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Horizon Europe: An evaluator’s perspective

Tips on bidding to schemes where ‘high quality’ is rarely good enough

Pierre Purseigle has an unusual take on what it means to be an evaluator for bids to the EU’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme.

“Our job is essentially to not fund good research,” he says, explaining that this is because there is “just not enough money” to support the majority of strong bids. He has been an evaluator for Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions and other European funding programmes.

The statistics back up Purseigle, who is a reader in modern European history at the University of Warwick in the UK. In May 2023, the European Commission said that over 70 per cent of high-quality proposals to Horizon Europe were not receiving funding due to financial constraints.

Which makes it all the more important to understand how to craft bids with the best chance of success. At an event at the University of Birmingham organised by Innovate UK in March, Purseigle gave insights on how to do this.

Learn the criteria by heart

When looking at bids, Purseigle starts from first principles “to get a sense of the construction of the bid” and “a good idea about how the team is potentially going to work as a consortium”.

“You obviously focus on the case for support, on the science, on the scholarship and on every single aspect of the bid that you as an evaluator have been asked to focus on,” Purseigle explained, adding that he uses the evaluation criteria as a guide.

“So if there’s one piece of advice to give to anybody who’s applying, it is to learn evaluation criteria by heart. Take them exceedingly seriously, because we do as well.”

He advised applicants to “read the documentation in full, from cover to cover—there’s no way around this”.

This same level of structured discipline needs to go into constructing the bid itself, Purseigle said: “Everything needs to be taken into consideration and systematically addressed in the bid.”

Detail and clarity

In terms of what makes a good bid, Purseigle says it is all about clarity. “Not simply clarity of language but also clarity of structure of the bid.”

“It needs to make sense to anybody who’s not an expert in the field and it needs to be precise and absolutely focused on the details—those details matter. The competition is such that every single thing counts, and quite often what is going to make the difference is the exhaustive nature of the investment put into the bid,” he explained.

“When it comes to the actual writing, it takes time, so give yourself time to do it and to do it well.”

A dose of realism

Purseigle says it is important to temper the ambition of a proposal with realism about what can be achieved.

“We all like to be ambitious, but you’re not going to get the money you want if the project you outlined is not feasible,” he said.

Purseigle pointed out that evaluators are mostly researchers themselves and understand the constraints of working on a funded project. “Don’t bite off more than you can chew and don’t pretend that the evaluators are not going to see this,” he reasoned.

He also underlined the importance of honesty, both in the bid and in the CVs of team members, saying that evaluators “increasingly” see issues cropping up with CVs.

International perspective

As well as being an EU evaluator, Purseigle has experience of working for national funders.

He said the difference with applying to Horizon Europe is that “this is about Europe, this is about stepping onto the international scientific stage, and that means that you need to basically conceive of your work, of your career, of your risk strategy, in international terms”.

The European Commission’s evaluation process “is probably one of, if not the, most robust evaluation processes you can think of”, so applicants must be ready for that, he continued.

Given the competition for EU funding, he advised applicants: “Never take failure personally, because it actually says very little about the quality of your work or the quality of your consortium. It says probably a lot more about the quality of the field.”

Just the process of engaging with European partners can have long-lasting benefits, Purseigle added: “This might not lead to a bid in six months’ time, but it may actually lead to a successful consortium in 5 or 10 years’ time.”

Get the inside track

Purseigle also made a strong case for becoming an evaluator, emphasising to researchers “how much you can actually learn and gain as a researcher out of the evaluation process”.

“This is one of the best ways to really keep up to date, not just with our narrow field of expertise but with the wider area of research in which we might be interested, within our disciplines and across fields.”

And he acknowledged that with competition as fierce as it is for Horizon Europe funding, becoming an evaluator might have more directly beneficial consequences: “A more utilitarian argument that you can make for participation in evaluation is that this is actually the best way to learn about how to be successful.”