The country is set to triple its participation in Horizon Europe but further upgrades to the research and innovation system are needed to boost its overall performance
Romania has announced plans for a root and branch upgrade of its research and innovation system so it can spend all of the €30 billion it is set to receive from the EU’s pandemic recovery fund.
But while the proposed changes signal an unprecedented political push in national R&D policy, political turmoil has derailed reforms in the past and experts hope the plan will survive the next change of government.
Adrian Curaj, head of Romania’s Executive Agency for Financing Higher Education, Research, Development and Innovation (UEFISCDI) says the proposed changes will help set Romania on a path to tripling its participation in Horizon Europe, compared to its performance in the predecessor programme Horizon 2020. The ongoing reforms should allow researchers in Romania to get at least €1 billion out of the EU’s research flagship scheme by 2027, Curaj told Science|Business.
However, there is a mountain to climb. Romania is at the bottom of innovation performance ranking and has one of the lowest R&D investment levels in the EU. To date, participation in EU research programmes has also been low.
In the view of the European Commission, Romania’s research system is “weak and underfunded”, a situation that is stifling economic development. The Commission reached this conclusion in a recent report evaluating Romania’s recovery and resilience plan, the mandatory investment blueprint each country submits to get economic development money from the post-pandemic fund.
In the same report, the Commission noted Romania’s science base is overly fragmented and public R&D investment is too low. These poor framework conditions have led to dwindling human resources, brain drain and poor science and technology performance.
Research minister Sebastian Burduja acknowledges Romania indeed has a lot of work to do to consolidate its research system. At the moment the government funds a collection of small research institutes that do not have the heft needed to compete in international funding schemes. “[The fragmentation is] in large part inherited from a different era and we're now working on modernising that,” Burduja said at the Commission’s R&I days last week.
“We all understand that the current architecture [of the research system] is not good,” said Daniel David, rector of Babeș-Bolyai University. Romania probably does not need so many national research institutes, and David said the country could increase funding for a few strategic institutes to levels that would at least alleviate complaints about salaries and poor infrastructure. The other institutes could be integrated into universities.
Babeș-Bolyai has recently merged with Eftimie Murgu University in southwestern Romania and took over a biological research centre, 90 kilometres away from its headquarters in Cluj-Napoca.
For Curaj, “Fragmentation is a problem, and I am for concentration and critical mass.” But, he said, any changes, and the motivations behind mergers and consolidations, would have to be carefully considered.
Walking the talk
To be eligible for post-pandemic economic relief from the EU, Romania had to prove it has the capacity to spend the money effectively, which requires changes in how research and innovation is funded.
According to David, the main reason Romania is trying to revamp it research and innovation strategy is so that it has a vehicle for spending the money it is getting from the EU recovery fund.
Burduja touts the new strategy as game changing. The government wants to promote meritocracy in the research funding system, encourage more international partnerships, boost participation in Horizon Europe, build closer links with industry, and promote tech transfer. The reform is largely based on recommendations the Commission has made in a report published this year under its Policy Support Facility (PSF) programme.
The new plan for research foresees a budget of €12 billion up to 2030. One of the goals is to increase public and private spending to 0.8% of GDP by the end of the Horizon Europe programme in 2027. This target can be achieved by pointing EU recovery funds and money from the EU cohesion fund in the direction of R&D.
“The plan is ambitious, because, you know, for 32 years, nobody has managed to tackle this,” said Burduja. “But we have at our disposal [EU recovery and resilience] funding, time pressure and the very good conclusions of the PSF report.”
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The national plan is “ambitious” and delivers a “strong message” to the sector, said Curaj. However, “declaring a budget is one thing, the way that’s being implemented is another.”
David agreed the plan looks good on paper. “But I am nervous about the implementation,” he said.
Romania does not have a multiannual budget and money for research is not always delivered to an agreed schedule. Curaj says there is no gap in funding multiannual research projects, but researchers still go through a few weeks of financial uncertainty every January.
Because of delayed political agreement on the annual budget, research institutes sometimes have to get bank loans guaranteed by the government to pay basic salaries and running costs. “The system needs a bit of predictability,” said Curaj.
However, Curaj is optimistic that the Romanian research funding system is getting on the right track. He believes all the components and frameworks are there. All that’s missing is sustained political commitment.
The national research and innovation system tries to mirror to some extent the structure of EU research funding. It has dedicated funds for fundamental research and for improving the quality of human resources, mirroring the European Research Council and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions.
Other programmes include a business angel matching fund, a fast-track scheme for international patenting and a twinning programme dedicated to universities that are interested in establishing international partnerships.
The government has also announced a €168 million plan to entice back Romanian researchers who are working abroad. “Human capital is the essence of this whole [reform] effort,” said Burduja.
However, more public pressure is required to ensure the continuity of these programmes. Frequent government changes over the past decade have left Romania’s research system on shifting sands.
According to Curaj, more political certainty could be added to the research and innovation system. But, for that to happen, the public needs to “hear three times a week from the top level that science and entrepreneurship will change Romania.”