The European Commission has published a study that provides new insights on the impact of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) under Horizon 2020, the former EU’s research and innovation framework programme, two years after its end.
The study covers funding instruments implemented under the first of the programme’s three pillars, ‘Excellent science’.
It assesses how the MSCA contributes to
- reinforcing and extending the excellence of the Union's science base
- consolidating the European Research Area (ERA) to make the Union's research and innovation system more competitive on a global scale
A highly attractive programme thanks to its bottom-up approach
The MSCA are highly valued for their bottom-up approach and the freedom they provide to develop research projects in any scientific area.
This approach is associated with
- the opportunity to pursue fundamental and novel research
- the potential to lead to innovative and frontier research results
- improved excellence of EU-funded research
During the public consultation carried out in the context of the evaluation, organisations representing academia and research institutions expressed their appreciation for ‘Pillar 1’ instruments.
- 80% of respondents say that Horizon 2020 encouraged excellent science
- 75% agree that the programme enabled scientific breakthroughs, higher risk research and research in emerging areas
- 84% say that it improved the skills of Europe’s researchers and facilitated mobility
- 70% state that Horizon 2020 helped make Europe more attractive to world-class researchers
Stakeholders also praised the fact that the MSCA delivered great results and boosted excellence and scientific competitiveness.
Moreover, they value MSCA for
- providing training and career development opportunities for individual researchers
- enabling cooperation with partner institutions from other countries
- promoting consortium-level training programmes
- providing privileged access to top international experts
The MSCA attracted most newcomers as organisation (53.7%) to Pillar 1, which overall presented a relatively low rate of new participating organisations.
On the other hand, the attractiveness of Horizon 2020 resulted in oversubscription. The average success rate for the MSCA was 14.4%.
To fund all high-quality proposals submitted under MSCA, the budget would have had to increase almost six-fold, by €38 billion, in addition to the budget of €6.5 billion.
Boosting researchers’ skills, careers and international mobility
Horizon 2020 strengthened researchers’ skills and international mobility, the circulation of talent and knowledge across the ERA, as well as the attractiveness of Europe to international world-class talent.
As the largest worldwide international mobility-based programme, the MSCA significantly contributes to this result by
- retaining excellent European talents in the EU
- bringing talents back and attracting competent foreign researchers to the EU
- encouraging the return mobility of fellows, particularly to ‘widening countries’
The MSCA stand out for the strong level of participation by third countries, with researchers from 160 nationalities and 139 countries worldwide. With 40% of all researchers being nationals of non-EU countries, the MSCA are the most international part of Horizon 2020.
While Horizon 2020 promoted the advancement of researchers’ careers, mobility and talent circulation, the MSCA in particular are an additional opportunity for scientists to pursue their research and develop their skills regardless of the funding available in their home countries.
The most important motivating factors to apply for MSCA under Horizon 2020 were
- the freedom and flexibility for researchers to pursue their own research agenda
- the opportunity to improve one's skills and competences
Positive impact at structural level
Beyond the impact on individual researchers, the MSCA had structural impact in terms of organisational practices and structures by enhancing
- the quality of training and supervision, which strengthened the diversification and improvement of researchers’ skills and knowledge
- career development and human resource practices, which had positive effects of the MSCA in terms of career prospects, particularly for researchers in earlier career stages
- working conditions (e.g. through the European Charter for Researchers and Code of Conduct, providing equal and inclusive opportunities for researchers, etc.).
The MSCA had a significant impact on research excellence (as well as research conditions) and innovation leading to
- higher research quality through more opportunities to conduct fundamental research
- better opportunities for interdisciplinary research
- greater research autonomy
- more international cooperation opportunities
Finally, MSCA promoted gender balance and inclusiveness both across and beyond Europe and the removal of barriers to the mobility of female researchers.
42% of MSCA fellows under Horizon 2020 were women, way above the average percentage of female researchers across the EU (34% in 2018) and other mobility-based programmes.
Efficiency, effectiveness and European added value
The MSCA were assessed positively against all the evaluation criteria analysed by the study.
- MSCA and the European Research Council, both bottom-up research programmes, stand out for the large quantity of research outputs produced, their high quality and high impact
- Pillar 1 displayed the highest number of publications, primarily thanks to the MSCA and the European Research Council
- MSCA and the European Research Council were the most cost-effective parts of Horizon 2020, with 90.9 and 85.9 publications per €10 million, respectively
In Pillar 1, the MSCA contributed the highest number of projects in the fields of artificial Intelligence and clean energy technologies.
In addition, numerous international awards and prizes were won by Horizon 2020 grantees and beneficiaries in Pillar 1, particularly by projects under MSCA and Future and Emerging Technologies.
Horizon 2020 provided funding for research, infrastructures and access to knowledge, expertise and skills that would not have been available otherwise. The programme helped pooling together a critical mass of expertise, skills and resources from different countries that would not be possible at the level of Member States, especially for consortium-based actions such as MSCA Innovative Training Networks (i.e. doctoral programmes) and Research and Innovation Staff Exchanges.
Overall, Horizon 2020 allowed to conduct larger-scale and more complex research in terms of number of scientific fields covered and methods used and involving larger number of individual researchers, particularly in MSCA Individual Fellowships.