Viewpoint: How Widening measures could be improved in the next framework research programme

02 May 2024 | Viewpoint

A long-term strategy is needed to ensure the sustainability of projects funded by Horizon Europe

Plamena Markova, head of international relations at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). Photo credits: Kinga Lubowiecka / EMBL

Teaming projects set up under Horizon Europe are intended to help Widening countries in central and eastern Europe that have less developed research systems to modernise existing R&D centres, or to build new ones.

As the first generation of Horizon Europe Teaming projects draws to a close, it is becoming clear that a long-term strategy and long term support is needed to ensure these lighthouse institutes stay active, competitive and attractive in their regions and beyond.

As things stand, EU money is available for up to seven years to kick-start the centres and cover mainly administrative, operational and staff costs. For them to survive after this, Widening actions in the next research programme, FP10, need to make them sustainable in the long term.

At the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) we have been actively involved in Widening actions, working as an advanced partner throughout the past decade. EMBL also has experience of supporting the creation or reform of scientific institutes beyond  Widening, in the EMBL Partnership Programme.

Based on this, it is evident that seven years is not long enough for an institute to become fully established or financially sustainable – regardless of their location. At the same time, institutes in Widening countries face more structural challenges and cannot be expected to outperform their counterparts in Europe’s advanced regions. 

Introducing new measures in FP10 to put Teaming entities on a path to full sustainability would ensure the EU funds that have already been invested are fully capitalised on. These could be integrated in the Widening portfolio, or be covered by other areas of FP10. In addition, regional development funds could be opened up, to see Widening projects through to maturity at the end of the initial seven years.

Since 2014 EMBL has advised on multiple Widening proposals and participated in 11 funded projects, including one Teaming project that is being implemented currently.

Widening measures require some fine tuning, particularly from the perspective of sustainability. EMBL believes the EU should continue to support them under FP10, to ensure the goal behind their introduction - of a more competitive European Research Area - is fully met. 

Keep Widening measures in FP10

The collaboration established during the implementation of Widening projects provides a strong foundation for building future alliances, and often translates into more joint scientific outputs after the conclusion of the project.

The importance of projects that bring together scientists from Widening institutes and counterparts in the west is recognised by the European Commission, which funds exploratory scientific actions to extend the scope of Twinning and Teaming projects.

By allocating part of the budget to science, the disparity between Widening and non-Widening countries in performing basic and applied research is bridged. We call for this to be maintained in FP10. 

Integrating Widening actions in Horizon Europe and its successor ensures support for international scientific cooperation and for scientific excellence. It also opens the way to political reforms and changes in research and science funding culture that are required to enhance the integration of European research.

That being said, Widening actions should be well-connected and co-supported by other EU funding sources, such as regional cohesion instruments, to reach their full potential. 

Widening actions do make a difference 

Looking back at the evaluation of the Horizon 2020 research programme, we know Widening actions led to tangible improvements in science and access to excellence in these regions.

Importantly, putting proposals together often helped our collaborators to better understand national gaps and opportunities, and to consolidate national priorities, capabilities and infrastructure. The effect has been to reduce local and regional fragmentation of science.

Another important element has been in building a critical mass of science managers in Widening countries. Through exchanges and training there is now cutting-edge expertise in areas including recruitment and retainment of scientific talent, open science and data management, diversity and inclusion and knowledge dissemination. Widening measures can also steer national research and innovation systems towards reforms that support a country’s research communities at large. 

The benefits that flow from Widening actions permeate through to non-widening research institutions and advanced partners, asthey help expand and diversify networks to regions where connections may not yet be fully developed.

We even saw positive effects from preparing proposals when the application was not successful. A recently submitted proposal that was not awarded a grant was given the ‘Seal of Excellence’, helping to raise the visibility and potential of the science to national decision-makers.

Similarly, a proposal jointly submitted by EMBL and a partner in a Widening country, while not awarded, built a strong foundation for future collaboration, and led to a joint research project funded under Pillar 2 of the Horizon Europe programme. 

EMBL’s experience as an advanced partner has provided first-hand insights into the positive impact of these actions, both in terms of research excellence and science management. They have empowered our partners to be better interconnected with both the national and the international research community, and to join European collaborative networks that were of key importance to developing their scientific projects.

Plamena Markova is head of international relations at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL)

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