Mind the Widening Gap: Can Horizon Europe Reverse the Research and Innovation Trend?

A new start for an old challenge?

The recent appointment of Marc Lemaître as the European Commission’s director general for research and innovation (R&I) has returned Europe’s R&I gap to the spotlight. Previously head of DG REGIO, the Commission’s directorate for regional development, Lemaître’s experience and knowledge of regional disparities is widely seen as a welcome boost in addressing the historic disparity in the flow of research funding between eastern and western Europe.

The experience of successive European Union (EU) R&I framework programmes shows that the ability to successfully conduct transnational research projects often varies dramatically between regions and countries. Despite successive programmes promising equality of opportunity and access, some countries remain distinctly disadvantaged when research excellence is the determining factor.

The EU has recognised that such disadvantage can take a variety of forms. These include a lack of scientific infrastructure, the ability to establish or access networks or to maintain and retain talents, and the capacity to overcome structural barriers at institutional, regional or national level.

Beginning with Horizon 2020 (2014-2020), the EU introduced measures to widen participation and targeted the 13 countries that had joined the Union since 2004, namely, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

This increased focus led to mixed results. The Commission reported that Widening countries gradually increased their participation throughout Horizon 2020. While Widening country participation represented 4.2% of the total budget of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), this had risen to 4.8% of the Horizon 2020 budget by 2018 and 5.1% in February 2021. However, the average investment in R&I in the EU was 2.3% of GDP by 2020 – below the 3% target. Of the 15 Widening countries, only Slovenia and Czech Republic invested more than 2%.

Countries that joined the EU after 2004 continue to have relatively under-developed R&I systems, score lower on the EU’s R&I league tables and crucially, when it comes to framework programmes, are far less successful in securing grant funding compared to their research powerhouse neighbours. If the actions introduced between 2014 and 2020 were insufficient to bridge the research gap, what could be done next?

Widening in Horizon Europe

New Widening Participation and Spreading Excellence actions were introduced as part of Horizon Europe (2021-2027) to provide additional support to Member States, Outermost Regions and Associated Countries with low participation rates in FP7 and Horizon 2020 projects to widen their participation in the current framework programme.

Furthermore, the total budget allocated to Widening actions under Horizon Europe has tripled compared with those supported under Horizon 2020, with these actions representing 3.3% of the total €95.5 million Horizon Europe budget. In 2023-24 alone, more than €900 million has been allocated to actions under the Widening Participation and Spreading Excellence Work Programme.

All organisations eligible for Horizon Europe may participate in Widening actions, but only those based in Widening countries may act as coordinators. All Member States classed as Widening countries under Horizon 2020 have retained this status under Horizon Europe, except for Luxembourg, which was replaced by Greece. In addition, the following Associated Countries may apply as coordinators: Albania, Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Faroe Islands, Georgia, Kosovo, Moldova, Montenegro, Morocco, North Macedonia, Serbia, Tunisia, Turkey and Ukraine.

Calls launched under the Widening Participation and Spreading Excellence component are divided into two destinations – Destination 1: Improved access to Excellence, to strengthen R&I capacities in Widening countries, and Destination 2: Attracting and mobilising the best talents, to support further progress on the free circulation of knowledge in a more efficient and effective R&I system.

Actions funded under the Widening Participation and Spreading Excellence programme include:

  • Teaming for Excellence: Creates new or modernises existing centres of excellence in Widening countries by supporting partnerships between beneficiary institutions in Widening countries and leading scientific institutions elsewhere in Europe.
  • Twinning: Boosts the networking activities of research institutions of Widening countries by linking them with at least two research institutions from two different EU or Associated Countries.
  • Pathways to Synergies: New under the 2023-24 Work Programme, this scheme aims to facilitate synergies between Horizon projects and funds under the cohesion policy in Widening countries. The goal is to help formerly isolated single beneficiaries of regional funding programmes to participate in cross-border collaboration in order to prepare for participation in Horizon Europe calls.
  • Excellence Hubs: Aims to improve innovation by enabling innovation ecosystems in Widening countries (and beyond) to team up and create better linkages between academia, business, government and society.
  • Hop-on Facility: Introduced for Horizon Europe, this mechanism allows a single participant from a Widening country to join an ongoing project under Horizon Europe Pillar 2 and the European Innovation Council (EIC) Pathfinder topics.

