Warning new rules for EU regional development funds will harm discovery research in poorer regions

19 Nov 2020 | News

Shift to using regional funds for near-market research will undermine fundamental research in countries with small national R&D budgets. The European Commission is ‘misjudging the needs of less developed regions’


New rules for using EU regional funding for near-market research will put poorer countries with limited human capital and less advanced infrastructures at a disadvantage, universities are warning, as the European Commission moves ahead with plans to ensure member states use regional development money for translation and commercialisation of research.

Currently, universities in countries with less-developed research systems depend on EU regional funds to support basic science and to hire top-level academics. With the EU’s research and innovation strategy now steering towards applied research, universities that are yet to consolidate their discovery research base fear they will lose out.

EU’s cohesion policy is slated to get €426 billion over the next seven years. The European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) is part of that broader plan and is intended to fund research and innovation activities and support small and medium-sized enterprises, and also to further EU’s ambitions in digital and the low-carbon economy.

The commission wants to prioritise support for innovation and research-industry cooperation and member states are now finalising their operational plans for spending regional funds to reflect this.

But universities in central and eastern Europe say this shift in policy will put them at risk. Governments in the region invest far less in discovery research and human resources than western counterparts, and universities have been using EU regional funds as a lifeline.

The commission says the new-look regional fund will back research and innovation projects which promote “innovative and smart economic transformation.” A spokeswoman for the commission told Science|Business that over the next seven years, regional development funding will focus on “applied research and the uptake of new technologies by firms, public administrations and citizens, particularly in relation to societal challenges such as climate change or health.”

But while countries in north west Europe can draw on decades of discovery research and high level expertise to drive investments in technology transfer and commercialisation of disruptive health and climate change projects, member states in central and eastern Europe cannot, said Daniel David, rector of the Babeș-Bolyai University in Romania, “We cannot copy this model,” he told Science|Business.

According to the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, ERDF funding accounted for 30 per cent of research funding at Babeș-Bolyai over the past seven years, while more than 15 per cent of the research budget at the University of Tartu in Estonia comes from EU regional funds. The Guild warns that universities will no longer be able to use these funds for capacity building, to support their research infrastructures and human resources, young researchers, internationalisation and mobility.

David says governments in central and eastern Europe were quick to adopt the new strategy of using regional development funds for near-market research, despite the fact they have cut national funding for basic science in the past few years. “Our budget is very small, yet we entered into this new EU logic without supporting discovery research,” he said. Romania spends less than 0.5 per cent of its GDP on research.

The commission is misjudging the needs of less developed regions, David said. “They cannot fathom the poor quality of the human resources and the body of fundamental knowledge in Romania.”

New rules for regional R&D funds

The commission says regional funding for R&D in universities will not be discontinued, but the money will go to institutions and projects that build on smart specialisation strategies, a plan by the EU to encourage regions to identify their strengths and focus R&D investments.

“Research projects that cannot demonstrate their contribution to the objectives of the ERDF or which do not fall within smart specialisation strategies cannot be supported,” the commission spokeswoman said.  

The commission recommends universities who want EU money for capacity building and discovery research to apply for Horizon Europe calls. The EU’s framework programme for research will allocate 3.3 per cent of its budget for the widening programme, a funding source designed to help research institutes and universities in poorer regions catch up with counterparts in western Europe.  

Setting the right national priorities

The EU is expecting governments to make further investments in discovery research from national budgets. Earlier this year, EU research commissioner Mariya Gabriel renewed a previous call for member states to spend at least 3 per cent of their GDP on R&D, but not many countries will be able to achieve these levels in the near future.

At the same time, the commission has been advocating that EU R&D policy should be focused on impact, technology transfer and market applications, and some member states have tried to mirror that approach in national strategies.

In 2017, Romania created a new ministerial portfolio for research that was separated from higher education, in an attempt to put more focus on technology transfer. But that left universities disappointed with a lack of coordination between academia and the national research institutes.

Hungary also changed the structure of its research system to implement application-oriented R&D policies. In 2019 the government moved the country’s entire network of research institutes from under the leadership of the Academy of Sciences into a new government-controlled agency. The newly founded Eotvos Lorand Research Network aims to “make the most of the results of basic research, which can contribute to solving domestic and global social and environmental challenges,” according to its mission statement.

Romania has recently reverted the decision to split its research system from higher education, but the scientific landscape remains very fragmented. According to David, the government should do more to bring together all components of research and make them work in synergy. 

David warns that governments should not be so eager to copy research policy models that work better in countries with long-standing performance in fundamental research. “Investments should be made wisely, by supporting both innovation and its engine – advanced exploratory research and human resources,” he said.

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