Horizon 2020 two-stage submission system

Experiences and tips

Horizon 2020 brought a number of significant changes compared to its predecessor Framework Programmes or similar schemes in terms of rules for application for funding, financial management and reporting. One of the major differences from previous practices was the introduction of the bi-annual work programmes, which provide the opportunity for all those who intend to submit proposals to have a better understanding about the Commission’s expectations and to start developing their concepts and planning their activities long before the given call or topic becomes open for submission.

Most of the calls are available for only either the first or the second year (2014 and 2015 respectively) of the bi-annual work programme (WP) similarly to FP7’s annual WPs which featured all the calls open for the given period. However, there are a few calls which were designed to maximise the number of proposals by announcing them without any major changes for both years of the covered period. This latter case offers great potential for a re-submission, in which case the applicants can improve the quality of the proposal based on the evaluators’ comments in the evaluation summary report prior to re-submitting it under the same call the following year. In other words, you can consider this opportunity as a “proof-reading” of your concept carried out by the independent experts of the EC, which on one hand takes a rather long time to go through, but on the other hand the feedback will feature all the major shortcomings of your initial proposal, which prevented it from getting funded, giving you the chance to fix them and to improve its overall quality significantly, thus increasing its potential in the upcoming period.

Let me give you a personal example about this. The first and so far only set of bi-annual work programmes for H2020 was released in 11 December 2013 revealing those priority areas for 2014 and 2015 in which the EC sought progress. After thoroughly screening these documents, I identified a topic which was open not only for 2014 but for 2015 as well with two distinctive submission deadlines (April 1, 2014 and September 3, 2014 respectively). The “two-stage” submission system allowed the consortium to focus on the core scientific aspects of the concept and to summarise its goals in maximum 15 pages. We received the evaluation feedback three months later informing us that the proposal did not proceed to “stage 2” for a number of reasons detailed in the report. If this would have happened in FP7, our options would have been limited to accepting the decision and waiting until the following year’s work programmes would be released to see if there are any relevant calls in them matching our idea.


Instead, by having the evaluation of the first attempt under its belt, the consortium immediately started working on the proposal in order to make it fit for the same call open in 2015. Even though the remarks in the Evaluation Summary Report (ESR) were quite general, rather short and a bit vague, they did shed some additional light in some aspects which were not properly addressed before. If you have a complex idea and combine it with some advanced cutting edge technology description, you may end up being the only guy around who actually understands what your concept is about and meant to achieve. In such cases the very text you wrote and which you consider solid as rock and perfectly straight to the point might become the biggest obstacle to get your idea funded, simply because none of the evaluators will be able to follow your train of thought and thus they will judge your efforts to be out of scope, inadequately addressed or confusing, partly because they misinterpret it.

This is the very scenario we had to face when the first ESR was received. What I thought to be very clear, scientifically solid yet properly phrased, the evaluators concluded to be “partly irrelevant, confusing and insufficient in terms of its proposed impacts”.

The first few minutes after reading the evaluation was primarily spent on fighting off the surge of injustice and mistreatment I felt over the official point of view about my proposal. Once I recovered from this initial state of shock, I tried to read my work once again with a fresh eye while making efforts to identify those bits which had triggered such a devastating evaluation result. And surprisingly, when I was able to put aside my pride and confidence, I had to realise that no matter how indefinite or vague the evaluation statements sounded, they were appropriate. It was neither the concept which was faulty, nor the technology which won’t advance the state-of-the-art; it was the way of describing them for those who hadn’t spent their previous few months immersed in the subject.

From that point onwards it was relatively easy to realise that all I needed to do was to make certain bits easier to understand and put the whole concept into laymen’s terms to ensure a general understanding. This piece took significantly less amount of time than writing the first stage of the proposal before, which is quite fortunate since the deadline for 2015 was around the corner. It was submitted to the EC on time, and to finish the story with a happy ending, the positive evaluation results were received the last week before Christmas informing us that it passed the minimum threshold and we were invited to submit a full proposal for Stage 2 of the evaluations.

I was amazed how big of a difference some changes in the wording can bring. Because I must say, that none of the technical parts or the overall concept was modified by the slightest compared to the first attempt. All we did was putting extra emphasis on the way we convey our ideas towards the evaluators who might have a similar field of expertise but cannot be hoped to be an expert on the given subject. If you think about the proposal as a custom-made suit, the first one was a decent piece which will not let you down most of the cases, but it lacked the details which admit you to the fanciest of parties. The second, reworked text can be considered as the same suit, improved with a few touches by an Armani tailor. And voilá, you are permitted to enter parties which were earlier out of your limits.

Lessons learned from this:
•    Do not expect the evaluator to be an expert in your very particular field, therefore make sure to present your concept also in a more global context.
•    Try to read your texts as if you were the evaluator; try not to bridge certain logical gaps in your head only but make them appear in the text too, making it easier to follow for the evaluators. If you cannot abstract from the text, ask someone to have a fresh eye and mind on the proposal.
•    Try to “use” the EC’s evaluation services as a guide to fine-tune and improve your existing proposals for a successful future submission.
•    If possible, identify calls which are open in both years in order to save time and efforts when submitting an upgraded proposal.

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