How to ensure your Horizon 2020 proposal has impact




1. the action of one object coming forcibly into contact with another. “there was the sound of a third impact”

2. a marked effect or influence. “our regional measures have had a significant impact on unemployment”



1. come into forcible contact with another object. “the shell impacted twenty yards away”

2. have a strong effect on someone or something. “high-interest rates have impacted on retail spending”

The impact section in a Horizon 2020 proposal causes a lot of problems for writers of Horizon 2020 projects. This has been a common problem for many people, how do you quantify the impact that research will have? Research by its very nature is about investigating the unknown, how do you know what impact the unknown will have?

An oft-cited example of this very problem is the development of the laser, looking back now the application and impact of the laser is obvious. But at the time of development, the potential use was unknown. In fact soon after Theodore Maiman built the first laser his assistant Irnee D’Haenens joked that the laser was “a solution looking for a problem”.

The context under which we are funding research now is different from the public research funded in the 1950’s and 1960’s that lead to the development of the laser and other game-changing innovations such as the transistor and computer. These all grew out of heavy corporate and government funding after the Second World War and in a time of cold war tensions. The mind set was optimism after the wide spread destruction of the war, tempered by the possible destruction by nuclear weapons.

Now we have optimism from the technological revolution tempered by several global challenges such as climate change, security, resource scarcity, and population growth.

Changing your perspective to improve your impact

Our mind set also needs to adapt to one that understands the political, economic, and global challenges that we face today. We are in a time where we need to do more with less, thus research-based innovation is deemed more important and more pressing for society that discovery-based research. People will argue that without research money going towards discovery we may miss something important. But innovation serves discovery just as well, the innovation of the microscope enabled us to discover bacteria for example.

This seems a long way round to arrive at advice on how to improve your impact of your proposal. But the impact your idea will have starts with how you’ve developed your idea. Your framework for Horizon 2020 has to be one of developing a market solution to cope with societal problems we face today. If you are struggling to describe your impact it may be because your idea, in its current form, isn’t right for Horizon 2020.

Under previous research programmes the research question came first, under Horizon 2020 the market need and innovation comes first, and you then have to engineer back to the research question. The chicken no longer comes before the egg when developing your idea for your proposal. And this is in fact, a difficult culture shift for many researchers and research entities to achieve, and is probably one of the biggest unintended consequences that Horizon 2020 has caused.

Changing the way you need to think is a massive task, whole industries exist trying to help people change ingrained behaviour patterns. Horizon 2020 moved the focus to providing impact for citizens, rather than delivering grants for research. Impact was always there under previous research programmes, but you didn’t have to be so concrete in measuring it, you could be vague and talk about potential rather than quantifying your results immediately.

This is the paradigm that we are working under and we can’t reverse the change now, and two stage proposals won’t help either. You can’t suddenly get people to think more about the impact by changing the process of application. And in fact, you now introduce another problem that people don’t think about how they will execute their idea until a few months later. This delay means you lose momentum; you have to come back to the proposal, start it up again and work out how you will deliver your idea and impact. There is a very real danger that you were overoptimistic at stage 1, and now run into problems when thinking about delivery in stage 2.

As a researcher or research organisation, what can you do?

The first thing is to accept that the rules of the game have changed, research funding is a political tool and while there may be some softening of the evaluation, we won’t be going back to the days of earlier research programmes. Unfortunately, Horizon 2020 hasn’t been designed for discovery-based research, it is designed for innovation-based research.

You’ll need to develop your ideas more before they are submitted not less. To understand if your idea has impact and is innovative, you’ll need to start at the impact you want to achieve and work backwards. If your idea has been developed to achieve a certain impact, then it is easier to show the impact you are going to have. It really is that simple.

Research-based innovation requires an innovation strategy

Innovation is a different process from discovery and you’ll need an innovation strategy for your research organisation. Without an innovation strategy, your efforts may become a mix of different best practices, and it may be difficult for you to identify which ones are most efficient.

Your capacity for innovation comes from having a coherent set of process and structures that support how you search for novel problems and solutions. How you turn ideas into business concepts, product designs and select which research ideas are put forward for funding.

There are four essential challenges in creating and maintaining an innovation strategy.

  • Define how you expect innovation to create value for your organisation.
  • Then create a high-level plan showing how you will allocate resources to developing innovation.
  • Next you need to manage trade-offs, because in large organisations every business function will want to serve their own interests.
  • Lastly you need to understand that your innovation strategy will evolve over time.

Remember a strategy isn’t a process, a strategy is a way you’ll approach a particular challenge or goal. Your strategy will be unique to you and your organisation, it will need to serve your needs, this is why you shouldn’t copy innovation strategies from other companies. You need to create a strategy unique to you.

And strategies need to change and evolve because they need to react to external and internal forces around you. Your process to select ideas isn’t coming up with great ones? Throw it out and choose a different process, the important point is that your strategy is to use a process that achieves the best result.

The research organisations that continue to win under Horizon 2020 won’t be the ones that complain about the low failure rates and difficulties in defining the impact. They will be the ones that adapt to the situation and rise to the challenge.

Ask yourself if you are not winning; is it really the system or you that is the problem?

Because somebody is winning, what are they doing that you aren’t?


I provide coaching and mentoring to help you develop your Horizon 2020 project. Contact me by using the form below.

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