EU Widening countries still lag far behind research infrastructures calls

21 Jun 2023 | News

A new report highlights structural problems and bottlenecks that are holding back progress in building up capacity and strengthening the scientific systems in eastern Europe

The Karolina supercomputer in the Czech Republic, part of the e-INFRA CZ Czech national e-infrastructure. Photo: Government of the Czech Republic

Widening countries have made some progress but they still lag significantly behind western member states in the number of research infrastructures they host. And the evidence from recent infrastructure-related calls is that the gap is not about to close any time soon, with widening countries having submitted no, or few applications to the relevant EU programmes in 2021 – 2022.

According to an analysis by RICH Europe, a seven-year project aimed at supporting the national contact points (NCPs) for research infrastructures, with the exception of Portugal and Greece, Widening countries are unlikely to derive much benefit from the €2.5 billion dedicated to research infrastructures in the Horizon Europe research programme.

Of €468.8 million distributed under this call since 2020, all Widening countries combined have been awarded €58.82 million, roughly 12.5%.

Organisations based in Widening countries are involved in 319 selected projects of a total of 1,412, which is less than a quarter

These results are worrying, says Ian Gauci Borda, Malta’s NCP for Widening, ERA, Health, and Research Infrastructures and co-author of the RICH Europe report. If the trend continues the gap between Widening countries and the rest of the EU will continue to grow. 

“There needs to be little tweaks to the next [Horizon Europe] work programme [2025 - 2027] to safeguard a little bit the Widening countries and give them the space that they need to actually grow, because otherwise we are going to remain with the same problems,” Gauci Borda said. 

On the map

The report highlights six reasons why the disparity is baked in. For a start, many research infrastructures calls are not aimed at devising new initiatives, but in backing projects that have already made it onto the roadmap of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI), which selects specific high priority projects.

“Imagine I represent a research facility in Malta, I have a lab and a lot of equipment that can be used and I would like to start a research infrastructure,” Gauci Borda said. “But there needs to already be a framework, you need to already be within the ESFRI roadmap. But most people don’t even know that ESFRI exists.”

One suggestion for changing is this is for Widening countries to do a better job of mapping their existing research facilities and analysing their potential. As things stand, almost half of the Widening countries do not have a national roadmap for research infrastructures, or have an outdated roadmap. This means that even at the national level, they are not geared up to identify the type of research facilities they have nationally and regionally.

A slightly more ambitious suggestion made by the report is to give Widening countries a leg-up by mimicking support systems that are in place in other areas of Horizon Europe, for example, the European Research Area Fellowship initiative under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions.

In this case, researchers who apply for regular MSCA Postdoctoral Fellowships but just miss out on the final cut are able to get alternative funding to carry out research at an institution in a Widening country. Gauci Borda said it would be relatively easy to replicate this type of system under the research infrastructures calls, although it would come down to there being enough in the budget. 

Another recommendation is to hold more public awareness events, with existing research infrastructures in Widening countries taking a lead here. Gauci Borda notes individual researchers are likely to look first to Horizon Europe’s pillar two with its thematic clusters when searching for funding, as it is easier to understand. The idea of looking at the Widening pillar comes later. Research infrastructures are even further off the radar. 

Gauci Borda hopes to present these recommendations at upcoming meetings on research infrastructures, and says they can act as a guide for Widening countries when negotiating the next Horizon Europe work programme, and could also feed into the design of the next framework programme. 

In the spotlight

A two-day conference in Lund this week organised by the Swedish presidency of the Council of the EU this week highlighted the importance of shared research data infrastructures. 

A declaration, presented by Swedish education minister Mats Persson, described their role in managing, sharing and reusing data, which is seen as crucial to improving the EU’s research and innovation performance. 

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