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Covid-19 funder updates: European research agencies

The outlook on how public funders in Europe are adapting to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak

Following on from our round-ups published in April, Research Professional News has once again collected information from major European public funders on how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting their scheduled grant schemes. All information was correct, to the best of our knowledge, at the time of going to press but should be treated as subject to change.

In this section we summarise the positions of:

  • European Commission
  • European Research Council
  • German Research Foundation
  • Dutch Research Council
  • Irish Research Council
  • Swedish Research Council
  • Independent Research Fund Denmark
  • Research Council of Norway

European Commission

Since the pandemic struck in March, the Commission has launched a variety of Covid-19-related calls across its various grant-making arms. As the Horizon 2020 framework programme for research and innovation reaches its close, there is a lull in new funding opportunities, but a Commission spokesperson told Research Professional News that “information on potential new calls related specifically to Covid-19 may be included in the 2021 work programme, which will be published once the new programme, Horizon Europe, and the multi-annual financial framework are approved.”

During the first wave of the pandemic, the Commission pushed back call deadlines and introduced a raft of measures to help researchers whose Horizon 2020-funded projects were disrupted by lockdowns and travel restrictions. These included the possibility of extending projects by six months, delaying project start dates, guidance on eligibility of costs, and flexibility on dates for deliverables, milestones and reports impacted by the crisis.

This may be repeated as much of Europe experiences a second wave of infections. The Commission spokesperson told Research Professional News that the Commission is “continuously evaluating the development of the pandemic and its impact on the implementation of the R&I programmes,” adding that it “may take further measures to remediate possible disruptions in the future”.

European Research Council

The European Research Council has been keeping the show on the road during 2020. “No calls have been postponed or cancelled,” a spokesperson told Research Professional News. According to an update on the impact of Covid-19 published by the Council on 21 September, it does not anticipate any delays to evaluations in the months to come.

The 2021 calendar of calls has been altered due to the transition to Horizon Europe, and calls for Starting Grants, Consolidator Grants and Proof of Concept Grants are due to open in January 2021.

In line with other Horizon 2020 funding, the ERC has stated it will consider project extensions and postponements of start dates of up to six months. The funder said in September that any reasonable request “would be decided on favourably and in a speedy manner”, but that it has “no resources to satisfy the requests of ERC grantees to provide additional budget”.

The ERC spokesperson says that while most requests for extensions or postponements have been for six months, “there were also longer times requested and approved”, and that up to mid-September 1,150 grantees, representing nearly a fifth of all current grantees, had contacted the ERC with problems or questions related to disruptions from the pandemic.

German Research Foundation (DFG)

In August, the German Research Foundation launched a special funding programme, Covid-19 Focus Funding, “to address especially urgent research questions requiring rapid answers”. The DFG said that up until June 2021 there will be calls on different topics for “all relevant disciplines”. Call topics are decided by an interdisciplinary commission for pandemic research, established in June.

A DFG spokesperson told Research Professional News that no submissions to its funding programmes have been put on hold and that as part of its efforts to minimise the impacts of the pandemic, “steps in the process have been modified to allow proposals to be processed in a time as close to normal as possible”.

The DFG has support funding available (initially a total of €175 million was available) to help DFG-funded projects scheduled to end before 30 June 2021 and that have been affected by the pandemic.

Dutch Research Council (NWO)

On 12 October the Dutch Research Council published an overview of changes to its call schedule up until June 2021. “Most of our rounds have already resumed after a short pause,” a spokesperson told Research Professional News, encouraging researchers to consult the NWO website for the latest information.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has showed us that we’re flexible in arranging the planning of our funding instruments,” the spokesperson said, citing measures taken to increase the amount of time that calls are open. “We’re currently looking into a way to create one guideline for all calls, in a way that we can be predictable for our applicants,” they added.

A call for complexity research in connection with the Covid-19 crisis is due to open in late October, but the spokesperson said that extra funding for Covid-19 related research from the Dutch ministry of health has already been awarded and no further calls are planned.

Irish Research Council

Peter Brown, director of the Irish Research Council, told Research Professional News that the council is “largely continuing to operate our programmes and our call schedule as normal”, and that any changes to calls have tended to affect small grants schemes for international collaboration.

The IRC has allowed for no-cost extensions, Brown said, as well as costed extensions on a case-by-case basis. “It was particularly important for us to do that because we have an awful lot of early career researchers on our portfolio,” he says. A scheme the IRC put in place for early career researchers finishing in 2020 to request a costed extension has been superseded by a €50 million allocation from the government to enable research institutions to deal with disrupted projects.

Having run rapid-response calls in collaboration with the Health Research Board and Science Foundation Ireland, IRC does not have any plans for a new Covid-19 call, Brown said, but they would keep the situation under review.

Swedish Research Council

The Swedish Research Council is planning a 2021 follow-up to this year’s virology call, as part of a SEK100 million (€9.6m) investment announced in June. Lucas Pettersson, director of research funding at SRC, told Research Professional News that the the funds are not restricted to research on Covid-19. 

Pettersson said he would be “surprised” if a government bill expected in late November does not direct the SRC to make funds available for research on Covid-19. “We know we will get some new money,” he said, adding that it was not yet clear if the money would go into standard grant schemes or if it would be earmarked for specific topics.

Having already granted extensions of up to a year for projects delayed by the pandemic, Pettersson said that additional extensions may be granted if necessary.

Independent Research Fund Denmark (DFF)

A spokesperson for the Independent Research Fund Denmark told Research Professional News that while political negotiations are ongoing over legislation for distributing research funds in 2021, it is not yet clear whether there will be funds set aside specifically for Covid-19-related research. “Nothing is planned at this stage,” the spokesperson said, pointing out that other upcoming calls have not been affected.

The DFF has approved a general project extension of one year for all ongoing grants in the Sapere Aude, Research Project 1 and Research Project 2 programmes, with no need for grantholders to apply for extensions. In addition, “all changes in projects related to or caused by the Covid-19 situation will be approved by the Fund,” the spokesperson said.

Research Council of Norway

Kristin Danielsen, executive director for internationalisation and the research system at the Research Council of Norway, told Research Professional News that Covid-19 had “showed us we can actually work differently if we are forced to”, adding that it is “trying to be as flexible as possible”.

The funder is accepting extensions to delayed projects and has given postdoctoral researchers two months’ extra funding for lost time in the spring. Danielsen said there are no special Covid-19-related calls planned.

Other funders

The French National Research Agency (ANR) was not able to provide information on how the pandemic will affect its activities in the coming months at the time of going to press, but highlighted that a call for Covid-19-focused projects opened in April is open until 28 October.

The Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research did not respond to a request for information.

Additional reporting by Pola Lem