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Make sure Horizon 2020 gives Marie Curie its due

Jennifer Brennan

The Marie Curie Actions programme has been one of the most popular and successful EU programmes for funding research. To win such a grant is a mark of prestige: the award of a Marie Curie Individual Fellowship or completion of a doctoral degree in a Marie Curie Initial Training Network is well known to be a stepping stone to a successful research career.

Marie Curie is the EU funding programme with the broadest reach across the entire research community. There are opportunities at every career stage, from masters degree students to professors. The programme also has the best record of gender balance within Framework 7, with nearly 40 per cent of grants going to women.

The programme funds all disciplines without priority or bias, including the oft-neglected social sciences and humanities. Finally, Marie Curie has an extremely strong track record of industry participation—in its largest component, the Initial Training Networks, around a quarter of participants are from industry.

But this track record of success is not reflected in the European Commission’s proposals for Horizon 2020, the next tranche of European funding for research and innovation, which will run from 2014 to 2020.

Although the total budget allocated to the programme —renamed the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, in recognition of the Nobel prize-winning scientist’s Polish heritage—has increased, by around €1 billion compared with Framework 7, to €5.75bn, the percentage of the overall Framework budget allocated to the programme in the Commission’s 2011 proposal for Horizon 2020 has decreased from 9.4 per cent of Framework 7 to 7.8 per cent of Horizon 2020.

The final settlement may be even worse. Recent statements from the Cypriot presidency indicate that member states wish to cut the budget for the overall multi-annual financial framework, which could result in the Horizon 2020 budget falling below the €80 billion originally proposed. If this occurs, there is a risk that the first MSCA calls of Horizon 2020 will have a lower budget than the last MCA calls of Framework 7.

With calls already over-subscribed—some fund only one in eight proposals—smaller budgets will mean that fewer budding and experienced excellent scientists will reap the benefits of participating in an MSCA, or receiving a career-enhancing Marie Curie Fellowship.

The simplest solution would be to maintain the MSCA budget at the level originally proposed last November, even if the overall budget for Horizon 2020 is cut. There are signs that politicians are sympathetic to this cause, with a number, including the MEPs appointed as rapporteurs for Horizon 2020 by the European Parliament, arguing that the MSCA should receive a greater portion of the Horizon 2020 budget.

One change proposed in Horizon 2020, however, is better news for the MSCA. In previous Framework Programmes, Marie Curie was a somewhat separate “mobility and career development” programme. This sepa-ration made Marie Curie seem to be the poor relation of the thematic areas that made up the bulk of the available funding in previous Framework Programmes.

In Horizon 2020, however, Marie Curie has been placed at the heart of Excellent Science, one of three priorities along with Industrial Leadership and Societal Challenges. Some commentators have suggested that this move threatens to bring the programme into competition with its neighbour in the Excellent Science priority, the European Research Council, which has received a substantial increase in its Horizon 2020 budget. This viewpoint is, in my opinion, not valid.

Placing these two programmes in the Excellent Science priority establishes for the first time that the EC funds frontier research across all disciplines. Together, the MSCA and the ERC awards provide a route for excellent researchers to develop their career from postgrad to professor. Commission data, for example, show that Marie Curie Fellows and Coordinators have a higher success rate in applications for ERC grants, showing the importance of the MSCA as a bridge to ERC success.

If the goal is to support excellent science, both programmes must be expanded in tandem, not pitted against each other. It is up to all supporters of the MSCA to ensure that decision makers are aware of the programme’s success, and the risks it faces. Successful lobbying of MEPs and national ministries will be key to ensuring that the MSCA receives the budget needed to make a meaningful contribution to excellent science in Horizon 2020.

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Jennifer Brennan is Ireland’s Marie Curie National Contact Point, and is hosted by the Irish Universities Association, with support from the Irish Research Council.