Several countries in the south and east of Europe have improved their R&D performance, slightly narrowing the gap with richer member states. But excellence in research and innovation remains concentrated in northern and western strongholds
Policy reforms in newer member states have shown differing returns in terms of R&D performance, according to the EU’s 2021 European and regional innovation scoreboards.
Poland and Hungary, for example, have markedly different scores, despite both countries introducing extensive reforms intended to improve their standing.
Hungary’s performance has decreased compared to the EU average, while Poland has gained 14.6% on the Commission’s innovation scale since 2014.
Among other reforms, Poland has created a network of applied research institutes and set up a dedicated agency to attract home expatriate researchers, whilst reforming the higher education system through a “Constitution for science”.
The Polish government sought inspiration and advice in Finland, talking to the state-owned Technical Research Centre (VTT) to find out how large, applied research programmes can boost performance and raise levels of participation in EU funded programmes. The government also looked at the German model of funding applied research through the Fraunhofer institutes.
In Hungary, the government took a similar path, but the results have yet to become apparent in the EU’s scoreboard. Eleven universities were put in the ownership and management of private foundations whose board members will be appointed by the government, a move aimed at introducing a performance-based funding system that will improve the quality of higher education and research in Hungary.
Another law brought all the institutes of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences under the oversight of the Eötvös Loránd research network, a new agency run directly by the government. Researchers and academics have criticised the changes and raised questions about inappropriate government intrusion in higher education and research.
The scoreboard shows several countries in southern and eastern Europe have improved their R&D performance, slightly narrowing the gap with richer member states in western and northern Europe. “All EU Member States and regions are investing more on innovation and the innovation gap in the EU is decreasing,” said EU research commissioner Mariya Gabriel.
However, excellence in research and innovation remains concentrated in northern and western Europe and the Commission still labels most countries that joined the EU after 2007 “moderate and emerging innovators.”
What’s the score?
According to scoreboard, the overall innovation performance of the EU has increased by 12.5% since 2014. Cyprus, Estonia, Greece, Italy and Lithuania lead with more than 25% performance growth over the past six years.
“The EU's improved innovation performance is a very positive signal. Investing in innovation is investing in our ability to be at the technological forefront for a sustainable, digital and resilient economy and society,” said Thierry Breton, EU commissioner for the internal market.
Innovation performance has increased for 225 regions out of the total of 240 regions since 2014. There has been a process of convergence over time, with decreasing performance gaps between regions.
The most innovative region in Europe is Stockholm in Sweden, followed by Etelä-Suomi in Finland, and Oberbayern in Germany. Hovedstaden in Denmark is in fourth place, and Zürich in Switzerland comes in fifth.
The Commission is planning to use more of its structural funds to boost R&D capabilities in poorer regions and help local authorities devise so-called “smart specialisation” strategies. Member states can also use the EU’s pandemic recovery fund to invest in research and innovation projects.
“Addressing the innovation divide is critical for economic, social and territorial cohesion. Cohesion funds will continue to promote smart and place-based innovation strategies,” said EU commissioner for cohesion Elisa Ferreira.
The EU is also facing strong competition from abroad. According to its own evaluation criteria, the Commission says the EU is outperformed by Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea and the US. While China still ranks below the EU, its innovation performance has increased strongly since 2016.
The results of the international comparison come at a time when the EU is remapping its global research partnerships, in favour of stronger cooperation with countries that share the same values.
Last week, the EU and the US renewed their commitment to building closer R&D ties after four years of poor relations during the Trump administration. The Commission has also announced it is ready to welcome Canada as an associated country in its €95.5 billion research programme, Horizon Europe.
At the same time, the Commission is also bent on limiting foreign access to sensitive R&D projects and to secure technological independence from China.