BRUSSELS—The European Commission has launched its first funding competitions as part of Horizon 2020, Europe's flagship research and innovation program . About €15 billion will be available in the next 2 years, with yearly budgets rising gradually until the program ends in 2020.
“This is funding that is sorely needed … by researchers who, in many countries, are finding national science budgets squeezed and little money available for pan-European collaboration,” research commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn told reporters here today .
Out of €7.8 billion available in 2014, down from about €8.1 billion this year  under Horizon 2020’s predecessor program, €3 billion will fund “excellent science” projects. This includes €1.66 billion for the European Research Council’s (ERC's) elite grants for basic science.
ERC has toughened up its rules to discourage weaker applications and prevent a flood of submissions: Unsuccessful candidates whose proposals receive a low score in 2014 will be barred from applying again  in the following 2 years, instead of one. And for the first time, candidates who receive a middle score will face similar restrictions for 1 year.
The message is clear, says a senior ERC official: “Think twice before applying. Do you have the right level of excellence?” The resubmission rule will put a “damper in the system” so that candidates prepare better before applying, improving the overall quality of the pool of candidates, he says.
Since its launch in 2007, ERC has received a rising number of applications, and only about 10% of them receive grants. The volume of submissions is likely to grow even more in the coming years, as 18 months have elapsed since the last calls for proposals and many scientists face a shortage of funding from their cash-strapped governments.
The rest of Horizon 2020 is likely to face a similar flood of eager applicants. But unlike ERC, the European Commission's research directorate did not put in place measures to deter would-be grantees.
Geoghegan-Quinn acknowledged that competition would be fierce: “Only the quickest out of the blocks—and the fittest—will have a chance of securing funding in this first round,” she said. But she also encouraged “as many people as possible to prepare proposals and submit them.”
Average success rates during the Seventh Framework Programme, which started in 2007 and ends this year, were between 20% and 22%. This may fall to between 15% and 22% under Horizon 2020, Geoghegan-Quinn said. Member states could chip in and use their national budgets to fund good proposals that narrowly missed Horizon 2020's bar, a commission official suggested.
The commission has selected 12 areas  that will share about €2 billion of the funding, including personalized health and care (€549 million), transport (€375 million), and low-carbon energy (€359 million). The calls are less prescriptive than in previous years, describing challenges to be addressed and allowing “considerable freedom to come up with innovative solutions,” the commission says.
Businesses can compete for funding, too. About 23% of the money available in 2014 will go to projects aimed at boosting Europe's “industrial leadership” in areas such as space, information and communication technology, and biotechnology, with a special effort to boost the participation of small companies.