Ukraine’s research and innovation community eyes a better future

22 Nov 2022 | News

Despite continued shelling, perspectives are shifting to the longer-term and moving closer to the rest of Europe. ‘We cannot rebuild Ukraine unless we also invest in research and innovation,’ deputy minister for research and innovation Andrii Vitrenko tells Science|Business

EU-Ukraine delegations discuss Horizon Europe participation

EU and Ukrainian delegations held their first joint Horizon Europe committee meeting. Photo: Olga Polotska / @OPolotska / Twitter

Ukrainian researchers are planning for a brighter future for their country, despite ongoing bombing and electricity shortages.

A delegation from Ukraine’s research community, led by first deputy minister for education and science, Andrii Vitrenko, came to Brussels last week for the first joint meeting on research and innovation with the European Commission. 

The meeting centred around continuing to support the country, as the full-on Russian invasion drags into its tenth month. Since February, the EU has set up multiple schemes for Ukrainian researchers and opened the doors to its Horizon Europe research programme, for free.

With the war continuing, the priority in the country remains combatting acute threats to people’s safety and keeping basic services running. For the science and education ministry, the top three priorities are to ensure the safety of research and academic staff during shelling, keep electricity supply running as Russia targets power plants, and to support the mental wellbeing of researchers, teachers and students.

In the thick of conflict, the government and researchers are beginning to think about a post war future, and they believe research and innovation will be crucial to the recovery of the country. “We cannot rebuild Ukraine unless we also invest in research and innovation,” the deputy minister for research and innovation Andrii Vitrenko told Science|Business.

Olga Polotska, executive director of the National Research Foundation of Ukraine, believes it’s time to start planning the future of a free Ukraine. The war continues, but many researchers are in their labs and desks working.  

“Strange as it may seem, it’s like that,” said Polotska. “It’s just the time to start discussing all sorts of support for the recovery of Ukraine. Otherwise, there will be a lot of time wasted. The war has already thrown us back in many aspects.”

Steps have been made. Research and education have made it into the latest draft of the country’s recovery plan. At EU level, Ukraine is now part of Horizon Europe and has a dedicated roadmap for its integration to the European Research Area (ERA), and due for an update that will be the ministry’s priority in 2023. The next step will be setting up a Horizon Europe office in the country. All this to pave the way for Ukraine to be contributing to European research in the near future. “I hope we will become an equal member of the European Research Area,” Vitrenko said.

Wartime research budget

This year, Ukraine’s entire research and innovation budget was diverted to help the war efforts. But in 2023, the government is putting some of the money back.

The wartime research budget will have a strategic focus on meeting the demands of the country, including defence needs. The goal, according to Vitrenko, is to make researchers part of the effort to stop Russia’s aggression.

The national foundation managed by Polotska will get just 40% of the budget it was meant to receive this year. This will be spread across three priorities: finalising three-year projects that started in 2020, completing the selection procedure for 2021 calls, and launching a strategic bottom-up call for short-term projects contributing to the recovery of Ukraine, with hopes for projects in areas such as new materials, health and the Green Deal.

To fill the remaining gaps in financing, the foundation has started fundraising, inviting individuals who care about science and research organisations to donate. The raised funds will go directly to researchers, following decisions from the foundation’s scientific council.

But for now, everyone understands belts will have to be tightened in the next few years. The ministry hopes international collaboration will help compensate for some of the loss in research capacity. Horizon Europe, although not a low-hanging fruit, is particularly appealing, as Ukraine eyes a future in the EU.

Supporting researchers in Ukraine

The government is restarting the research and innovation machine in the country but hopes financial support from abroad will continue flowing.

Grants set up by institutions abroad have largely targeted researchers and academics that fled the country. Many organisations are reluctant to set up schemes for those who stayed, because it is more difficult administratively. But those rebuilding Ukraine now need the most support. The delegation brought this up in the meeting with the Commission, and it was agreed to shift the focus to provide more support for those remaining in Ukraine and keeping remaining projects and infrastructures running, Vitrenko said.

The creation of the Horizon Europe office will be a focal point in working out what needs to be done and communicating this to the Commission. Discussions on what support can be provided through EU funds will also continue.  

One future priority will be research infrastructures, once schools are rebuilt. There were preliminary plans for setting up a network of research infrastructures before the war and now this is at the top of the agenda. According to a leaked Horizon Europe draft work programme for research infrastructures, the Commission plans to launch a call next year on  “assessing the post-war state of research infrastructures in Ukraine.”

But Polotska notes that researchers’ needs during wartime cannot be generalised. Some are in worse situations than others. Parts of Ukraine remain under Russian occupation. Some researchers have lost their homes or labs, others no longer have contact with their research groups. Some are on the front line. Some fled abroad. The goal right now is to support the most vulnerable, and enable those that fled the country to come back. The only thing everyone needs is more and better military equipment to help defend the country.

Eventually, Polotska hopes Ukraine’s research community can get back on its feet and start to attract researchers from abroad to temporarily stay in the country, to encourage networking and further integration with the global research community. She says she’s a dreamer. “It’s a cliché, but even the worst events open a window of opportunity.”

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