EU Missions are a new tool under the Research & Innovation (R&I) funding programmes to bring concrete solutions to some of our greatest challenges. This is why the EU Mission: ‘A Soil Deal for Europe’ aims to protect and restore soils, a precious resource essential for life. In the EU, between 60-70% of soils are considered unhealthy. This is in part due to unsustainable practices, growing population pressure, changes in consumption patterns and climate change. The EU Mission: ‘A Soil Deal for Europe’ will engage citizens and stakeholders across sectors and territories to protect soils in Europe leading the transition to healthy soils by 2030.
The European Research Executive Agency (REA) will implement the research projects funded to support the EU Soil Mission, working closely with the European Commission’s Directorate General for Agriculture (AGRI), which has overall responsibility for the Mission. In this exclusive interview we sat down with Kerstin Rosenow, Head of Unit for Research at AGRI, and Paul Webb, Head of Department for Green Europe at REA and asked them to clarify key aspects of the EU Soil Mission call for proposals for the benefit of future applicants.
- What are the objectives of the EU Soil Mission’s call for project proposals by 24 March 2022?
Kerstin Rosenow: The Mission’s goal is to establish 100 living labs and lighthouses to lead the transition towards healthy soils by 2030. The Mission also aims to reduce desertification, soil sealing, pollution and erosion, conserve soil organic carbon stocks, protect soil biodiversity, increase soil literacy and the re-use of urban soils, develop a harmonised framework for soil monitoring in Europe, as well as reducing EU’s footprint on soils.
The current call open for proposals until 24 March 2022 aims at building a solid basis for the implementation of the Mission. For instance, projects will need to identify the drivers of land management and degradation, further develop soil health and functions indicators, and identify knowledge gaps. This call will also finance research to understand the link between soil health and nutritional and safe food, support businesses and farmers thanks to the identification of successful business models and the activation of soil advisors.
- What is the difference between living laboratories and lighthouses?
Kerstin: A living lab is a place for experimentation. Under the Soil Mission, living labs are partnerships between multiple and different actors encompassing researchers, spatial planners, land owners and managers (including farmers and foresters) and citizens who come together in real-life sites to co-create innovations and test solutions. This is key to making sure that research and innovation is nurtured, creating practical solutions to societal challenges faced on the ground.
In contrast, lighthouses are single sites, like a farm or a park, which showcase good practices. These are places for demonstration and peer-to-peer learning. Lighthouses are exemplary in certain good practices and can inspire other practitioners to move towards sustainable land management. In addition to lighthouse sites, researchers work together with land managers to ensure that research responds to concrete needs within the field.
In future calls, municipalities and regions will be supported with funding to co-create solutions with citizens for the protection and restoration of soil health. National engagement sessions will also be organised to equip potential applicants with the necessary information on the establishment of living labs and lighthouses.
- Why is research important for achieving the objectives of the soil mission?
Kerstin: The Soil Mission is rooted in interdisciplinary research and aims to work in tandem with several policies in other fields, from the environment to education to help land managers find solutions to switch to sustainable practices. Research is key to achieving this Mission’s objectives. As Leonardo Da Vinci once said: “We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot”.
- What is the difference between soil mission calls for proposals and other programme calls?
Paul Webb: In Horizon Europe (HE) an impact-driven approach is key to ensure that the different research and innovation investments deliver on the EU’s priorities. Missions go an extra step, through the creation of a portfolio of actions with a longer term and wider vision than other programme calls with an organised roll-out in three interconnected phases (induction and pilot phase, expansion and innovation phase and scaling up phase).
- To apply for EU funding, applicants need to be part of a consortium. What would be an example of a strong consortium?
Paul: A strong consortium is composed by partners from different countries bringing expertise in research, but also in creating innovative solutions to improve soil health and to support the living laboratories and lighthouses. The involvement of international organisations, public authorities, and citizens would be very welcome.
- Why are citizens important in research and innovation projects? And how can they become involved?
Paul: We can only make real changes to soil health if citizens are involved and supportive of the changes. Both citizen engagement and communication are key elements of the Mission and crucial for its success. Future applicants should pay special attention to reading the details of the calls to see how and when they should include citizens in the development and implementation of their research.
Citizens might directly participate in the research, perhaps even being beneficiaries (through local authorities or citizens’ organisations), or they might be the target of communication or training activities. Certainly, projects should be looking to make their results easily available to citizens in an understandable form.
- Why should a professional working in soil-related fields apply for EU Mission soil funding?
Paul: The Soil Mission has ambitious objectives and targets requiring the participation of expert researchers, and offering possibilities to research and then develop real world solutions to improve soil health. There is also the possibility to be closely involved from the start with a multidisciplinary process and a new and innovative approach.
The Mission is covered under the Horizon Europe budget, the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme with an indicative budget of 320 million euros for the first three years of the Mission. Horizon Europe offers a simple structure for accessing funding in order to remove barriers to collaborative innovation, getting new projects off the ground quickly and achieving results faster. Successful applicants will be working to solve one of the most important societal challenges of our times “to protect and restore soils in Europe and beyond”.
Successful applicants will have the possibility to enhance their network, getting access to new expertise, infrastructure and markets and in collaboration with the strongest partners in Europe and beyond in their field of research. For SME’s in particular it will foster growth, innovation and competitiveness.
- When it comes to submitting a project proposal, what are the most common mistakes made by applicants that should be avoided?
Paul: The most common mistake is a failure to carefully read the requirements of the call. We receive many applications that are missing key information that has been demanded, or which do not meet the basic eligibility rules – for example a minimum of 3 entities from Member States/Associated Countries for Research and Innovation Action/Innovation Actions
It is important to fully consider some other requirements or policy considerations that are assessed in the evaluation of projects, such as the Multi-actor approach (partners with complementary types of knowledge focusing on real problems), the inclusion of Social Sciences and Humanities, gender issues in research, etc. Finally, the work plan to achieve the objectives of the research should be credible and well justified, with a realistic implementation plan a key criteria in assessing proposals.
- What advice would you give to a potential applicant without a consortium? Do you have any practical advice that could be useful for those submitting a project proposal?
Paul: Before starting, carefully read the topic description under the Funding & Tenders (F&T portal) portal and the work programme. Check the topic conditions and documents section.
Then, analyse how your idea matches the scope of the project, covering all the expected outcomes required by the topic in the medium term and the expected impact in the longer term.
Get in contact with your National Contact Point (NCP) and/or look for potential partners. There is a funding search functionality for each topic in the F&T portal which provides information on the number of organisations looking for collaborating partners per topic
Finally, get familiar with the different sections of the template and describe concisely and in a clear manner the proposed work, paying attention to the page limit.
- Any last comments?
Paul: At the European Research Executive Agency, we are excited to be implementing research to support the Soil Mission. We hope to receive exciting and innovative project ideas, the need to improve soil health is clear, our objectives are clear, now we need top quality research to make it happen. Please take the time to take a look at the possibilities, we are looking forward to receiving your proposals.
Kerstin: It is a unique experience and a great opportunity to lead the Mission Soil Secretariat and be part of this adventure. We are changing the way we do research and innovation to make sure we deliver results with citizens and for the benefit of our society. Missions were inspired by the Apollo Missions that aimed at sending men to the moon. 61 years later we strive to keep humans safely on Earth! Good luck to all applicants!
EU Soil Mission: €95 million call opens (Apply by 27 September 2022)
Soil Mission Work Programme 2021-2022
- Publication date
- 15 February 2022
- European Research Executive Agency