Widening countries applaud the contribution centres of excellence make to bridging the innovation divide

24 May 2023 | News

Almost ten years on, the EU-funded centres are strengthening research and innovation performance. Now the challenge is to ensure they are sustainable and can thrive on their own long term

Anna Panagopoulou, director of the European Research Area and Innovation at DG Research, speaking at a roundtable discussion in Warsaw about the Teaming for Excellence instrument under Horizon Europe's Widening programme. Photo: Krajowy Punkt Kontaktowy / Twitter

One of the key moves to address long-standing disparities in R&D performance across European countries is Teaming for Excellence, introduced as part of the Widening scheme under the Horizon 2020 programme, to set up and foster centres of excellence in Widening countries through strategic partnerships with leading institutions abroad.

Almost a decade after the initiative launched, stakeholders from research, industry, regional authorities, national governments and EU institutions gathered at a roundtable discussion in Warsaw, organised by Science|Business and Poland’s research funding agency NCBR, to draw lessons from what has been achieved to date and debate whether the initiatives are still fit for purpose.

Anna Panagopoulou, director of the European Research Area and Innovation at DG Research said many centres of excellence not only engage in basic research, but also contribute to policymaking.

However, a key challenge lies in ensuring the sustainability and continuity of these centres at a national level, so they continue attracting research activities. Panagopoulou stressed the need for investment and reforms in member states to complement the Widening initiative and boost R&D performance.

Securing sustainable funding

The roundtable heard the approach to funding the centres of excellence at the national level varies from country to country. Mateusz Gaczyński, deputy director in the Department for Innovation and Development of Polish Ministry of Education and Science, said funding for centres in Poland is secured.

“The funding is granted by the Foundation for Polish Science, which evaluates the proposals for centres of excellence using their own criteria,” Gaczyński said. The money comes from the EU Cohesion Fund, with additional funding due from the ministry's budget. Although Gaczyński did not disclose the exact amount of funding coming from the ministry, he noted this is likely to be the final dedicated funding before the centres of excellence transition into the regular funding scheme under the state budget, based on a performance evaluation scheduled for 2025.

Tomaž Boh, director general at the Science and Innovation Directorate at the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Innovation in Slovenia, pointed to the different situation facing the country’s centres of excellence. These centres have a distinct status from other higher education institutions, which poses a challenge in securing sustainable funding.

Adrian Curaj, director general at the Executive Unit for the Financing of Higher Education Research, Development and Innovation in Romania (UEFISCDI) said the country has not established any centres of excellence so far, citing obstacles such as the lack of predictability in available funds, insufficient communication, and a lack of support from National Contact Points (NCPs) in creating centres of excellence in Romania.

Kinga Słomińska, deputy director of the programme division at the Foundation for Polish Science, also underscored the significance of cooperation with NCPs and consultations with successful Teaming beneficiaries. Poland initially faced a situation similar to Romania after the first Teaming call but managed to succeed in subsequent calls, resulting in the establishment of three centres of excellence.

Innovation gap

Centres of excellence not only enhance research performance, but also play a crucial role in fostering innovation. One example is the newly-established centre of cxcellence for nanophotonics, advanced materials, and novel crystal growth-based technologies, ENSEMBLE3, in Warsaw. Dorota Pawlak, the president of ENSEMBLE3, said there is increased demand for products developed by the centre, driven by the EU’s push for technology sovereignty. For certain type of crystals, ENSEMBLE3 is the sole producer within the EU, Pawlak noted.

Business representatives underscored the importance of cooperation between centres of excellence and the private sector. Marcin Szumowski, CEO and co-founder of Polish biotech Molecure said while excellent science is crucial, it is not sufficient to ensure it translates through to innovation. “A product should have value in the market,” he said. Szumowski also pointed to the lack of infrastructure in Poland for innovative life science companies.

Creating synergies between the centres of excellence is another crucial factor in driving their effectiveness. Panagopoulou said the centres should generate benefits beyond their regions and the new EU initiative Regional Innovation Valleys aims to provide support with this.  

Beyond Widening

With the centres of excellence having increased responsibility for driving innovation, supporting mobility and knowledge sharing, the challenge is to ensure they continue to grow, raising the question of whether the Widening and Teaming initiatives are still adequate instruments, or if they need to be adjusted.

Ivars Ījabs MEP, said Widening is likely to remain an important component of the second half of the EU’s €95.5 billion Horizon Europe research programme. While eliminating the gap between EU member states is not feasible, there is a long-term objective to narrow it.

Acknowledging the economic disparities among EU countries, Ījabs described the Widening programme as a form of "affirmative action." He stressed its necessity but suggested that measuring the success of Widening countries should involve evaluating their participation in other programmes, such as the European Research Council.

Ījabs emphasised the importance of involving Widening countries and institutions that have received funding in other projects under the Horizon programme. Developing a research culture that fosters openness to integration with partners from other European countries remains a major challenge, he said.

Many speakers advocated for the Widening initiative, emphasising its role in supporting the entire European research community. Gaczyński highlighted that without the participation of Widening countries, achieving European policy goals would be hard.

Maciej Malawski, director of SANO – Centre for Computational Personalised Medicine in Kraków, underscored the importance of embracing risk and accepting failure as part of the path to innovation, noting policymakers are often hesitant to take risks due to the high cost of potential mistakes.

Ewa Kocinska-Lange, director of Poland's National Centre for Research and Development (NCBR) Office in Brussels, suggested shifting the focus from the Widening initiative and on to excellence, so that Widening countries are not automatically put in the second place.

But taken overall, feedback on the Widening initiative was positive. Panagopoulou noted its contribution to creating networking opportunities and said including Widening partners in standard Horizon Europe calls would be more difficult without the Widening initiative. In light of the growing emphasis on European sovereignty, institutions from Widening countries should have more chance to participate in standard Horizon calls, she said.

The Widening initiative is a “a good instrument” to address the R&D gap, Panagopoulo said, stressing the importance of complementing it with national-level efforts. While it is too early to determine whether the initiative will remain in place, it has clearly played a role in reducing the fragmentation of Europe's innovation system.

However, the subsequent challenge lies in ensuring the centres of excellence are capable to grow and develop on their own, she said. 

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