International cooperation makes the Baltic Sea region a science powerhouse

17 Dec 2018 | News

Researchers, industry and policy makers in the Baltic Sea region look to strengthen ties, exploit the economic value of big science labs and mitigate the effects of brain drain

Rolf Greve, director general at the ministry of science in Hamburg Germany, speaking at the conference The Baltic Sea Region - A Science Powerhouse in Brussels

Innovation stakeholders in the Baltic Sea region, gathered at a conference organised by the Baltic Science Network and the Baltic TRAM project in Brussels, made their case for strengthened cooperation between research and industry which could help better exploit the economic value of big science labs and mitigate the effects of brain drain.

The conference called for more national and European support to capitalise on the potential of big science projects to drive innovation, and for improved policies that would help the region to use the strengths of both new and old member states in order to boost innovation and bridge Europe’s innovation gap.

The Baltic Sea region is home to large research infrastructures including the DESY synchrotron, the XFEL next-generation X-ray machine and the European Spallation Source, all of which have been the home of scientific and technological breakthroughs and which can provide resources that could underpin innovation. But this will rely on a more even distribution of excellence, evidence-based policy, smart specialisation and more efficient cooperation between research facilities and industry.

To foster deeper relationships, research infrastructures in the region have teamed up to form Baltic TRAM (Transnational Research Access in the Macroregion), an EU project funded through structural funds to improve transnational access to big science labs. The project has also helped research infrastructures to secure collaborations with industry and improve their technology transfer capabilities.

The Baltic Science Network (BSN) is another EU project funded through structural funds that provides policy makers in the Baltic Sea region with advice on how to develop and implement science policy. The concerted policy efforts would help “intensify cooperation and enhance the competitiveness of the EU’s Baltic macroregion,” said Rolf Greve, director general at the ministry of science in Hamburg Germany.

The Baltic Sea region is one of the four so-called macroregions in the EU, a form of association which member states can use to boost cooperation and economic growth. Such initiatives are not always successful, partly because they can be insufficiently funded and managed, but they are still viewed by some as a good tool for fostering economic growth. “The EU concept of macroregions is the sleeping beauty of research and innovation policy,” said Greve.

“The energetic bottom-up approach of macroregions are today a role model for successful multilevel governance,” said Greve.  

Initiatives in the Baltics have become “a role model for regional cooperation,” said Signe Ratso, deputy director-general for research and innovation at the European Commission.

This view was echoed by Lithuanian Minister for Education and Science Jurgita Petrauskienė, who argued that countries in the Baltic Sea region needed to focus on innovation to boost economic growth. “Such joint efforts make it happen,” said Petrauskienė.

For Lithuania, the BSN is a “strategic platform to strengthen innovation and competitiveness,” Petrauskienė said.

Robert Feidenhans'l, chairman of the European XFEL management board said, “Large research infrastructures cannot be built by one country alone.” Feidenhans'l argues that research infrastructures need to set up international strategies for technology transfer and industrial applications. 

As one case in point, researchers at DESY have “doubled resources put into tech transfer over the past two years,” said Christian Harringa, the synchrotron’s administrative director. These technology transfer efforts have been accompanied by an increase in international partnerships with industry and other research infrastructures.

“The achievements of DESY could not have been made without international cooperation,” Harringa said.

Equipment for hire

In addition to generating scientific excellence, large science labs must make sure they are financially sound and can compete in the ‘research as a service’ business.

Big science labs can ensure economic sustainability by renting out equipment and staff for corporate research. However, in most labs only about 5 to 15 per cent of available operational time is used by industry, partly because infrastructures are not well marketed and companies are not aware they can access these resources.

Some consultancies are stepping in to fill that gap. Research infrastructures “are immature in service offering and that’s why they use intermediaries such as us,” said Nikolaj Zangenberg, a director at the Danish Technological Institute. “Industry needs to be educated as well, in saying what they would need in the future,” Zangenberg said.

The Baltic TRAM is now working on projects to promote international collaboration between research labs and industry. One aims to support intermediary companies that help SMEs to benefit from the equipment and expertise of scientists at research infrastructures.

This project will be followed up by “Science Link Portal,” an online platform where science labs can list the research services companies can buy. “It’s an Amazon for scientists,” said Uwe Sassenberg, project leader at the Baltic TRAM. The platform will be complementary to those companies that are already successful as intermediaries between research and industry.

Making synergies work

The success of big science labs plays an important role in keeping R&D investment high up political agendas in the region and to “keep taxpayers willing to substantially support our work,” Harringa said.

The role research infrastructures can play in the economy will be an important consideration in negotiations for Horizon Europe, the EU’s next research and innovation programme, said Philippe Froissard, deputy head of the research infrastructures unit at the European Commission.

The EU wants big science labs to generate greater economic impact. According to Froissard, that can only be achieved by opening them up to external researchers and industry “regardless of their origin”, but also by “avoiding duplication” of work done in other labs.

There has been a long debate in the EU over how to make research infrastructures sustainable, and how to plant them in poorer regions of the continent where they can be engines for closing Europe’s innovation gap.

EU officials say the issue of funding synergies is one of the biggest challenges of Horizon Europe. The commission has yet to find a good way of increasing R&D investment in member states by creating a mix of funding sources, after previous attempts have not been so successful.

To make funding more readily available for research, the European Commission wants to make all types of EU funds compatible with its next big research programme, Horizon Europe. “We need to form better links [between] structural funds and Horizon Europe,” said Maive Rute, deputy director-general at the Commission’s Joint Research Centre.

Rute has also called for reforms at national level, as most EU member states are falling behind the target set by the European Commission to spend three per cent of GDP on research by 2020. Member states should be “pushing forward with structural reforms in research and innovation systems,” she said.  

From ‘brain drain’ to ‘brain circulation’

The meeting heard some countries in the Baltic Sea region would still have a difficult time increasing the economic impact of their research infrastructures, even if enough funding was made available. That is because they have been severely affected by brain drain - and funding alone is not enough to lure researchers back. 

Researchers who return to their home countries do it for two reasons: the enhancement of work conditions and access to funding, said Žilvinas Martinaitis, partner and research manager at the Lithuanian consultancy Visionary Analytics. “We forget how great it is to live in Europe.”

But others argued that, nowadays, successful collaborations between research and industry relies on the “constant motion” of researchers, with Tomasz Jałukowicz, chief expert for strategy and analysis at Poland’s ministry for science and higher education saying, “Mobility is no longer about moving from point A to B.”

But, perhaps more important than funding, openness and access to collaborative networks plays a key role in reducing innovation divides and reversing brain drain. That is why the gap between countries where both funding and collaboration opportunities are available, and those where they are not, “just keeps growing,” said Martinaitis.

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