MSCA Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions under HorizonEurope

The new EU research framework programme Horizon Europe changes both structure and priorities of the former research funding programme Horizon2020. I met Claire Morel, Head of Unit of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions at the European Commission, in Brussels in 2020 to find out if there would be significant changes within the MSCA programme, too.

Mechthild Baumann: Dear Mrs. Morel, will Horizon Europe keep the current structure of Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) including ITN, IF, RISE, COFUND and CSA?

Claire Morel: We prepared the future Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) under Horizon Europe. Since the programme has an excellent reputation, as evidenced in the mid-term review, we, in line with stakeholders’ suggestions, proposed to introduce only a relatively small number of adjustments and further simplifications in terms of programme structure and rules. MSCA will therefore continue to fund the same five actions, which are highly appreciated by its stakeholders, but they will be renamed, to make them more understandable to people who are not familiar yet with the programme: doctorates (ex ITN), postdoctoral fellowships (ex IF), staff exchange projects (ex RISE), co-funded doctoral and postdoctoral programmes (COFUND) and support actions such as the European Researchers’ Night (MSCA and Citizens).

The Horizon Europe proposal emphasizes the need to equip researchers with “skills relevant to current and future global challenges”.
– What kind of skills are meant here?
– Could you give some examples?

Claire Morel: MSCA are focusing on the mobility and training of highly-skilled researchers at all stages of their career, from doctoral candidates to highly experienced researchers, and providing support for emerging talents from across the EU and beyond, by offering them a large range of training opportunities, which need to be relevant to global challenges. Through MSCA, researchers acquire skills specific to their research, which are for example linked to the use of specialised equipment, ethics in research, open science, management of intellectual property rights and research data, patent application, exploitation of research results, or the ability to transfer knowledge across disciplines and sectors.

But MSCA also offer training that helps develop transferable skills such as project coordination, supervision and monitoring, communication, presentation, language and outreach skills, the development of their innovation and entrepreneurial potential, or the ability to draft proposals to request funding. Those are skills which can help a researcher evolve, both within and outside academia.

There is still a considerable gap between the success rates of EU-13 and EU-15 countries. Will the new MSCA make it easier for researchers from EU-13 countries to receive funding?

Claire Morel: There is indeed still a gap in the participation and success rates of EU-13 in MSCA- and more generally in Horizon 2020. EU 13 countries, and what we call the “Widening countries” are still underperforming in MSCA. This is, however, not a specificity of the MSCA, but a more general problem induced mainly by the framework conditions.

Claire Morel: There is indeed still a gap in the participation and success rates of EU-13 in MSCA- and more generally in Horizon 2020. EU 13 countries, and what we call the “Widening countries” are still underperforming in MSCA. This is, however, not a specificity of the MSCA, but a more general problem induced mainly by the framework conditions.

To tackle this issue, the MSCA will continue to offer a series of measures in support of “widening countries”:

  • dedicated support for National Contact Points in widening countries to improve guidance, boost participation and help them make a better use of MSCA as a tool to attract excellent researchers and in particular their diaspora;
  • further promote the use of European Structural and Investment Funds to top-up the EU contribution in MSCA-Cofund action or to fund researchers who are recipients of the MSCA “Seal of Excellence” (ie who have a high score and are on the reserve list);
  • a pilot project for Widening Fellowships for excellent researchers not funded through the MSCA, willing to undertake an individual fellowship in a “widening country”. The two first pilot calls have led to a significant increase in successful applications for widening countries.

The Commission aims to reinforce these measures under the next programme and in particular, to establish a successor to the Widening Fellowships initiative, which has proved its success. Besides, we see that some of the current actions are contributing to bring back talents to “Widening Countrie”. A large share of MSCA researchers from some Widening Countries are using Individual Fellowships to return to their country of nationality

Under HorizonEurope “missions” will be introduced. Missions are a ‘portfolio of excellence-based and impact-driven R&I actions across disciplines and sectors to achieve a measurable goal within a set timeframe.’
– Will MSCA be linked to the new mission-approach, too?
– If so, given that MSCA follow a bottom-up and open-thematic approach, how would this be brought into conformity with the missions’ strong thematic focus?

