Paving the way for Europe-India Horizon partnerships

Top public and private research institutions in India are building alliances with universities and higher education organisations in Europe to pave the way for future consortiums to bid for projects under Horizon Europe, the European Union’s successor to its Horizon 2020 research programme.

Efforts have been boosted by India’s National Education Policy 2020, approved in July, which includes a greater push for internationalisation of Indian institutions.

At the end of October, the European Union and India agreed to allow Indian researchers supported by the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) under the education ministry to join European Research Council (ERC) funded teams in Europe for periods of up to one year.

This follows an agreement in 2017 to allow science and engineering researchers from India to join ERC-funded projects, with around 1,000 Indian scientists taking part so far.

“More cooperation in research and innovation, in all areas, including the social sciences and humanities, will be available under the EU’s next research and innovation programme Horizon Europe (2021-2027),” the ERC statement issued on 28 October said.

Maria Cristina Russo, director for international cooperation in the European Commission’s Research and Innovation Directorate-General, added: “Social sciences have a critical contribution to make in helping understand and design a more sustainable future for all. In the next EU framework programme Horizon Europe, there will be many opportunities to increase our cooperation.”

Since the start of the ERC in 2007, some 62 Indian nationals have been awarded an ERC grant. Compared with other non-European grant holders, Indians are ranked third after nationals of the United States and Canada, according to EU figures.

“The European Commission has tried to push for more research cooperation with India; it is very strategic as well,” said Nicolás Patrici, director of OBREAL Global Observatory based in Barcelona, Spain, an organisation of internationally minded universities and research institutions and individual researchers from Europe, Latin America and Africa.

Last month the association launched its OBREAL India chapter to build bridges between Indian and European higher education institutions for research collaboration and mobility of students and academics.

“We are discussing how to enhance the participation of our Indian chapter members in projects that are going to be presented or won by our European partners that already have research cooperation with India. And we are discussing what the priorities will be for India and how India can cooperate in this,” said Patrici, while noting that research collaboration for Horizon is “still at a very initial stage of discussion”.

New India chapter

“What the OBREAL India chapter is definitely doing is enhancing the capacity of these institutions in India and in Europe to look together at common research problems. This is a first step. Horizon for us is a tool for funding research, along with other opportunities,” Patrici said.

Institutions in India initially involved in the new OBREAL India chapter include Symbiosis International university in Pune, the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT Madras) in Chennai, the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, the Asian Institute of Design Bengaluru – which hosts the offices for the India chapter – and the National Institute of Technology in Mangalore in Southern Karnataka state.

European members include the University of Barcelona, KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden and the Technical University of Berlin in Germany.

India’s new National Education Policy (NEP), launched in July, has also put internationalisation of India’s higher education sector on the country’s political agenda. With this and with the COVID-19 pandemic pushing more international collaboration, “we decided to look at common research projects, and also at the skills development policy in India,” Patrici said.

Dr Vidya Yeravdekar, pro-chancellor of Symbiosis International university, a private institution, is the first chair of the India chapter.

“Before the very progressive National Education Policy 2020, internationalisation was never discussed in any education policy [in India] before. They [the policy-makers] were concentrating on access to higher education within India,” Yarevdekar told University World News.

Yeravdekar was also a member of India’s higher education regulatory body, the University Grants Commission (UGC), from 2006 to 2012. During that time, “I even tried to include a small percentage of the UGC budget for internationalisation, but everyone shut me down and nothing ever happened,” she said.

“But now at the policy level there has been a shift from not looking at internationalisation,” said Yeravdekar.

“As an India chapter, we will first concentrate on collaborations with some of the best institutions in India,” she said. “We will also look at what is important for India’s collaborations,” she said, pointing to research, student and faculty mobility and benchmarking and sharing best practice as the main ones.

“Indian universities require handholding for research because Indian universities lack a research ecosystem and a research culture and Europeans are far better at this,” she said.

Collaboration with Indian universities is becoming easier

“India’s NEP document is really ground-breaking, and Europe can benefit quite a lot,” said Rajeev Thottappillil, professor in electric power engineering and design at Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, a member of the new India chapter. The NEP “makes collaboration with Indian universities easier and it makes how Indian universities are doing their business more flexible,” he said.

“India’s biggest strength is human resources – the number of researchers and the quality of research. They have very qualified human resources in technology and other areas where we have a shortage in Europe,” said Thottappillil, adding that “collaboration doesn’t always mean people moving from India to Europe.”

“Between India and Sweden there has been an upsurge of research collaborations in the last several years and several joint calls for projects between the Department of Science and Technology in India and Vinnova, the funding agency in Sweden. We tried to partner with industry and applied for funding for partnering with India. And we applied to take part in European Union projects with our partners in India under Horizon 2020,” said Thottappillil.

But he pointed to the haphazard way institutions usually come together for Horizon 2020 projects. “When a Horizon call comes, people scramble to try to put together a consortium using their individual contacts. By that time, it is too late or it is not really purposed. This kind of an India chapter with OBREAL, with the presence of European partners, makes it easier,” he said.

“We can add more partners depending on the call and other opportunities – it may not be just Horizon calls but national or bilateral calls. Once there is a network of like-minded people, it is very easy to connect and have a better success rate in applying because these are very competitive research calls,” Thottappillil said.

OBREAL keeps track of many European and national research funding calls in Europe and can support partners with positioning towards the EU, grant administration and reporting, he said.

Platform for collaboration

“We are still developing the portfolio for joint research,” said Patrici, but points to projects on energy, technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence as areas of focus, particularly given India’s strengths in technology and links to industry.

“We will try to include them in our discussions on Horizon projects or try to bring individual experts from the members to the projects run by other members. So, the idea for us at OBREAL is also to use the projects that members are running and open them to other partners who might be interested. The cost of this is very small and the benefits for the institutions is very high,” Patrici said.

As a precursor, from 2016 the University of Barcelona formed a team of universities in Europe and India to come together for a project on the digitalisation of education systems under the EU-funded MIELES project which ran until early this year and its successor DIESSEL – Developing Indian Educational and Skilling Strategies in E-Learning – project on the development of joint international online curricula for professional education.

They also came together on an EU-funded higher education quality assurance project.

“The collaboration with the EU on these previous projects is to bring India in line with the requirements needed to draw up proposals in a way that’s acceptable to the EU,” noted Kavitha GR, director of the IIT Madras international office.

Student and faculty mobility

Accessing EU Horizon funding “is one of the purposes of the OBREAL Indian chapter but it’s not the only purpose,” notes Kavitha.

IIT Madras already has strong links with institutions in Germany, the United Kingdom and other European countries, collaborating in research particularly on smart cities and quantum technologies, artificial intelligence and data science, and is also looking to expand researcher collaboration and student and faculty mobility outside Europe.

“We saw that this organisation [OBREAL] works with Latin American, Caribbean and African countries. In IIT Madras we have strong connections with top universities all over the world, but we don’t have much going on with Latin America,” Kavitha said.

Yeravdekar also sees the benefits of building links with Latin American countries and is building links with universities in Africa as a way towards North-South-South cooperation.