Call to improve Widening programme

26 Oct 2022 | News

The European Commission is to set up a monitoring system to track attempts to level up R&D capacity across the EU. That should point the way to improving the performance of these funding schemes – with the aim of making them redundant

Widening Countries (EU Member States in green, associated countries in yellow). Photo:

In a joint response to a report by the European Court of Auditors (ECA), member states are asking the Commission to monitor the efficiency of the “widening and spreading excellence” programme in Horizon Europe.

The programme was set up under Horizon 2020 to help poorer member states boost their participation in EU research competitions. It got a significant budget boost under Horizon Europe and was expanded to cover 15 EU member states and a few countries outside the EU.

While parts of the programme seem to be effective, and are helping to bridge the gap, the auditors say member states need to buttress it with national funding and policy reforms.

The ECA report published in June analysed the outcomes of the Widening programme under Horizon 2020. It said the Commission should monitor the efficiency of funding schemes aimed at reducing the east-west research and innovation gap. The report also called on member states to speed up reforms and boost national investment.

In their response, published by the Czech presidency of the EU earlier this month, member states say the Commission should identify indicators of the impact of Widening schemes on participation in other, more competitive parts of Horizon Europe.

Maia Liisa Anton, head of research administration at TalTech, Tallinn University of Technology said the results of the audit and the response of member states are not surprising, but that the Widening programme continues to lack a clear direction of travel.

For Anton, the main goal of the Widening programme should be that it becomes obsolete, meaning all EU countries build the capacity to compete in all Horizon Europe calls, without needing specialised schemes.

Countries that joined the EU after 2004 have relatively under-developed research and innovation systems, score lower on the EU’s R&I league, and get fewer EU grants compared to countries in western Europe with long-established traditions in investing in research.

In 2020, the average investment in R&I in the EU was 2.3 % of GDP, while in the group of 15 widening countries only Slovenia and Czechia invested more than 2%.

Call for improvement

The auditors also said the Widening measures under Horizon 2020 correctly addressed the issues that underpin the research and innovation gap, but projects were not evenly distributed. Four countries absorbed 60% of all funds.

The Commission has agreed to set up a monitoring system to get a better idea of how the programme is being implemented, and to point the way to improve the performance of the funding schemes.

For Zdeněk Strakoš, coordinator of the expert group for supporting European Research Council (ERC) applicants at the Charles University in Prague, uneven participation in EU research programmes is caused by brain drain. Unless Widening countries work harder to create better framework conditions for researchers, EU measures to address the research gap will be in vain, he said 

At the same time, Strakoš said researchers in the Widening countries have to work harder and be tough on themselves before even thinking to apply for prestigious EU grants from the ERC or the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions. However, he would like to see the EU funders address the “hidden bias” that leads evaluators to favour applicants from prestigious institutions in western Europe.

Strakoš spent the 1990s in the US but came back to Czechia. Since then, he has served on several occasions as an evaluator at the ERC where he said, he saw comments on rejected applications that were worded in such a way as to discourage researchers from ever applying again. While not intentional, Strakoš says this bias exists and it should be openly addressed so researchers in the widening countries do not give up completely on the idea of getting EU grants.

In addition, current approaches to evaluating excellence may not address inequalities in opportunity across all EU member states. For example, a researcher based in Bucharest is likely to have fewer opportunities to present a paper at an international conference, than a counterpart in the Netherlands.

Exit strategy

Anton was working for the Estonian government when the Widening programme was first drawn up for Horizon 2020. When the programme was about to get an increase in its budget of less than €1 billion under Horizon Europe, to €3 billion in Horizon Europe, negotiations among member states and the Commission were on a “lethal schedule” that did not offer “an opportunity to have a deep analysis,” Anton said.

The increase caused a significant amount of controversy in Brussels. Advocates of scientific excellence said the EU should not distribute research and innovation funding based on geographical criteria, while member states that joined the bloc after 2004 wanted to find ways to get more out of the EU R&D funding pot and improve their standing in research and innovation scoreboards.

But more money is not going to make a difference if it is not invested properly, said Anton. “The budget does not matter if it’s spent on activities that are not [geared] towards the goal of widening,” she said.

The bulk of the Widening money goes to three main funding schemes. Twinning is intended to promote east-west cooperation; ERA chairs to build competencies and attract in researchers; while the Teaming scheme aims to develop scientific excellence in a particular field.

“I think that it is a really good portfolio and it can be used in a strategic way for development,” said Anton.

However, new initiatives, such as the ERA talents call, to support training and mobility of researchers across sectors, that were added under Horizon Europe are not matching the needs of the Widening countries. “We really could not see how to make use of it,” Anton said.

There is a mismatch between the seven year lifespan of the Horizon R&D programmes and the time taken for Widening measures to have a real impact. Because of this, it may be impossible to evaluate the overall impact of Widening projects under the 2014 - 2020 Horizon 2020 programme before Horizon Europe’s successor begins in 2028.

All in all, EU policy makers should devise an “exit strategy” from the Widening programmes, so researchers can compete on level ground, without needing special programmes to boost their prospects.  “Countries do not want to keep [the widening programme] forever,” said Anton.

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