You work as national contact point (NCP) for ERC (European Research Council) and MSCA (Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action) grants. During my work as university grant officer I noticed that many students and young scientists did not encounter the term NCP. Can you please explain for our readers what is your role as NCP and how can you help to early career researchers thinking of applying for MSCA fellowship or ERC Starting grant?
NCPs are nominated across Europe and beyond by national authorities in order to offer personalised support in native languages because the European Commission cannot be ubiquitous. We do not represent the European Commission as such and we are not employed by the EC but we facilitate communication between the EC and applicants and/or beneficiaries. Our mission is quite complex, we raise awareness about grant opportunities in the European framework programme for research and innovation through organizing information events and provide individual support to potential applicants in the preparation and submission phase as well as on different aspects during the implementation phase when the grants are awarded. If you are an early career researcher and have any questions about MSCA fellowships or ERC Starting grants, you can contact me by e-mail/phone or we can arrange an individual consultation, you are welcome to participate in applicants´ workshops and if you send me your proposal for pre-screening, I can give you useful tips and recommendations how to improve your project proposal. If you are a non-Czech speaking researcher, you can benefit from this support, too. I organize most of the main events in English because our applicants need to get familiar with MSCA/ERC terminology.
What events (face to face or online) do you plan to organize for MSCA or ERC applicants this year?
This year, you can expect more or less the same information events as in previous years. When it comes to MSCA, the annual National Information Day about MSCA was organized within the National Information Campaign “Join Horizon Europe” held on 8-11 March 2021. The presentation and the record from the session on 8 March dedicated to MSCA are available on the new National portal for Horizon Europe (https://www.horizontevropa.cz). If you are considering applying to MSCA Postdoctoral Fellowships, the Technology Centre CAS offers a three-stage support. In April, you will learn all relevant information at the Information day on MSCA Postdoctoral Fellowships (1st stage) which will be followed by the Applicants´ workshop on MSCA Postdoctoral Fellowships (2nd stage). Both events will be most probably held on-line because of long-term epidemic situation. With the Cisco webex meetings tool, it is possible to prepare an interactive session without your on-the-spot presence. The third stage of the support consists of individual consultations and proposal check services.
Regarding the ERC grants, you could also watch an ERC session at the info campaign on 8 March. As the first ERC calls in Horizon Europe will be closed in April 2021, promotion events of the 2021 calls took place in 2020 and at the beginning of 2021. Those who are interested in ERC grants are invited to participate in the National Information Day, which is planned for autumn 2021 and it will aim at promoting 2022 calls. It is advisable to attend the info day at least a year before applying to the ERC. Those who are seriously considering applying to 2022 calls are welcome to register for the ERC applicants´ workshop on How to write a competitive proposal, which is divided into two parts. Both of them will be held in the second half of 2021, the exact dates will be communicated in the upcoming months.
Can you summarize the main changes we can expect in Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action under new Horizon Europe framework?
It is true that in the ERC funding schemes, there is not much to say about changes under Horizon Europe and it is the reason why the European Research Council was able to announce the first calls in HE so early after the launch of the new framework programme, whereas in MSCA we can see novelties that are more important. The Actions have been renamed and the EC took an effort to simplify rules of participation. The major changes have been adopted in Individual Fellowships. In Horizon Europe, this action is called MSCA Postdoctoral Fellowships, it will be open to postdoctoral researchers. Therefore, we will not use any more the term “Experienced Researchers” (ERs). This new approach goes hand in hand with the philosophy of revised fellowships and reacts on a huge number of applications submitted in the last years. Newly, applicants have to be in a possession of a doctorate at the date of the call deadline but at the same time this funding scheme is focused on scientifically younger generation than in Horizon 2020 where researchers of any age were allowed to apply. Since 2021 only those with max. 8 years of full-time equivalent experience in research are eligible, but years of experience outside research, career breaks due to maternity/parental leave etc. or research in third countries are not considered in this maximum. In order to ensure high-quality selection, resubmission will be conditioned, i.e. if the proposal is scored less than 70 %, the applicant must not resubmit his/her proposal the following year. However, this new rule will be applied firstly in 2022.
What will be the impact of brexit on future applicants of MSCA fellowship or ERC grant?
The United Kingdom is supposed to become an associated country to Horizon Europe (except for the EIC Fund). It means that the UK can be fully involved in MSCA and ERC projects. I personally do not think that brexit will dramatically influence UK´s participation in Horizon Europe. It is a very popular destination for researchers and there is a very strong ERC community in the country. I assume the situation will not be too different from H2020 for international cooperation in research and innovation. We have to respect the UK´s decision to leave the EU and I am very happy that the EU and the UK have found a compromise on the subject of Horizon Europe.
