Petter Olsen, who works for the Norwegian food research organisation Nofima, has managed to secure funding for a staggering 9 out of ten EU-financed projects since 2010 – five of them via Horizon 2020. Having personally secured €3.9 million for Nofima, he has decided to share some of his tips and experiences more widely.
The average success rate in Horizon 2020 is 12 per cent because it receives many more applications than earlier framework programmes. This may dishearten a lot of people, but your chances are much greater than official figures suggest, claims the senior researcher and EU-project wholesaler, who has many years’ experience in writing applications, as well as being an evaluator numerous times.
“Far too many applications with obvious weaknesses are submitted to Horizon 2020. Almost half of the applications I have helped to evaluate have been rejected after reading the first few pages. So, when you hear about the low success rates, I think you can double them and more if you write proper applications,” he says.
Strategic decision and good back-up
Nofima is one of Europe’s largest institutes for applied research and development within the fields of aquaculture, fisheries and the food industry. One of the goals of the institute’s EU strategy is to increase the proportion of project funds obtained from the EU, from 5 per cent to 10 per cent, and it is well on the way to doing so. The projects have a multiplier effect.
“While EU projects account for only 5-10 per cent of turnover, they result in the turnover in other areas also increasing. Thanks to the EU projects we are part of, we are, for example, contacted about also taking part in public tenders internationally,” he says.
Nofima has allocated funds to build up fields and networks for researchers who want to position themselves in relation to an EU project. These are additional to the Project Evaluation Support (PES2020) from the Research Council of Norway. For example, senior researcher Solveig Langsrud received additional in-house support and was successful with her application for a project within food safety.
Olsen is himself involved in seven EU projects in 2017, although part of his job is to be Nofima’s in-house EU coordinator. He maintains an overview of all the initiatives, applications and projects in which Nofima researchers are taking part. He ensures that those who are interested in the same announcements talk to each other to avoid the institute’s own researchers competing against each other without knowing it.
Nofima has around 350 employees and of these around 100 researchers are active or interested in EU projects. The institute currently has 11 Horizon 2020 projects.
Olsen’s EU career started as early as the fifth framework programme when he became a coordinator in a so-called CSA project. This put him in touch with a large network, which he has benefited from since.
In recent years, he has been part of one international network within fisheries and seafood and one within counterfeit foods and traceability. Researchers from five institutions have formed a small, informal group that works together on many EU projects.
“We know each other well and when announcements are made the group discusses what we should focus on and who should do what,” he says.
Paradoxically, it was after the partners put a great deal of work into a big application in 2011 without getting the funding that things improved.
“Six years ago we made a huge effort, but were unsuccessful. That’s when we decided that writing applications was like a research project, where the feedback from the evaluators represents the results we have to learn from. We spent time on coming up with our way of doing things, which has worked well in subsequent applications,” says Olsen.
Olsen has three general tips concerning applications for projects relating to social challenges:
1. Always write the ‘impact’ section first. Social challenges are about solving problems. Your research is just a means of solving those problems. Bear the impact aspect in mind when writing all the other sections of the application.
Achieving this can be very challenging in a consortium in which the researchers are most interested in finding good ways of applying their own research and not focusing on how to resolve the social challenge.
2. Have an extremely precise and almost religious relationship to the announcement text. Divide up sentences and review every part of the sentence and note whether it belongs in the ‘science’, ‘scope’ or ‘impact’ chapter of the application. This is very helpful when structuring the application. Triple check whether you have included all the bits in the text and do not include factors not included in the announcement.
The third piece of advice is the most unusual, but perhaps the most crucial.
3. Read all of the important pages of the application out loud to each other. This will help you correct silly mistakes and ensure that the text follows a general theme and that the language is consistent. The resulting application will be more readable for the evaluators.
In the application process, Olsen’s consortia spend many hours reading out loud to each other before they submit the application.
“Many people say that this sounds like good advice, but almost no one does it,” he says.
You are solely writing for the evaluators
He believes that applicants generally get too much advice and include lots of information about what the EU’s policy is and what the directorates in the EU Commission think. This appears to overwhelm many applicants.
“You can pretty much ignore everything not included in the announcements. Applications are not evaluated by politicians or bureaucrats, but by three to seven other researchers. So, when you write an application you are communicating with people who are very much like yourself and you have to argue in a way that they understand. No one else has a say in what happens vis-à-vis your application,” Olsen concludes.
Horizon 2020 projects with Nofima