Horizon consultations: What’s in it for the Widening programme?

08 Mar 2023 | News

Science|Business has analysed position papers submitted to the European Commission’s Horizon Europe consultation, to assess if the Widening programme is delivering on its aim of bridging the east-west research and innovation gap

Over the past three months, more than 2,700 research stakeholders gave feedback to the European Commission the performance of the EU’s €95.5 billion Horizon Europe research programme, and to make suggestions to feed into the planning for its successor.

Most of the position papers focused on safeguarding the Horizon Europe budget and increasing the budget of its successor programme, due to start in 2028. Research organisations also called for a better balance between basic and applied research and simpler application and cost reporting procedures.

However, some research stakeholders took the time to think about the Widening programme, a dedicated section of Horizon Europe intended to increase the participation of poorer member states in EU research and innovation competitions.

Data from Horizon 2020, the previous research programme, shows most of the money was granted to researchers and institutions in a handful of countries and institutions located predominantly in northwestern Europe. Less than 6% of the Horizon 2020 budget went to researchers and organisations located in countries that joined the EU after 2004.

The gap is big and over the past decade, addressing unequal geographical performance in EU research programmes was pushed up the political agenda, resulting  in a tripling of the allocated budget for the Widening programme in Horizon Europe to 3.3% of the overall €95.5% billion.  

As some of the position papers submitted to the Commission last month are being made public, we are writing an overview of how recent policy changes have been perceived by research organisations across Europe.

In its position paper, Science Europe, the association representing some of Europe’s largest funding agencies and research organisations recognises the value of the Widening programme, but says it alone cannot solve the challenge of asymmetric participation.

According to Science Europe, increasing the budget was a positive signal to the research community, but it flags a few challenges ahead. The main issue going forward would be to encourage more researchers to find work in centres of excellence in central and eastern Europe.

Science Europe also notes that the size and budget of collaborative projects in Horizon Europe has increased, which makes it more difficult for participants from Widening countries and newcomers to take on leading roles in consortia. “More opportunities for smaller projects should be provided,” the paper says.

Bigger impact

The position paper submitted by the Coimbra group of universities notes that the Widening programme could have a bigger impact on countries with low research and innovation performance. “The better inclusion of project partners from widening countries remains as one of the key challenges in [Horizon Europe],” the paper reads.

Coimbra says the low inclusion of participants from Widening countries in research consortia is “largely systemic” and called for the introduction of further support measures. The group of universities calls on the Commission to incentivise the inclusion of research teams from Widening countries early on, from the proposal-writing process.

Dedicated schemes, such as Teaming, which are aimed at establishing centres of excellence in low-performing countries are not always working as intended. Coimbra notes that Romania, for example, has submitted 44 proposals and none were funded. The group calls on the Commission to reflect on the reasons why the number of funded projects remains very low and what is the role of national governments in boosting participation in EU programmes.

The League of European Research Universities (LERU) has submitted a position paper noting, among other things, that a larger Widening programme in Horizon Europe was combined with the introduction of many new funding tools, the complementarity of which remains unclear. “These new tools should be carefully evaluated. It might be advisable to drop the tools that are shown less successful so that the funding is not spread too thinly,” the paper said.

In its position paper, The European trade association of Research and Technology Organisations (EARTO) said the innovation gap in the EU has not vanished and the EU still needs to ensure funding instruments are in place to support Widening countries. The group says the Commission should take “a further look” at potential funding schemes aimed at helping countries improve their research and innovation capabilities.

According to the paper submitted by the Polish Chamber of Commerce for High Tech Technology, called on the Commission to introduce “mechanisms for the effective inclusion of new institutions” located in pockets of excellence in underperforming EU regions.

In contrast, the Netherlands house for Education and Research said that the Commission should come up with a strategy to make the Widening programme “superfluous” and reach a point where dedicated mechanisms for poorer countries would no longer be needed. While the Danish Agency for Higher Education and Science stressed the Widening programme should not become an excuse for introducing “derogations” from scientific excellence.

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