Academics in EU candidate countries want more say on shaping EU’s next research programme

20 Mar 2024 | News

Several countries from the western Balkans could end up joining the bloc during the lifespan of the next research framework programme, and there are calls for them to have input on how it is designed

Montenegro's prime minister Milojko Spajić meets EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Podgorica, 31 October 2023. Photo credits: Christophe Licoppe / European Union

EU candidate countries should have more of a say in shaping the EU’s next research and innovation framework programme, FP10, say academics from the western Balkans. 

Work on FP10, which will run between 2028 and 2035, has already begun. EU member state representatives are discussing the programme in the European Research Area and Innovation Committee and will publish their report in June, while the European Commission has assembled an advisory group to provide an opinion on it by October this year. 

All nine EU candidate countries are associated to the current framework programme, Horizon Europe, meaning they pay entry and can participate in most calls, unless limitations are specified. But when it comes to having a say in how the programmes should look, there is little direct input. 

“I do think that all the associated countries should have a say in how the programme is shaped because we are participating in it,” said Anđela Pepić head of the Centre for Development and Research Support at the University of Banja Luka in Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

“That is one criticism towards all the previous framework programmes - we actually did not have the chance to have our say in how the programmes were shaped, we were just passive observers and recipients.”

Pepić is also a programme committee member for cluster three of Horizon Europe’s pillar 2, which funds research projects under the theme ‘civil security for society’. The cluster committees meet regularly to discuss various elements including the latest calls. “I have taken part in all these meetings but only as a listener,” Pepić said. “You don't have much say if you are not from an EU member state and I think that's a pity.” 

Anastas Mishev, a professor in the faculty of computer science and engineering at the University of Ss Cyril and Methodius in North Macedonia, said it was important for candidate countries to have a say on FP10. “It will help with the alignment of our national priorities with the programme, it will help us to be better involved and to have better recognition at national level of the programme,” he said. 

It is possible that both North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina will become full EU member states during the seven-year life cycle of FP10, although EU accession is a notoriously long process. North Macedonia has been a candidate country since 2005, and it took 11 years between 2009 and 2020 for accession talks to be opened after the European Commission first recommended this step. Just last week the Commission recommended opening accession talks with Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Montenegro is perhaps the furthest along the path to accession and is working its way through 33 “negotiation chapters” that need to be completed. Some estimates from 2021 said the country could join the EU by 2025, but with only three chapters closed so far this now appears optimistic. 

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the subsequent granting of EU candidate status to Ukraine, the topic of enlargement has grown again in importance in Brussels, after years of simmering on the backburners. 

It has sparked Europe’s research community into considering the topic. Cesaer, an alliance of science and technology universities in Europe, called for consideration of an EU 30+ in its policy note on FP10 published in December last year. 

Widening the gap

EU accession is a politically fraught topic for a score of reasons. Within the research community one concern is a potential for it to stretch already tight European-level budgets. 

There have been calls from research stakeholders and members of the European Parliament to more than double Horizon Europe’s budget for FP10 to €200 billion. However, the EU last month agreed a deal to cut €2.1 billion from Horizon Europe’s 2025 - 2027 budget as part of wider negotiations on EU spending, making the €200 billion demand appear ambitious. 

EU accession should not necessarily affect FP10’s budget, with candidate countries already able to apply to the programme via association status. What could change is the demands placed on the programme’s Widening element, which is designed to help excellent scientists and entrepreneurs from countries with weaker R&I ecosystems better access the framework programme. 

The Widening initiative is not intended to act as “cohesion policy” by upgrading a country’s research ecosystem, but rather it is to help discover high-quality projects and people who have fewer links or less access to the framework programme. But if new countries with weaker R&I ecosystems than the current weakest countries in the EU join the bloc, pressure could be put on the Widening initiative to do more. 

“If R&I [performance] is not tackled effectively in pre-accession, so candidate countries are only supported when they become EU member states, there will be pressures on instruments such as the framework programme to do things it was not designed to do,” Mattias Björnmalm, secretary general of Cesaer, told Science|Business. 

“A bad outcome is if cohesion policy and related funds are not leveraged to support this. It is a win-win for both sides if done well, or a lose-lose if done badly,” he said. 

Salko Kovačić, head of the university IT centre at Džemal Bijedić University of Mostar in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina, thinks Widening measures should be rethought, as they still favour better performing countries. "We agree that excellence should be rewarded, but this programme is supposed to reduce the gap between the two groups of countries, but I wonder if it is successful? It is not realistic that a small university from Bosnia and Herzegovina can compete with the majority of universities from widening countries such as Portugal," he said. 

He suggested two ways to fix this. The first by grouping countries by size and development and allowing them to compete against each other for funding; the second by dedicating a certain amount of the Widening budget to each country or by limiting the number of projects that one partner can participate in.

Some member states, such as Denmark, have called on the Widening measures to be removed from the framework programme altogether and be funded through EU structural funds instead. 

The future of Widening measures remains up for discussion but non-EU member states will have little direct say in how they are shaped as things stand. 

National support

A consistent message from those in the western Balkans’ EU candidate countries is that there must be more national support for research and innovation. 

"My opinion is that Bosnia and Herzegovina has made progress, however, due to the lack of systemic support for improving participation in R&I projects, this progress is not satisfactory,” Kovačić said. By way of example, he said that sometimes university professors can be asked to teach more than 10 classes and there are faculties with around 100 students per employee, meaning professors do not have enough time for research. 

His concern is that politicians are not interested in solving this and funding research tends to come with long-term advantages that stretch beyond their shorter political careers. 

"Currently, if we look at research and innovation, Europe goes by high-speed train, and Bosnia and Herzegovina by bicycle. Can we reach the goal together? Of course not, but we need to start working on improving the research infrastructure,” he said. 

“The question is, do our politicians need investment in research capacities? No, because they will not benefit from the results of investment in research, but future generations will."

Niko Hyka, a doctor of medical physics and a lecturer at the University of Medicine in Tirana, says Albania also faces challenges in improving its R&I performance. “Albania has made a lot of progress over the years, but in my opinion, the situation is not as good as we want it to be. If we consider the number of academic staff and researchers in Albania, then our participation rate [in Horizon Europe] is not so good.” He says that there is a lack of experience among researchers in participating in European projects. 

Hyka also spoke of feeling bias against research and researchers from the western Balkans, saying that when he publishes papers with colleagues from the region there are fewer citations than if there is the name of a western researcher attached to it. The same goes when applying for European funding. 

“When we discuss with colleagues, we say it is good to have a western European partner because, first of all they are more experienced, but also I feel like the proposals have more chance [of being funded],” he said. The hope is that EU accession will help change this. 

In North Macedonia, there is also a need for beefing up national investment in R&I, but Mishev thinks it is not a high priority of the government. “We don’t even have a separate science ministry. We have a ministry of education and science, and the focus is mostly on primary and secondary school education,” he said. 

EU accession is not a panacea to these problems, but the hope among some academics in the western Balkans is that the more a country works towards joining the bloc, the better the country’s environment will be for supporting research and innovation. 

“My hope is that alignment with the EU brings more political stability, tighter controls on corruption, more investment in the healthcare system and other services,” Mishev said. “All of these things that help to make a country more attractive to researchers and make it easier for researchers to do their jobs.” 

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