Widening actions are also delivered via the framework of the European Research Area (ERA). ERA Chairs enable research institutions in Widening countries to host a leading researcher for a period of five years. ERA Fellowships enable researchers to undertake their MSCA Postdoctoral Fellowship in a Widening country, while ERA Talents support R&I investigators and organisations for cross-sectoral exchange of staff and academia-business collaboration for knowledge transfer with a focus on Widening countries.

Another mechanism by which the Commission supports Widening is through the COST (European Cooperation in the field of Scientific and Technical Research) programme, which enables researchers lacking sufficient access to European and international networks to investigate a topic of their choice for four years. A single COST Action must involve at least seven different COST full or cooperating members, among which a minimum of 50% must be from inclusiveness target countries.

The Commission also encourages applicants to partner with Widening countries throughout its funding channels. For instance, one of the key objectives of the QuantERA ERA-NET Cofund in Quantum Technologies Cofund Call 2023 is to ‘spread excellence throughout Europe by involving partners from the Widening countries participating in the partnership’, while several calls launched under the Horizon Europe Clusters also encourage applicants to involve Widening countries.

Progress under Horizon Europe?

Two years into Horizon Europe, figures from the Commission’s Horizon Dashboard indicate that the average success rate of Widening countries in obtaining funding through Horizon Europe is approximately 20%. This figure is equal to the EU 27 average, suggesting that some progress is being made.

Despite this, signs of progress are tempered by the scale of the remaining gap. During Horizon Europe’s first two years, Germany proportionally received more than all the Widening countries combined. As the top-performing country, Germany received 15.5% of the total net EU contribution, compared to 14.3% shared between the Widening countries.

The scale of this gap at the structural level can be seen in the fifth edition of the EU Regional Competitiveness Index 2.0, published in March 2023, which measures the competitiveness of regions across the EU. While this report noted a ‘clear process of catching up’ in eastern and southern EU Member States between 2019 and 2022, it highlighted that the gap between more and less developed regions was widest on the report’s ‘Innovation’ sub-index of metrics and its pillars.

The report also highlighted the persistence of internal gaps within Member States. Some regions in countries including Romania, Slovakia and parts of Bulgaria were found to be moving away from the EU average, while the capital city regions of the three least competitive EU Member States were significantly more competitive than the other regions in these countries. This is a potential cause for concern as it puts pressure on the capital city region while possibly leaving resources under-utilised in other regions.

In this context, the extent to which central European funding opportunities alone can produce far-reaching results is contested. Published in June 2022, a special European Court of Auditors report argued that a real shift depends largely on national governments making R&I a priority to ramp up investment and reforms. While Widening measures can kick-start progress in Widening countries, on their own they lack enough power to create the changes needed in national R&I ecosystems.

In response to the European Court of Auditors, the EU Council adopted conclusions on the report in October 2022. The Council took note of the Court’s conclusion that genuine sustainable change requires continuous national investments and reforms in national R&I systems and called on the Commission to monitor participation levels and evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of the whole portfolio of Widening measures. If continuous significant imbalances emerge, the need for more tailor-made actions and targeted networking activities to achieve a wider level of participation and address disparities in participation should be assessed.

What are stakeholders saying?

A valuable resource for obtaining sector feedback on the success or otherwise of Widening actions can be observed in responses to a consultation into the past, present and future of the Commission’s Horizon programmes covering 2014-2027. This survey, which ran for 12 weeks from December 2022 to February 2023, enabled stakeholders to share their views on the performance of Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe to date, and to identify future priorities for Horizon Europe’s Strategic Plan 2025-2027. From this survey, a number of organisations offered their thoughts on the Widening Participation and Spreading Excellence programme.

In its submission, the Coimbra Group of European universities noted that the ambitions of Widening actions are welcome but stated that these dedicated actions risk diverting funds from other essential programmes, such as the ERC and MSCA.

The Group highlighted the potential pitfalls of singling out countries for Widening actions, warning that organisations in higher-performing countries should not see partnering with those in Widening countries as an act out of the ordinary in and of itself; instead, these countries should be regarded as standard partners. As such, the presence of dedicated Widening calls should not discourage organisations in Widening countries from applying to non-Widening actions elsewhere in Horizon Europe.

