Innovation and research careers on the table as Commission plans the future of Widening

28 Sep 2023 | News

A debate on how the EU’s Widening measures, which aim to close the east/west innovation divide, should be reformulated in the next framework research programme is heating up, with the Commission already hinting at possible changes

From left to right, Manuel Aleixo, head of unit, ERA and Innovation, DG RTD, European Commission; Ladislav Krištoufek, vice rector for research, Charles University; Václav Velčovský, director general, EU Operational Programmes section, Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, Czech Republic; Florin Zubașcu, executive editor, Science|Business

Improving research careers and access to innovation funding are two key areas the European Commission will focus on in future efforts to bridge the EU’s east/west research performance gap and improve on the Widening measures that were set up under the €95.5 billion Horizon Europe programme.

These are among a number of issues to reflect on in shaping Widening measures for Horizon Europe’s successor programme, says Manuel Aleixo, head of the European Research Area and Innovation unit at the Commission’s research directorate. 

The participation rate of companies from Widening countries in the European Innovation Council’s start-up and SME funding support programme, the EIC Accelerator, will be one area under scrutiny. The Commission is now looking into a pilot initiative to try to boost the number of applications to the EIC Accelerator from Widening country start-ups, Aleixo said.

So far under Horizon Europe, 36 proposals from companies in the 15 Widening countries have received a total of €77 million from the EIC Accelerator. In comparison, companies from the 12 non-Widening EU countries have received a combined €730 million for 318 successful projects, according to the EU’s Horizon Dashboard.

“Are there no companies in Widening countries that are willing, capable or interested in applying to the accelerator? Of course there are,” Aleixo said. “We are just not getting that pipeline there, so we need to work on that,” he told the Science|Business Widening conference in Prague this week.

At the same time, the Commission wants to see more progress made in improving the careers of researchers. In July, it put forward a proposal for a new European framework for research careers, aimed at increasing contract stability, recruitment processes and working conditions. But Aleixo said this issue needs to be addressed in a “much stronger way”. 

Catching up

As several speakers underlined, research career structures is a key area where improvements are required if Widening countries are to catch up on research and innovation performance. 

Manuel Heitor, former science minister of Portugal and current director of the Technology Policy Lab at the University of Lisbon, noted that investment in people has been a vital element in Portugal improving its science system over the past four decades.

The number of researchers in Portugal reached 11 per thousand people in 2021, compared to 7.4 per thousand in 2015. In the early 1990s the figure was well below 4 per thousand.

Similarly, Allen Weeks, director general of the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI), one of the most advanced laser-driven nuclear physics research facilities, which has bases in three Widening countries, said reducing the EU’s geographical research and innovation gap is not “super complicated”, but rather a “numbers game”.

“The whole Widening comes down to research careers,” he said. “It comes down to people: this is the main common ingredient in this. We simply need more people in this field.”

There is a huge disparity in the number of researchers per head of the population in the EU’s 13 newest member states, compared to the 14 older members. Increase the number of researchers in Widening countries, and it will go a long way to balancing out performance, Weeks said. 

Quality not quantity

Another focus of the Commission as it reviews the Widening measures will be to weigh quality over quantity, Alexio said, pointing to Teaming, one of the main instruments in the Widening programme, which aims to create or update centres of excellence.

These centres are made up of partners who have a shared research goal. They involve pairing institutes in Widening countries with stronger institutes in non-Widening member states.  

The centres have generally been considered a success in closing the R&D gap, but Aleixo suggested it might be appropriate to focus on improving the existing centres, rather than forming more. 

“At some point there has to be a limit on the number of centres that we create,” he said. “Should we not rather talk about […] what kind of support we need for the sustainability of the [current] centres of excellence. This is, I think, a crucial issue for the future and for reaping the benefits over the years of these investments that have been made.”

This feeds into the ongoing debate over whether moves to promote excellence in Widening countries are undermining excellence elsewhere, because they are funding lower quality projects.

Several speakers were quick to dispel this idea, saying that excellence exists all across the EU, albeit it is not evenly distributed. 

The source of this discord was the toxic debate around the Horizon Europe negotiations in 2018 and 2019. There was a divide in member states, with representatives of richer nations informally calling themselves “friends of excellence” while Widening countries were calling for levelling up measures and an emphasis on closing the research gap. 

“This was not a nice thing to see,” Aleixo said. “A large part of this conversation today is still a part of that negative dynamic. I would like to see a different type of dynamic during the next negotiations.”

There are now questions over the framing of Widening measures, which by their very nature divides the EU.

“We need to start talking about “inclusiveness” instead of Widening, said Mateusz Gaczyński, deputy director of the department for innovation in Poland’s Ministry of Education and Science. 

“Inclusiveness means we are not only concentrating on the issue of how to have more Widening country teams in the programme, but about how to include the competences that are needed to deal with the social, economic, climate and digital challenges we all will face,” said Mateusz. 

“We don’t want to talk about Widening because it creates a kind of ghetto. In Poland, we want to participate on equal terms with the other countries,” Mateusz said. Poland will put the idea of inclusiveness high on its agenda when negotiating the next research framework programme, which will begin in 2028. 

Similarly, there is unrest over the fact that most Widening measures require the participation of non-Widening partners. 

For Zlatuše Novotná, head of strategic partnerships at the Central European Institute of Technology and the coordinator of Alliance4Life, a partnership of life science institutions and universities from Widening countries, said it is time to start talking about empowerment, rather than support. “At Alliance4Life, we don’t just want to be followers all the time, we want to be leaders in R&I,” she said. 

“For this, we would suggest to the Commission to create Widening schemes in which there is no longer an obligation for non-Widening country partners to be members of consortia. We have our own centres of excellence already in place that are able to lead consortia themselves,” said Novotná.

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