Claire Morel: The Commission has started to regularly organise thematic clusters of MSCA researchers working on similar research topics to give them the opportunity to present and share the result of their research work with sectoral DGs and discuss how they can contribute to their expert and legislative work. We are planning to organise such cluster meetings in the areas covered by the Missions and to target specific subjects of interest to the Mission Boards.

If we take as an example the Cancer Mission, we organised an MSCA cluster meeting in May 2020 on the most common cancers in European patients and their epidemiological significance. Since 2014, more than 400 MSCA research projects in the field of cancer have been funded, representing around 1400 researchers (PhD and postdoc) and a large number of new doctoral programmes implemented by universities, research centres and other non-academic partners. It means that despite its bottom up character, MSCA can usefully contribute to the work of the Missions. MSCA networks of researchers and alumni can be mobilised and consulted by the Missions on specific topics of interest. And MSCA can also support the development of skills and training needed for the achievement of the Missions.

What will be done under HorizonEurope to increase the participation of businesses in MSCA?

Claire Morel: Universities increasingly see doctoral candidates as potential researchers within but also outside of academia. Doctoral candidates see themselves as potentially mobile between academia, industry, government and other sectors. Through MSCA they are exposed to the non-academic sector and are developing skills which are needed outside academia. A number of mechanisms have been established over the years to increase the participation of non-academic partners in the MSCA, such as the industrial doctorates, which were introduced in 2014, and bring together universities, research institutes and other sectors (industries, businesses, SMEs…) from across the world to jointly train doctoral candidates. However, the number of industrial doctorates has remained too low, and in the future, we are thinking of offering new incentives to those applying for this type of doctorates, for example by increasing funding, or making these partnerships easier to implement.

We are also inciting postdoctoral researchers applying for individual fellowships to organise placements in enterprises, and other non-academic organisations. To motivate them further, we are envisaging in the future offering longer fellowships to those researchers who will plan to have stronger cooperation with enterprises. We are also closely exploring ways to enhance the links between applicants and the business world and particularly SMEs through, inter alia, Enterprise Europe Network and the SME Innovation Associate initiative.   

What do you expect from an excellent IF-proposal? Could you give applicants some advice?

Claire Morel: The competition for Individual Fellowships (Postdoctoral fellowships in the future) is particularly fierce. Every year we fund around 1.500 fellowships out of 10.000 applications. In order to have good chances to be selected, excellent applications need to stand out, to demonstrate their innovative dimension, the quality of the training suggested, of the supervision. The applicant needs to demonstrate how s/he will disseminate the results of his/her research to different target audiences, and how s/he will contribute to achieving greater societal objectives.

In concluding, let me emphasise that excellence is expected across all the different criteria that are evaluated. Participants need to carefully read the Guide for Applicants and make sure that all evaluation criteria, and sub-criteria, are addressed.   

Background Information: The Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA)

The MSCA-programme supports excellent fundamental research through the mobility of researchers. Until the end of 2020, approx. 65.000 researchers will have benefitted from MSCA under Horizon2020[1]. Other than the programmes responding to specific societal challenges MSCA is open to any topic. Researchers at all stages of their career, from doctoral students to experienced professors, can apply for funding and use the grant to do research on another university or research organization. Until the end of 2020, the MSCA are divided into different sub-actions addressing different target groups, such as early-stage or advanced researchers.

So far, there are 5 actions under MSCA:

  • Innovative Training Networks (ITN)
  • Individual Fellowships (IF)
  • Research and Innovation Staff Exchange (RISE)
  • European Researchers‘ Night (NIGHT)

[1] Horizon2020 Interim Evaluation, SWD(2017) 221 final, p. 133