Widening 2.0: draft work programme details EU plans to plug the east-west R&D gap

03 Feb 2021 | News

New-look ‘Widening’ in Horizon Europe aims to help member states with weaker research systems undertake reforms and win more EU research grants


European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel. Photo: European Commission.

A Horizon Europe draft work programme sheds more light on Widening 2.0, the European Commission’s strategy to help countries reform their R&D systems, attract talent and use structural funds for targeted research projects.

The Commission officially launched Horizon Europe on Tuesday, but it won’t publish the final work programmes and first funding calls until April. A draft work programme circulating online, dated October 2020 could see some change in the meantime, but chances are the main funding directions will remain the same.

Drafts posted on the websites of research associations, universities and consultancies give member states enough detail to get ready to tap into the new widening programme, designed to help them plug the west - east research and innovation performance gap.

In 2019, EU research ministers agreed to ring fence 3.3 per cent of the €95.5 billion Horizon Europe budget for Widening, a move seen as a big victory for MEPs and countries behind a long-running push to create a more level playing field in the EU’s research programme.

With the notable exception of Estonia, EU data indicates R&D performance is below the EU average in all member states that joined the bloc after 2004. The Commission hopes reinforcing Widening helps them catch up. Achieving this requires the Commission to coordinate with national governments on national R&D budgets, and on measures to retain home grown talent by increasing salaries and improving working conditions.

In a break with the past, member states are now allowed to spend up to five per cent of structural fund money on research and innovation projects that meet Horizon Europe standards, but which fail to win grants because of the high level of competition. At the same time, state aid rules are to be relaxed, allowing member states to use structural funds to fund science-based start-ups.

Reforming EU research and innovation

The Commission has allocated a significant part of the draft work programme to projects that promote reform of national R&D systems, aligning them with EU policy objectives.  It wants member states to use money from Widening to set up multiannual joint calls funding collaborative R&I projects.

In addition, Widening will support joint projects to translate research to the market and encourage adoption.

Research organisations in Widening countries can get funding for initiatives to help research management staff gain greater understanding of EU networking and mobility schemes for researchers.

A “hop-on” scheme will back efforts to help institutions in countries with weak research systems take part in Horizon Europe collaborative research projects. The scheme will be introduced in the first calls in April, but won’t be fully implemented until 2023, once the Commission gathers proof from the first projects that research institutions are able to host additional partners.

European Research Area

EU research commissioner Mariya Gabriel has long been advocating for a revamp of the European Research Area (ERA), a strategy to create a single market for research and innovation, that was never fully implemented and has had a limited impact on EU’s R&D performance.

The October draft of the work programme says Horizon Europe will fund projects that help universities to attract and retain talent, reducing brain drain from member states with weak research systems.

The Commission also wants to establish a framework for research careers and a common academic career structure, that promotes widespread recognition of the competences that PhD students and postdocs in various stages of their careers have obtained, both within and outside academia, and regardless of sector, discipline or location.

Building trust in science

The Widening draft work programme also details research calls aimed at reducing mistrust in science and experts. The coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis have resurfaced entrenched attitudes towards scientific breakthroughs in vaccination and mitigating climate change. The aim is to come up with recommendations for governments to open the way for funding agencies, research institutes and universities to tackle this mistrust in science, research and innovation.

“Societal confidence in the research system and in its outcomes is vital to ensuring the EU’s contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals and achieving the European Green Deal targets, for the uptake of innovation in society, and for continued public investment in R&I,” the draft work programme says.

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