Viewpoint: Portugal must maintain access to Widening measures in the next framework programme

24 Jan 2024 | Viewpoint

Despite an increasingly strong showing in winning EU funds, special support measures remain necessary for the country’s long-term development, says Eugénio Campos Ferreira, vice rector for research and innovation at the University of Minho

Eugénio Campos Ferreira, vice rector for research and innovation at the University of Minho in Portugal

Portugal must remain eligible for Widening measures under the EU’s next framework programme or there is a risk of losing momentum and hampering the country’s long-term progress, says Eugénio Campos Ferreira, vice rector for research and innovation at the University of Minho.

“Widening measures often support long-term development goals. If Widening measures are not available, it might slow down Portugal's progress in building a strong knowledge-based economy and achieving long-term sustainable development objectives,” Ferreira said.

In all,15 EU countries are eligible for support from Widening measures that are designed to help lagging countries catch up by funding networking, collaboration and training. Portugal was the biggest winner in the EU under Horizon 2020, the first framework programme to include the Widening scheme.

The University of Minho was in the top 20 institutions to receive funding through Widening in Horizon 2020.

From Portugal’s perspective Widening appears to be paying off, with the country winning funding more generally from EU framework programmes. So far under Horizon Europe it is performing better than Ireland – a non-Widening country – and is not far behind countries such as Denmark and Finland. It is the second-best performing EU Widening country after Greece, which is the seventh most successful EU country overall in terms of winning Horizon Europe funding.

Such statistics mean there is no guarantee Portugal or Greece will be eligible for Widening concessions in the next framework programme, due to begin in 2028, in whatever form these measures may take.

Denmark, for example, is calling for a new approach in which Widening measures are not funded through the next framework programme, FP10, but through structural funds. The call is laid out in the country’s position paper on FP10, seen by Science|Business.

It describes the current Widening scheme as “not optimal in terms of added value measures”, argues against expanding the existing measures for FP10 and suggests current Widening countries could instead use European structural funds to close the R&I gap with Europe’s top performers. 

For Ferreira, Portugal not having access to Widening measures would be a problem. “The University of Minho, along with other research institutions in the country, may have fewer resources to support their research activities,” he said.

“As a consequence, the progress of research and innovation in Portugal, particularly in regions with less-developed research ecosystems will slow down. This could hinder efforts to reduce disparities between Portugal and more advanced EU member states. Moreover, it might become more challenging for Portugal to attract and retain research talent. And, there may be limitations on the modernisation of research facilities at institutions like the University of Minho.”

Widening has a budget of just under €3 billion in Horizon Europe, three times the funding in Horizon 2020. While it is a modest amount in the context of the total budget of the framework programme, it is still welcome, Ferreira said.

His university’s success in winning Widening funding is down to several factors, including high-quality research, a well-defined strategy for winning Widening money, aligning projects with EU research priorities, and putting more emphasis on innovation and societal or economic impact when developing projects. In addition, the university and its researchers have strong links with other institutions and also industry, Ferreira noted.

The European Commission is in the very early stages of discussions on how Widening measures will be shaped in next framework programme - if they are included at all. Marc Lemaître, the European Commission’s director general for research and innovation, said in June last year that Widening needs to be rethought.

There is also a behind-the-scenes push from certain EU member states to open up the Widening measures to lagging regions across the EU, as opposed to lagging countries on its fringes.

But Ferreira hopes the Widening measures will be maintained exactly as they are, saying they are working, they are positive and he cannot envisage any changes.

He believes other institutions in Widening countries could learn from the how the University of Minho has gone about winning Widening funds:

● Conduct a SWOT analysis of your institution's research and innovation ecosystem. Identify areas where you excel and areas that need improvement;

● Reach out to representatives from institutions in Widening countries for knowledge sharing and collaboration. Learning from their experiences and sharing best practices can be mutually beneficial;

● Set out a strategic plan and define research priorities that align with the goals of Widening measures and focus on areas where your institution can excel;

● Establish partnerships with other universities, research institutions, and industry partners within and outside your country. Establish and strengthen networks with institutions from other Widening countries;

● Build and promote areas of research excellence within your institution. Allocate resources to improve research infrastructure, facilities, and equipment;

● Invest in developing strong proposal writing skills by providing training and support to researchers to ensure they can craft competitive proposals that address the objectives of Widening measures.

Eugénio Campos Ferreira is the vice rector for research and innovation at the University of Minho in Portugal.

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