H2020 failing to ease Europe’s research funding divide

The European research funding divide between longstanding European Union (EU) member states and the newer ones has barely improved in the EU’s eighth framework programme, Horizon 2020, Eastern European states are complaining.

In the Seventh Framework Programme, which ran from 2007 to 2013, the EU’s newest members only won 4% of total EU research funding. In the current Horizon 2020 (2014-20), that share has risen – by a mere 0.4%.

According to a recent report by Science Business, the European Commission recently presented a slide-show in Brussels summing up some of the numerous proposals for revisions and recommendations they have received from stakeholders for the next research programme.

Many of the comments from the EU-13 member states in Eastern Europe addressed the continuing imbalance in funding between the older EU member states (EU-15) and the newer ones (EU-13).

Most of the funding continues to go to research institutions and companies in the United Kingdom, Germany, France and the Netherlands. Until the mid-term evaluation of Horizon 2020, grant holders from five countries received 59.4% of the overall funding, with those from Germany receiving 17%, while participants from Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Malta received only 0.1% each.

The slides also show that the European Commission is considering giving prominence to a part of the research programme it calls ‘Spreading Excellence’. The EU currently spends millions on efforts under this banner, on initiatives such as ‘teaming’ and ‘twinning’, which aim at enhancing the science capacity of Europe's poorest regions, Science Business reported.

Under the popular EU ‘twinning’ scheme, for instance, an elite institute such as Germany’s Max Planck Society can team up with a less-developed institute in Poland to co-fund Polish research groups. Under ‘teaming’, the same two countries could jointly submit business plans to the commission for a new or upgraded research centre in the poorer partner’s country.

Comments submitted by member states

In comments on the Ninth Framework Programme submitted by member states, Poland argued that excellence is equally present in EU-15 and EU-13 countries; however its visibility is significantly lower in EU-13 states.

Despite serious efforts by the European Union and the member states as well as the inclusion of the ‘Widening Participation’ package in Horizon 2020, significant gaps remain between European regions in terms of research and innovation performance, it says.

“This is due to different factors, including stiff regulations on participation (that do not take into account different national frameworks, for example, remuneration rules), poorer visibility of EU-13’s excellence, ‘old boys’ clubs’ reflected in closed cooperation patterns or a ‘brain drain’ effect, to name only the most pressing ones.

“Therefore, current efforts to support wider participation need to be significantly strengthened in the future FP [framework programme]. It needs to be stressed that such an approach clearly demonstrates the European added value. Currently we have a set of good practices elaborated under FP7 [Framework Programme Seven] and Horizon 2020; there is a need to use them and also include some new mechanisms.”

Slovakia said it considers the synergies between Horizon 2020 and the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) to be inadequate and practically non-functioning. One of the reasons was their relatively late implementation, so that several countries could not incorporate these synergies into their operational programmes. Another reason was the different nature of both funding instruments, which practically eliminated the possibility of building synergies.

“Therefore, the area of synergies in the FP9 [Framework Programme Nine] requires substantial improvements, in particular the simplification and harmonisation of rules, both at the national and European levels.”

It suggested as an example that the FP9 should allow the co-financing of projects from the ESIF. This would increase the participation of smaller member states in the framework programme.

Slovakia indicates that the ‘Seal of Excellence’ is a very useful measure, which should be strengthened in the FP9.

“In the new programming period there is a need to harmonise the rules of the support and to introduce selected measurements from the framework programmes into the implementation of the ESIF. Hence the ESIF could play a key complementary role in increasing the participation of countries, regions and institutions with a low participation in the framework programme.

“It is also necessary to ensure synergies and cooperation with the other European programmes (for example, LIFE; COSME, the programme for small and medium-sized enterprises; and INTERREG, from the European Regional Development Fund).”

Slovakia considers the implementation of the specific ‘Spreading Excellence and Widening Participation’ measures as a “step in the right direction to balance the differences between the member states that are falling behind the innovative leaders”.

It says ‘teaming’, ‘twinning’, European Research Area Chairs, and European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) received a positive response in the research community. “It is at the same time necessary to emphasise that these are long-term instruments whose results will only become apparent after 2020. We believe that such instruments for increasing the participation should be further strengthened in the future, even financially.”

Lithuania said efforts for widening participation aimed at inclusive excellence at the member state level should be continued and gain special attention in order to avoid incoherent development of research excellence and possible loss of innovative potential within the EU.

“Current measures need to be evaluated for the expected impact and improved, if appropriate, or the new ones applied. This should not only be focused on capacity building but also using or enhancing the existing excellence in the-so-called ‘under-represented’ member states.”

It said in this regard, the commission has to demonstrate the adherence to EU values such as inclusiveness and equality.

“The European Research Area should be created with freely circulating scientific knowledge, technology insights, innovative ideas, open and fruitful collaboration. Rules for remuneration should be a tool to attract the best talents, and encourage the formation of competitive merit-based career advancements.”

Only this would make it possible for Horizon 2020 and the next framework programme to pool the scientific excellence and innovative capacities of all member states.

To tackle the current imbalance and enhance motivation for participants to apply to the EU research and innovation programmes, a flexible approach towards the researchers’ salary level should be explored for the reimbursement of personnel costs, Lithuania argued.

“We also consider inclusive excellence as a horizontal and cross-cutting element via all pillars of the FP, including European Research Council activities, and would advocate for further consideration and better exploitation of targeted measures in this respect. For instance, experience of COST activities generates the expected value in this sense, therefore the sustainability of its financing model should be ensured in the next financial period.”

Pressure to widen participation

The European Commission is hence under some political pressure to enhance opportunities for poorer-performing EU countries, while maintaining a core focus on rewarding excellence.

Schemes under the EU’s ‘Widening Participation’ programme, as the initiatives are also referred to, “have to continue and should be strengthened”, research ministers said in the conclusions of their competitiveness council meeting in December.

Professor Fulvio Esposito of the University of Camerino in Italy and chair of the High Level Group on Joint Programming of European Research, told University World News he is not convinced that claims that the EU currently spends millions on efforts under this banner, on initiatives such as ‘teaming’ and ‘twinning’, is really based on evidence.

He said the amount invested in the ‘Spreading Excellence and Widening Participation’ is relatively tiny as compared with other ‘branches’ of Horizon 2020, such as the European Research Council.

However, he said the crucial aspect is not the absolute amount invested but the ‘success rate’, which may be a proxy of the attractiveness of the programme since the lower the success rate, the higher the attractiveness or competitiveness of the programme, and the ‘impact’ of the programme, in terms of scientific development and growth of the 'twinned' research group or of the 'teamed' research infrastructure.

At first glance, the ‘Spreading Excellence and Widening Participation’ programme did not appear to be exceedingly attractive for research institutes of the EU-15, with some positive exceptions. “So, rather than inventing new 'agencies', an effort should be made to make it more attractive for both partners and for an open and transparent assessment of the preliminary results of the programme,” Esposito said.

Dan Andrée, head of the Brussels office of Vinnova, Sweden’s innovation agency, told University World News: “I, and Sweden, can only accept that the highest ranked projects are funded without any geographical criteria. We can support the widening actions in Horizon 2020 but not more.

“EU-13 actually perform well in comparison to how much money they spend on research and innovation. Sweden actually underperforms in Horizon 2020 in comparison with how much we spend at national level.”