Satu Huuha-Cissokho

Satu Huuha-Cissokho: How will Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions change under Horizon Europe?

13 Apr 2021

The upcoming Marie Skłodowska-Curie funding actions emphasise multisectoral and multidisciplinary collaboration more than ever and call for increased international cooperation. The most important features of the funding actions are support for high-quality research, mobility and researcher-orientedness. The scope of the actions is global. The first round of applications opens in May.

Horizon Europe, the European Union’s new framework programme for research and innovation, launches this spring. The programme will provide a total of approximately 95 billion euros of funding for research projects between 2021 and 2027. Of this sum, 6.6 billion euros is expected to be reserved for promoting the mobility of researchers under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA). Under Horizon Europe, the MSCA scheme will keep the same structure it had in the previous framework programme, though there will be some changes to the funding conditions.

The MSCA scheme is part of the first pillar of the Horizon Europe programme, which is focused on funding excellent basic research. The first pillar’s funding is entirely bottom-up, meaning that applicants decide on the research theme they are applying with. Individual researchers and networks of organisations can apply for funding from the MSCA. All actions require both academic expertise and collaboration with operators in the private sector or another non-academic sector.

The goal of the MSCA funding is to further the careers of researchers, particularly by encouraging cross-border mobility and seeking new skills from outside their current research environment. At the same time, MSCA also aims at promoting the creation and operation of high-quality doctoral and postdoctoral training programmes and collaborative research projects in Europe.

Furthermore, MSCA also emphasises excellent training, good recruitment practices, good terms of employment and nondiscrimination for researchers who have begun their careers in recent years. Finally, the principles of open science, responsible research and sustainable development are also central to the actions. The MSCA scheme funded a total of 65,000 researchers over the course of the previous framework programme, Horizon 2020, which ran from 2014 to 2020.

First round of applications opens in May

The first call for applications for MSCA funding will be published in May by the Horizon Europe programme. Preparations have been underway since last spring in the European Commission and the shadow programme committee consisting of member state representatives. MSCA will consist of five actions in Horizon Europe:

  • Postdoctoral Fellowships – individual postdoctoral researchers
  • Doctoral Networks – networks organising joint doctoral programmes
  • Staff Exchanges – research staff exchanges
  • COFUND – co-funded doctoral and postdoctoral researcher training programmes
  • MSCA and Citizens – events for large audiences during European Researchers’ Night

The first round of applications for Postdoctoral Fellowships and Doctoral Networks opens in May.

Changes to application conditions

In order to reduce the application pressure, new restrictions will be implemented on recurring applications. The Commission wants to prevent applicants from applying a second time with a virtually identical or slightly amended application and will be requiring significant changes to be made to the application and the network making it. However, this restriction will not be applied to the first application rounds in the Horizon Europe programme.

Postdoctoral Fellowships funding will only be available to researchers who received their doctorate within the last eight years. This period can be extended in the case of researchers who, during said period, have had a career break, have not been employed in research for a time or have worked in third countries. Applicants returning to Europe or working in the private sector are encouraged to apply by offering a funding period that is six months longer than otherwise. The importance of the applicant’s career development plan is also emphasised by the fact that the plan will be evaluated during the application stage and progress will be monitored during project implementation.

Doctoral Networks will be a joint action under Horizon Europe, in which industrial doctorates and joint doctorates will also be promoted. All applications will be reviewed by the same panels, and separate budgets have not been allocated for different types of doctoral programmes. Industrial doctorates within a single country will also be eligible. Additional person-months will be offered to incentivise doctoral programmes that offer industrial doctorates and joint doctorates. While the maximum number of person-months for normal doctoral networks is 360, allowing for 10 doctoral students, it can be up to 540 for private-sector networks and joint doctorate networks, allowing for 15 doctoral students. Additional funding will be available to cover networks’ administrative costs, as funding has previously been inadequate for this purpose. Additionally, counselling for doctoral and post-doctoral students will be emphasised, and joint training for counsellors is being planned to improve the quality of counselling.

Staff Exchanges will support international, intersectoral and interdisciplinary research staff exchanges that are aimed at promoting career development and giving researchers the chance to learn new skills. The action is global in nature and can be considered the most international of the framework programme’s actions. Projects under the Staff Exchanges action entail a great deal of mobility between Europe and third countries. Unlike Horizon 2020, the new programme also allows for interdisciplinary academic exchanges inside Europe. However, exchange funding will still emphasise intersectorality and mobility between Europe and third countries. Added value from the collaboration will be given weight. Project length remains four years, but a maximum of 360 person-months will now be funded.

COFUND will still fund both doctoral and postdoctoral programmes, and no big changes to funding conditions are being implemented. MSCA and Citizens will fund events for large audiences across Europe as part of the European Researchers’ Night. In the first application round, event themes that relate closely to the missions of the Horizon Europe programme will be prioritised. Funding will be awarded as a lump sum of 50,000–150,000 euros. This means that it is worthwhile to consider forming a larger network and including several events for the European Researchers’ Night in the same application, even in Finland.

The changes to the upcoming MSCA scheme will be specified further when the first work programmes and application guides are published. Finland’s MSCA National Contact Points (NCP) will host a webinar that is open to everyone on 19 April on the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions. Finland’s MSCA NCPs are experts from the Academy of Finland and the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture specialising in programme committee work and applicant support. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you need help or further information.

Finland’s MSCA NCPs
  • Satu Huuha-Cissokho, Academy of Finland
  • Saara Vihko, Ministry of Education, Science and Culture
  • Outi Ala-Honkola, Academy of Finland
  • Mervi Lipponen, Academy of Finland

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