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Horizon 2020 needs to work for all EU countries

A just-launched university lobby group wants to find new ways to recognise excellent research across the whole of the EU

Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of The Guild of European Research Intensive Universities
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A newly-launched network of European universities is calling on the EU to remove “impediments to excellence” and promote a wider distribution of Horizon 2020 research funding right across the continent.

“The spread of funding is a source of concern,” said Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of The Guild of European Research Intensive Universities, which kicked off in Brussels last Monday.

The data shows that the 10 central and eastern European countries that joined the EU after 2004 received only 4 per cent of EU funding, about the same as Switzerland alone.  

“There is a sense that more universities across the continent can benefit from Horizon 2020. We want to overcome simple binary categories around EU13 and EU15, and look much more closely at impediments to excellence at institutional and national level. I do think it’s important that we raise the game collectively,” he said.

The Guild will represent and boost the research profile of a pool of research-intensive universities that want to enhance their voice in Brussels, and to get involved in the negotiations for Horizon 2020’s successor, Framework Programme 9.

It is the product of several months of effort by universities and gets off the ground amid growing concerns that the lion’s share of grants from the ultra-competitive Horizon 2020 is being scooped by institutions and companies in the north and western parts of Europe.

The Guild joins a crowded university research lobby scene in Brussels, with EuroTech, which counts four European universities specialised in science and technology as members; CEASAR, which represents some 50 institutes; the European Universities Association, which speaks for 850 universities, and the League of European Research Universities, which covers 23 universities.

This begs the question of what the Guild – including Bologna, Göttingen, Groningen, Oslo and Jagiellonian universities as members – will do that these groups do not.

“Where we are distinct is that we have membership from right across Europe and a focus on collaboration,” Palmowski said. “A lot is at stake for research-intensive universities in the EU’s research programmes, and we need to add our voice to make the case of funding for excellent research and innovation right across Europe.”

Palmowski started his career at Oxford University before moving to King’s College London, where he taught European politics and EU integration in the Department of European and International Studies. Later, he became pro-vice-chancellor of Warwick University.

The Guild, which has 18 members from 13 countries, does not intend to lobby for any particular measures. Rather, its raison d'être is to educate and inform policymakers and regulators about the spread of excellent research and innovation wherever it exists – including in the not-so-obvious places.

Core ideas include improving and developing research teaming and twinning, two research-buddy schemes under Horizon 2020 designed to boost research institutes in Europe's lagging regions by pairing them with prestigious institutes. Not all researchers support these initiatives, with some arguing that righting the imbalance in Europe’s research systems is primarily a task of EU regional funds, the majority of which go to poorer regions.  

“Of course regional funds must be spent more effectively on research and innovation. But we also need to ensure that the Horizon 2020 ‘widening actions’ are as effective as they can be. These are relatively new, and we do have some ideas about how they can be improved. They are certainly a step in the right direction,” according to Palmowski.

Remuneration for researchers under Horizon 2020 is another issue for the Guild. Horizon 2020 rules state that salaries paid out of grants must be based on the basic local income of teaching staff and researchers. “But how can you attract an international scientist if you’re in Eastern Europe?” Palmowski asked.

With the issue increasingly in the crosshairs of politicians, the timing for a strong voice feels right.

Palmowski gives the example of Babeș-Bolyai University in Romania, which can pay a maximum of €7 per hour for to professors, and €3 per hour for top associate professors.

In an open letter sent to the country’s Prime Minister, the university said winning a Horizon 2020 grant was like taking home a gold medal of lesser quality.

“Politically, we need to find a way to respond,” Palmowski said.

The European Commission is hearing the message. Yesterday Carlos Moedas, EU Commissioner for research and innovation, acknowledged the problem in a speech given in Brussels, and vouched to “come forward with a solution in the next couple of months.”

Right time to engage

The Guild will limit membership, said Palmowski. “We’re keen not to grow too much more, and certainly not in the immediate future. And we have no plans to grow beyond 25 members in the long run.”  

In the group are three UK members – Warwick University, King’s College London and Glasgow. More have inquired about applying, with the aim of staying close to EU partners during uncertain Brexit negotiations, but the Guild does not want to become UK-dominated.

After the vote for Brexit, engaging with Brussels has never seemed so vital. “We really want our academics to engage with Brussels and the things that are being discussed here,” Palmowski said.

“We are organising policy labs on open science and big data, just to give you two examples, for next spring. But it’s also about engaging our communities back home about what is going on here: we need to think harder about how we can talk about the EU – and the clear added value it brings in R&I for instance, in ways that engage and that are understood.”

“It’s not just the Commission’s responsibility – It’s our job to come up with ideas too,” said Palmowski.

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Related subjects: Horizon 2020

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In October 2016, the Science|Network of universities, companies and innovation organisations gathered in Brussels to debate the future of EU R&D programmes. The result: A profusion of ideas, recommendations and warnings for the future of EU research and innovation.