Coimbra recommended that the Commission reflect on why some Widening countries have such low participation figures, citing the example of Romania receiving no funding for Teaming activities despite submitting 44 such proposals, and to consider the role of national governments in stimulating participation rates. In addition, Horizon Europe applicants should be incentivised to include partners in Widening countries at the very start of the proposal preparation process as an alternative approach to the new Hop-on Facility.

Other recommendations include urging the Commission to issue equally relevant calls for all Widening countries in the future, rather than issuing dedicated calls for sub-groups of countries, and actively involving those countries in the consultation process when designing future funding instruments.

Coimbra’s concerns about the practicalities of Widening actions were echoed by the Danish Agency for Higher Education and Science, which welcomed the goal of the programme but warned that a shift in the Framework Programme’s focus away from excellence would be ‘detrimental’ to its attractiveness and the overall competitiveness of the EU. The Netherlands house for Education and Research suggested that the ideal end-result of the Widening programme would be to narrow the R&I gap so significantly that the programme’s existence would become ‘superfluous’.

Science Europe, which represents 40 national research funding agencies and research organisations from 30 European countries, noted that while developments under Horizon Europe were positive, challenges remain, with brain circulation below target levels and participation rates remaining imbalanced. While it regarded the Hop-on Facility as ‘interesting’, it noted that existing consortia are often disinclined to add new members once their projects are underway.

Regarding some of the practical challenges facing Widening countries, Science Europe warned that the increased size and budget of Pillar II projects makes it harder for those countries to take leading roles in projects, suggesting that a greater number of smaller projects should be supported to mitigate this. Nevertheless, it concluded that narrowing the gap in participation and R&I capacity across Europe should ‘remain a priority’.

The League of European Research Universities (LERU) offered practical proposals to ensure the programme achieves its desired aims. It noted that the ERA actions are ‘considered useful’ by Widening countries and suggested that these and other mechanisms found to be particularly effective could be prioritised and run more consistently to improve their effectiveness. LERU also advised the Commission to evaluate the success of the Hop-on Facility before dedicating further funding to its operation.

Somewhat contrary to Coimbra’s suggestion to avoid focusing on narrow subsets of countries, LERU hailed the positive impact of previous Twinning activities dedicated solely to countries with the very lowest participation rates in Horizon Europe, describing these actions as ‘crucial’. The Twinning Western Balkans call run in 2021 was cited as a particularly successful example which ‘should be repeated’.

The European Trade Association of Research and Technology Organisations (EARTO) noted that measures to strengthen the participation rates of Widening countries have been an ‘important and positive’ development of Horizon Europe but cautioned that they were ‘far from sufficient’. It urged the Commission to take further steps to improve the R&I capabilities of Widening countries, and to specifically support schemes that develop capacity-building of their research institutions, especially those that will improve applied research capabilities.

EARTO also called for ‘attention and reconsideration’ regarding the Hop-on Facility, citing ‘serious hurdles’ to its practical implementation. This was echoed by the Polish Chamber of Commerce for High Tech Technology, which highlighted ‘many bottlenecks’ in the mechanism’s implementation.

The Chamber agreed with LERU that ERA Chairs and Twinning opportunities – in addition to the Teaming for Excellence scheme – have positive impacts for Widening countries and should be continued. However, it noted that research management and administration is ‘one of the weakest link(s)’ of research organisations in Widening countries. It recommended that the Commission establish dedicated calls to facilitate the exchange of best practices, shadow mentoring and knowledge transfer at a large scale to reach a significant number of R&I institutions.

Across these stakeholder submissions, a general consensus can be observed of organisations commending the ambitions of the Widening programme and highlighting successful measures, while urging the EU to go beyond efforts to improve participation rates in Horizon Europe and focus on the root systemic causes of the disparity in the R&I infrastructure of countries across Europe.

Recent developments indicate that the Commission is taking such concerns seriously. In March 2023, the Commission launched a call for expression of interest for Regional Innovation Valleys (RIVs) to strengthen and advance European innovation ecosystems. The RIVs will connect all EU territories and focus on addressing the innovation divide by harnessing deep-tech innovation. The ambition is to identify up to 100 regions committed to better coordinating their R&I investments and policies, and to collaborating on inter-regional innovation projects.

The Commission is also in the process of launching two calls for proposals in May 2023 under the European Innovation Ecosystems (EIE) part of Horizon Europe, and the Interregional Innovative Investments (I3) of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). With a focus on addressing the innovation divide, a total of €170 million is allocated (€100 million and €70 million respectively).

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