The "Why" behind EU projects

The European Union supplements national efforts to support research and innovation by a dedicated policy. In fact, besides agriculture and regional development, research and innovation is a major field where the EU provides funding in close cooperation with Member States. This cooperation should prevent duplication of efforts and allow smarter allocation of resources with the ultimate aim to make Europe as a whole a hub for scientific excellence and economic growth.

Decisions about funding priorities, budgets, and other provisions are made on a multiannual basis. The legal basis for EU research policy, established by the EU’s decision-making process, is the current Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon 2020. Launched in January 2014, it will run until 2020. The overall budget, adjusted for inflation, is about €80 billion, which corresponds to approximately 10% of the overall EU budget for this period.

Horizon 2020 encompasses many different funding schemes and covers a wide range of domains. The main part of the programme is composed of three priorities focused on:

  • fundamental science;
  • the modernisation of European industry; and
  • “societal challenges”

These three “pillars” and their focus on both science and innovation are complemented by other funding mechanisms. These include public-private partnerships between the EU, the Member States and industry, so-called Joint Technological Initiatives (JTIs) which issue calls mainly – but not only – targeting members of these partnerships, as well as co-funding mechanisms for national programmes, such as the Eurostars programme for innovative SMEs. The European Institute of Technology (EIT) and its Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KIC) are also funded by Horizon 2020. However, in this guide, we will focus on the main Horizon 2020 programme covered by the three priorities listed above. 

Based on the original legal basis for Horizon 2020, thematic priorities and budgets for the programme are elaborated by the European Commission in cooperation with stakeholders and Member State representatives, and published in biannual Work Programmes. These documents are accessible on a centralised webpage, the Horizon 2020 Participant Portal.

Horizon 2020 funding is allocated following  competitive calls on specific topics. Funding is provided on the basis of reimbursement of eligible costs. Projects are typically carried out by international and at times inter-sectorial (i.e. including partners from both the private and public sectors) project teams (so-called consortia) during a period of around three years. Each project is led by a coordinator, who orchestrates the set-up of the project proposal and later on ensures the link between the European Commission and the project participants.

Some Horizon 2020 funding schemes, however, do not require the set-up of an international consortium. The European Research Council and the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions, for example, allocate grants to researchers on an individual basis. These so-called “bottom-up” programmes leave participants much leeway in choosing their research domain and project focus.

Many factors determine whether a project proposal is evaluated positively and funded, but one major aspect is the European added value. Projects must demonstrate that their ultimate outcome will help address problems that are common to many European countries.