Where do Europe’s research euros go?

Strongly increasing resources for a smaller number of projects Source: FP6 final review, DG Recherche
Strongly increasing resources for a smaller number of projects Source: FP6 final review, DG Recherche
Planned financing of fundamental research by the European Research Council (ERC) Source : ERC Annual Report
Planned financing of fundamental research by the European Research Council (ERC) Source : ERC Annual Report

Is European support for research ‘measurable’? Two recent reports(1) give profiles and figures for the Framework Programmes (FPs) which structure the European Research Area. One European researcher in 10, and practically every university in the EU directly benefits from FP financing.

From the outset we can point to the constant growth of the R&D Framework Programmes – or ‘FPs’ for short – in terms of both of funding and of the interest they have elicited from the research community. From 1998-2002 (5th Framework Programme or FP5) to 2002-2006 (FP6) to 2007 (launch of FP7), average annual budgets have increased from €2.5 billion to €3.4 billion to €5.7 billion. Average funding for the period 2007-2013 should exceed €7 billion a year.

The success has been avchieved together. The FP5 calls for proposals produced 60 000 project entries involving 327 000 players (laboratories or research centres). FP6 generated slightly fewer proposals (56 000) but even more participants (390 000 players).


Just a quarter of the FP5 projects were selected (15 700 contracts and 80 000 players). For FP6, the figure was smaller (10 000 contracts and 74 400 players). The difference between the number of postulants and those ‘elected’ poses the constant question of ‘over-subscription’ – of the order of a factor of four – which continues to characterize the offering of European research grants.

Is this surprising? This difference expresses first of all the budgetary constraints under which the framework programmes operate: there is only so much money available. Also, apart from financial resources, eligibility for EU funding is limited to trans-European and international research consortia.

The will to strengthen

European research is torn between two poles. On the one hand there is the desire to ‘see big’ and encourage partnerships between the continent’s largest and most imposing names in science and technology, in order to achieve a ‘critical mass’ and/or structure the European Research Area. But on the other hand there is a concern not to overlook smaller players and the vital innovative potential to be found in SMEs. For this first pole, FP6 was given new financial instruments with which to support not only traditional targeted research programmes, but also so-called integrated projects and networks of excellence. The underlying idea here is to encourage larger numbers of scientific and technological teams to partner up to tackle more ambitious and interdisciplinary research topics.

High quality proposals from the research world were quick to follow. Some 700 integrated projects, averaging 25 partners each, were launched during the 6th Framework Programme. These received over €6.5 billion of funding (on average over €10 million per project), equal to 40% of the resources of FP6. Parallel with this, almost 2300 targeted research projects, with under ten participants each, were supported in an amount of €4.5 billion.

And what of SMEs? The FP6 programme tailored to them – but with a budget of under €500 million – gives only a very partial view of their involvement in European research indicatives. SMEs are well represented in many project consortia, both integrated and targeted. Based on the project proposal files and contract documents, the Commission estimates that nearly 10 000 SMEs played an active role in the EU-supported research, receiving financing of around €1.6 billion.


Networks of excellence are another financial support instrument new to the FP6. The aim is to constitute a framework of high level scientific and technological networks, and put an end to the fragmentation of human and material capacities which hobbles the European Research Area.

Some 170 new networks were created in this way, averaging around 30 participants each, and capturing nearly €1.3 billion of funding.

Human capital and mobility

The concern to pool and train Europe's capital of grey matter through networks of excellence is expressed even more strongly by the Marie Curie programme.

This pays the salaries of new and established researchers, wanting to work across borders and conduct their work in foreign laboratories and research centres willing to accommodate and support their training through the creation of transnational research groups.

Some 9 300 Marie Cure grants have been awarded during FP6, amounting to €1.6 bilion. As this is a very prestigious bursary system , there are manycandidates and the selection process tough, with just a small part of applicants being awarded funding.

Public research, private research

Around 50 000 or two thirds of the players involved in the European programmes come from the public networks – universities, higher education institutions and research. Of the 435 000 or so researchers working in the 4 000 higher education institutes known to the EU authorities, an estimated 1 in 10 benefits to one degree or another from European financing.

This predominance of the public and academic sector should not, however, be allowed to mask a profound change that is taking place as European research policy opens up towards the private sector. As integrated projects grow in size, some of Europe’s leading industrial players are increasingly involved in strategic sectors like ICT, nanotechnologies, aviation and space.

In the current Framework Programme (FP7), this opening is taking on a new, more coordinated and targeted form in the shape of Joint Technology Initiatives. These combine public support – both European and national – and private R&D investment in partnerships that seek to give additional impetus to top level technology breakthroughs. Since 2007, five specific initiatives have been launched in this totally new area, in information technologies, medicine, aviation, energy and the environment and security(2).

The European ideas box?

Preliminary figures on the FP7’s commitments during 2007 point already to increased EU support for research. Important innovations in the new FP include a Capacities chapter (for financing in particular scientific infrastructures of European interest) and an Ideas programme, managed autonomously by the European Research Council (ERC). The creation of this latter programme marks the start of a policy aimed specifically at fundamental science.

In 2007 the ERC intentionally limited its activity. Just 4% of the €7.5 billion or so budgeted for the seven-year period was committed to innovative projects by young researchers. Once again, demand outstripped supply. A tidal wave of almost 9 000 financing requests flooded in from the four corners of Europe and even outside(3). Of these, just 200 were selected, for just €280 million of funding. One thing is for sure: the European ‘ideas box’ is very far from empty. And with growing resources, the ERC could well become a catalyst for a resurgence of scientific creativity in Europe.

Didier Buysse

  1. FP6 Final review: Subscription, Implementation, Participation, FP7 Subscription and Performance during the first year of implementation,
  2. See
  3. International candidacies are also eligible for these individual ERC financings.