What are the most common questions you answer to applicants for MSCA fellowship?
The most common questions I receive are related to eligibility criteria, whether the researcher is eligible to apply due to years of experience spent in research, whether he/she fulfills mobility rule saying that he/she cannot choose the country of the host institution where he/she has the main activity for more than 12 months in the last 3 years before the call deadline, or whether the person is entitled to claim family allowance. Even though I explain the rules of participation during the info day, there are always some more difficult cases, which need to be discussed individually. I also receive quite a lot of questions concerning secondments (in which countries they can be carried out and their duration). Global Fellowships also raise some issues. As I have mentioned, Postdoctoral Fellowships will be in many regards reconstructed, I guess there will be numerous questions this year, new rules will have to be clarified.
Similar question but related to ERC – what are the most often issues or problems you discuss with ERC applicants?
In my opinion, it is very similar to MSCA. Eligibility criteria for ERC Starting and Consolidator grants, extension of eligibility period due to maternity, parental leave and other career breaks, and number of publications to be stated in the track-record. ERC applicants also quite often seek to find advice on composition of their team (commitment of their team members, recruitment etc.).
Based on the data and various analyses you have, can you confirm whether the interest in MSCA fellowships and ERC Starting grants grows in the Czech Republic? How successful were applicants for MSCA IF and ERC StG in the Czech Republic in recent years? Can you compare the number of applicants and the success rate in MSCA IF and ERC StG call to other countries like Portugal, Greece, Hungary or Sweden, that have similar number of inhabitants?
I believe the interest in MSCA Individual Fellowships and ERC Starting grants is growing. I have observed it in the number of participants registered for applicants´ workshops in the last few years. For MSCA IF applicants´ workshop held in June 2020 it nearly doubled compared to 2019, for ERC applicants´ workshop the interest was enormous. Already in 2019, there were 50 participants who joined the first part of the workshop (where we read a successful ERC grant proposal) but then less than a half of them registered for the second part (consisting of individual presentations of research ideas of future applicants) which was not unusual. Whereas last year (2020), the first part of the workshop was watched by 76 potential ERC grant applicants and 50 out of 76 joined the second part of the workshop, it was our record. These figures certainly do not ensure better results of the Czech Republic in Horizon Europe calls but they are at least promising.
Regarding the MSCA IF 2020 call results, we can be even more optimistic because 21 projects submitted by Czech host institutions were newly granted, the number of proposals submitted has not increased dramatically but in my opinion, the quality of the proposals has enhanced. If we compare the number of the grants awarded to Czech host institutions with other Widening countries, we were, indeed, successful in 2020: Portugal (15), Greece (14) and Hungary (4). Nevertheless, we can hardly compare the Czech Republic to Sweden (45 fellowships). On the other hand, I do not compare success rates because there is also disparity in the number of submitted proposals and the figures can be then misleading, for instance, Hungary has the highest success rate because of a very low number of submitted proposals (24) in comparison with Greece (122), Czech Republic (142), Portugal (296) and Sweden (380).
Regarding ERC grants, we have to wait for the results of first ERC calls in 2021 whether or not this huge number of workshop participants will bring more ERC grants to the Czech Republic. As for the results of 2020 ERC StG Call, we received the same number of grants (2) as Greece. Hungary succeeded only in one case and Portugal was awarded 6 new ERC Starting grants, Sweden 23 grants. When comparing success rate, we should take into account that there is again a big difference in the number of submitted proposals per country, e.g. while Hungary submitted less than 20 proposals per 2020 call, the Czech Republic was not very active either (39), especially in comparison with Sweden (more than 150). What does not help us is the fact that there are still quite a lot of proposals submitted by Czech institutions which are rejected at Step 1 based on the review of first 5 pages of extended synopsis (16 proposals with score B and 15 proposals assessed with score C). When the proposals are rejected at Step 1, it implies that they cannot be resubmitted for 1 or 2 years. The interest in ERC grants is one thing, but what we need to concentrate on is the quality of submitted proposals.
From your experience, what advice would you give to young researcher interested in writing MSCA IF grant?
Definitely go for it. Do not miss in April the info day I have mentioned. Firstly, you should check whether you are eligible to apply as the new rules are in place. You need to find a host institution, which is the best match for you in terms of two-way transfer of knowledge. You should discuss in detail your topic with your future supervisor, do not hesitate to involve him/her in the writing process. The sooner you start writing, the better. Use the support provided at institutional level. You can ask your grant/project office (at your future host institution but also at your current employer) for help with certain parts of your proposal. Do not forget that there is also national support at your disposal. And finally, keep trying, please do not feel discouraged when not successful for the first time you submit your proposal.