Over 500 space research projects have been funded through Horizon 2020’s fundamental science pillar

Fundamental research is essential to enable the development of advanced technology. The EU funding instruments for fundamental research were created to foster scientific excellence and stay ahead in a world of growing scientific and technological competition. Within Horizon 2020, the first pillar of the EU Research and Innovation (R&I) programme for 2014-2020 focused on Excellent Science and had a dedicated budget of 24.4 B€. This effort supported enhancing world-class science in Europe notably by developing, attracting and retaining research talent as well as supporting the development of the best research infrastructures, including low Technology Readiness Level (TRL) research initiatives in the space domain.

European Research Council (ERC) grants and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) fellowships are the main instruments funding low TRL projects. This article presents the first results of an analysis of space-related projects funded by ERC and MSCA instruments. The thematic domains have been aligned with Pillar 2 “Industrial Leadership” of the H2020 Work Programme, Space Science, Space Technology, Earth Observation and GNSS.

ERC grants support scientific excellence

The ERC is the first pan-European funding body for frontier research. Set up in 2007 under the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme for Research (FP7, 2007-2013), it aims to enhance the dynamic character, creativity, and excellence of European research at the frontiers of knowledge. Scientific excellence is the sole criterion of evaluation. The ERC’s frontier research grants operate on a ‘bottom- up’ basis and applications can be made in any field of research.

Since 2007 to date the ERC has funded more than 12,000 projects and supported more than 80,000 researchers and professionals at various stages of their careers. ERC grantees have won prestigious prizes, including 7 Nobel Prizes, 4 Fields Medals, 5 Wolf Prizes and more.

300 innovative space projects have been funded by the ERC

300 space-related projects were awarded an ERC grant from 2014 to 2020 under the H2020 programme, with a corresponding sum of EU funding contributions of 612 M€.

Looking at the geographic distribution in the chart below, France, Germany, and United Kingdom[1] are the countries with the highest EU funding volumes for ERC projects. These three countries have received 60% of the total ERC funding.

Figure 1: Breakdown of EU funding contribution for ERC space projects in %, countries with a budget lower than EUR 18M (corresponding to about 3% of the total budget) are grouped in the category “Others <3%”.

90.5% of the total funding was distributed to EU countries, while 9.4% was distributed to EU associated countries, notably Switzerland, Norway and Israel. 0.1% was allocated to countries in South America (Chile). In most cases, a country’s share of EU funding is proportional to its Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

As shown in Figure 2, Space Science is the domain which received the most significant funding in terms of ERC grants, covering almost 92% of the total available budget.


Figure 2: Breakdown of % of EU funding contribution for ERC space projects per space domain for the period of 2014 – 2020.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

The MSCA champions researchers at all career stages

The MSCA is the EU’s programme for doctoral education and postdoctoral training. In addition to fund research and innovation opportunities, the MSCA equips researchers at all stages of their careers with new knowledge and skills by fostering research cooperation across borders and exposing them to different sectors and disciplines. The MSCA helps build Europe’s capacity for research and innovation by investing in the long-term careers of excellent researchers.

MSCA schemes were part of H2020 with a total budget of 6.2 B€ for 2014-2020. The programme funded more than 65,000 researchers, including 25,000 PhD candidates. 37% of the researchers came from countries outside the EU.

251 space-related projects have been supported with MSCA grants

Within the MSCA Individual Fellowship (IF) and Research and Innovation Staff Exchange (RISE), 251 space-related projects were funded with a total contribution of 63.3 M€. Although the number of projects is comparable to the number of ERC projects, the overall budget differs significantly. In the case of MSCA, there is no pre-defined funding budget for each specific scheme, as the purpose is to support researchers cover their research, living and mobility costs.

The figure below shows the breakdown of EU funding for MSCA space projects by country. The United Kingdom comes in first place and is the only country that has received more than 10 M€. Italy follows with a budget of 10 M€. France and Spain equally represent about 12% of the total EU contribution under MSCA space-related projects.

Figure 3: Breakdown of EU funding contribution for MSCA space projects in %, countries with a budget lower than 2 M€ (corresponding to about 3% of the total budget) are grouped in the category “Others <3%”.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

94.75% of the total funding was distributed to EU countries. The rest of the funds went to EU associated countries, namely Switzerland, Norway, Israel and Georgia..

Space Science is once again the domain that received the biggest proportion of funding (80% of the total).  Projects dedicated to Earth Observation and Space Technology domains follows close behind with 10.5 M€ and 7 M€, respectively. Only one project focused on GNSS, as it has already been the subject of much research  in previous decades, with the European system Galileo now operational.

Figure 4: Breakdown of % EU funding budget/contribution for MSCA space-related projects per space domain for the period of 2014 – 2020.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Space Science is well funded within general low-TRL funding programmes

More than 500 R&I projects with low TRL focusing on space have been awarded an EU grant from 2014 to 2020 under the H2020 programme. The topic of space science was the main recipient for both types of grants. Space science projects accounted for 92% and 71% of the total ERC and MSCA funding contribution to space. These results align with the main focus of these EU funding instruments: R&I excellence primarily at the low TRL level, i.e. at the level of proof of concept or demonstration of a system or innovative solution.

The outcome of this analysis reveals the high interest of the scientific community in space research, systems and applications. The space sector is undergoing an unprecedented transformation and development on a global scale. Significant technology advancements, a new entrepreneurial spirit and a renewed strategic focus, have put the space sector under the spotlight of the global innovation. The large number of funded research projects can be explained by the possibilities enabled by new tools and applications, combined with the fascination for the final frontier of space. The ERC and MSCA grants within the EU H2020 framework has proved invaluable to young researchers seeking to launch their first research projects. Additionally, this financing mechanism has enabled advanced researchers to continue their long-term research studies yielding significant scientific and state-of-the-art advances in the space domain.

The STARS*EU Consortia carried out the analysis within a service contract with DG DEFIS. Learn more about the project and scope.


[1] The United Kingdom was a member of the European Union in the period of 2014-2020, covered by Horizon 2020