioeconomy
  • Energy
  • Transport
  • Climate
  • Inclusive society
  • Safe society

Source: Ufm.dk

ST brings home 50 per cent of AU’s total external funding

As a rule of thumb, ST wins 50 per cent of the total external funding, HE 25 per cent, Arts 12.5 per cent and BSS 12.5 per cent. In addition, approx. DKK 300 million comes from Aarhus University Hospital.

40-50 per cent of all research at AU is financed by external funding.

25 per cent of AU's entire operations are financed by external funding. 

Source: The Research Support Unit

AU spends over DKK 1.5 billion annually in external funding

AU expends DKK 1.6 billion a year in external funds. The expenditure is an average determination of the researchers' activity spread over a number of years.

Source: The Research Support Unit

Here is where researchers obtain external Funding

  • 62 per cent from Danish public sector sources (ministries, research councils)
  • 24 per cent from Danish private sources (foundations, companies and enterprises)
  •  7 per cent from the EU
  •  7 per cent from other foreign sources

AU receives 25 per cent of its overall budget from external funding.

Source: The Research Support Unit

Translated by Peter Lambourne.