22 Oct 2020   |   News

Baltic states want more out of Horizon Europe

Lithuania and Latvia put more into the research budget than they get out. Now they aim to boost their performance, by focusing on innovation and strengthening national networks

Latvia Lithuania

Latvia and Lithuania have long paid in more to the budget of the EU’s research programmes than they get out, but now the two Baltic states are taking steps to change that in the next research programme, Horizon Europe.

Latvia is hoping to up its game by getting the national innovation agency more involved with the programme, while Lithuania is planning to strengthen its network of national contact points, with €50 million allocated to the cause as part of the country’s COVID-19 economic stimulus plan.

Since they joined the EU in 2004, the two countries have struggled to get enough money out of the Framework research programmes to justify paying in. Lithuania, for example, pays in three times more than it receives from the programme.

From Horizon 2020, with its total budget of €77 billion, Latvia has to date received €90 million, while Lithuania has secured only €78 million. Compared to previous framework programmes, the two countries are making progress, however, it has been relatively slow.

“We cannot make three- or seven-year progress leaps because the other member states are not staying stagnant. However, compared with previous programmes, our results are slowly getting better – it’s a long-term investment,” said Brigita Serafinavičiūtė, head of the Lithuanian RDI liaison office in Brussels, which monitors EU research policy and helps Lithuanian researchers join projects.

The third Baltic state, Estonia, is in a different boat. Despite having the smallest population of the three, it has been awarded €219 million Horizon 2020, and on the back of rapid deregulation and modernisation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is one of the best performing EU13 countries, according to an EU case study.

Since joining the EU, Estonia has aligned its national research strategy with smart specialisation growth areas and directed EU regional funds to improvements in research infrastructure and entrepreneurship, among many other measures.

Serafinavičiūtė says Lithuania tends to look at Estonia to learn from its progress. But while Lithuania has also invested EU regional funds to develop research infrastructure “that many western countries would be jealous of,” research management practices have not changed much since before 2004.

A particular issue is how researchers are paid. “The west has a slightly different remuneration system, which makes the pay question a never-ending story,” Serafinavičiūtė said. “To fix the issue, we would have to have a complete overhaul of our pay system.“

Researchers are paid significantly less than they would be elsewhere, which deters them from applying for grants. With all the technical hurdles, they often believe is not worth their time drafting long applications.

“Still, there are things we can do and should do at national level, for example, increase significantly national funding for research. Hopefully, we’ll see some changes here with the new government in place,” said Serafinavičiūtė.

To address this, Lithuania is investing €50 million to boost participation in the upcoming research programme, Horizon Europe, as part of a €6.3 billion post-COVID economic recovery package. The money will be spent on twelve measures, include strengthening the network of contact points, better financing of organisations meant to attract researchers and entrepreneurs, and extra training for consultants.

For Latvia, the big issue is innovation performance. While Latvian researchers are quite actively applying for EU funding, few companies do so.

Veronika Krūmkoka of the innovation policy division of the Latvian Ministry of Economics, says researchers look to EU funding because both government and private sector R&D spending in the country is low.

Aigars Lazdiņš, a senior expert in the sector policy department of the Ministry of Economics, says the main reason few companies apply is that they are not aware of the opportunities. “[Entrepreneurs] mention that they don’t have this data and single information point for the Horizon programmes,” he said.

In part this is because the main organisation responsible for fostering Horizon participation is the Ministry of Education and Science, which focuses on academics. To change this, the country is planning to involve its innovation agency, the Investment and Development Agency of Latvia, to establish contact with entrepreneurs. 

The agency will also run a representation office in Brussels, “to foster the participation of Latvian enterprises within Horizon Europe,” said Lazdiņš.

Widening programme

Within Horizon Europe member states have agreed to increase the share of the budget that goes to ‘widening’, the part of the programme that is designed to help the EU13 R&D performance, to 3.3 per cent, up from around 1 per cent in Horizon 2020.

”It is difficult right now to say whether the boost will work but the core idea is a promising one,” said Diāna Korkliša, senior expert at the Ministry of Economics sector policy department.

Latvia hopes that through the Widening programme, it can get much needed practice in running bigger research projects, which are currently difficult to carry out in the country’s research centres because they have a different structure from those in western European countries.

“This mean Latvian institutions are often not qualified enough to do big projects, and these widening activities can help them gain experience and build competencies,” says Veronika.

Serafinavičiūtė agrees that the programme is helpful when it comes to gaining experience in coordinating and preparing projects. However, the widening  ‘stamp’ can also hurt a country‘s prospects of participating in bigger Horizon projects.

“To my mind, creating a separate programme for these countries partially widens the disparities, because they put a label on you - that you are from an underperforming country,” says Serafinavičiūtė.

Similary, she thinks using regional funds to invest in high quality research proposals that fail to secure Horizon funding, can be one step forward and two back. “While the extra funding is useful, not all of it leads to improvements, but rather to playing in our own backyard. ”

Serafinavičiūtė said the only way to effectively boost participation of newer member states is to network and raise awareness. There is no way to secure funding for big collaborative projects if you do not have partners, who can only be found through networking, something many Lithuanian researchers have not realised.

With the COVID-19 crisis moving work online, Serafinavičiūtė says networking is becoming more difficult. Meeting someone in person creates a stronger bond than email exchanges. “I am afraid we could see a return of old boys‘ clubs and consortia made up of known players. ”

The commission‘s latest plan to help underperfoming member states catch up is the revival of the European Research Area (ERA). Korkliša says that while Latvia rates the commission’s proposal positively, EU policymakers need to define more concrete actions on how to deliver the goals.

On the bright side

Despite lagging behind, EU research programmes have had long-term impact on Lithuania and Latvia’s research ecosystems.

In Latvia, the competitiveness of researchers and institutions has improved and their profile has increased on the international market. “It has been a good opportunity to collaborate and work with world-known organisations and companies, and to collaborate with them even after the projects end,” said Korkliša. It is especially important to foster cooperation in the Baltic region, where Latvian researchers have established many successful collaborations, she said.

The extra funding dedicated solely to research also helps to invest in the kind of projects that would otherwise not get funded by the government. Latvian researchers, for example, are especially interested in health, digital and space clusters in the EU research programmes.

In Lithuania, Framework programmes have influenced the way national research programmes are constructed, putting more focus on innovation. The Lithuanian entrepreneur Laima Kauspadienė has joined the governing board of the EU innovation agency, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, while Irina Borodina won the EU Prize for Women Innovators in 2019.

“We can’t say we have nothing and that nothing ever works,” said Serafinavičiūtė. “We would like to have more success stories, but these examples inspire us and prove that it is possible for Lithuanian researchers to be successful in Horizon programmes.”

“Generally speaking, we have a different outlook to western countries because of different geography, history, structures. If we are saying that diversity is the strength of Europe, then we definitely add to it,” she said.

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