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Brussels presence helps Czech researchers bridge the gap

Researchers from small nations need international collaboration more than most, but are less well placed to win EU funds. An office at the heart of Europe helps to level the playing field, says Anna Vosecková.

In 2000, I became research attaché to the Czech mission to the EU. When the Czech Republic became a member state in April 2004, I began attending the Council’s research working group. The Council’s business proved so all-consuming that there was no time left for Czech research; it was clear that if our researchers were to make best use of EU funding, the country needed a liaison office in Brussels to do the necessary field and promotional work.

In spring 2005, Czelo, or the Czech Liaison Office for Research and Development, was established in Brussels. Eight years on, we have just begun our third four-year grant from the Czech government, following a three-month gap caused by the late arrival of a funding call, during which Czelo employees had to return to Prague.

This hiatus was frustrating, but it also provided an opportunity to reflect on our progress—on what the Czech Republic, and other new member states, should be doing to get the most out of EU research funds, and on what the EU should be be doing to support research in new member states.

It is a long way from Brussels to the Czech Republic in more ways than one. Bridging this gap is a constant challenge, and despite our promotional efforts too many Czech researchers remain unaware of what we do. We are working to address this by establishing a network of contacts at the level of grant offices or international departments in every Czech research institution.

On the other hand, some of those who do know about Czelo have been sceptical about the expense of maintaining a presence in Brussels. We have found that the best cure for such resistance is a visit to our office—face-to-face meetings are still the most effective form of interaction.

Likewise, one of our most successful actions has been to organise meetings of 10 to 20 researchers working in the same field. Many of those involved have gone on to register as evaluators on the Framework programme, and at least 20 proposals to Framework 7 grew out of such meetings. The office has also hosted Czech students on the Erasmus programme interested in pursuing a career in research management.

Researchers have appreciated our help. But it has been difficult finding out exactly what impact Czelo has. We get little long-term feedback, and it is not easy to measure the effect of consultations, talks or meetings. One might look for rising Czech participation in the Framework programmes, but this is a delayed effect with many possible causes.

Czelo, of course, is not the only Czech organisation with a Brussels office. We have learned how to complement, not duplicate, the work of other groups supporting participation in European R&D, such as the national contact point for the Framework programmes, business representatives and regional contact organisations. For example, we organise working breakfasts with regional representatives to update them on research policy, and run seminars with business organisations on areas of mutual interest, such as research funding for small and medium-sized enterprises.

having a voice in Brussels has given Czech researchers an advantage in competing for EU research funding. We have helped other new member states to follow our lead, advising Estonia and Hungary before their research liaison offices opened last year, and working with colleagues from Slovakia on their plans for a Brussels office that seems likely to open this year.

Our funding, although reduced by approximately 25 per cent, is now secure until the end of 2016. This enables us to look to the future, and Horizon 2020. One goal is to encourage Czech researchers to make better use of their international contacts to create partnerships for Framework programme projects.

I would also like to see the European Commission asking more researchers from new member states to act as evaluators of proposals. It is excellent experience for researchers, as it shows them how successful proposals are written, and it educates the Commission on the research capability of the new member states.

For research in a small country like the Czech Republic, international cooperation is crucial. But researchers in small countries are disadvantaged in the competition for international funding; less aware of the opportunities, and less equipped to apply for them.

We have heard remarks, for example, that researchers from new member states might be less reliable collaboration partners as they have no history of such collaborations. Helping Czech researchers escape such catch-22s and take a place at the heart of European research is one reason Czelo is still needed.

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Anna Vosecková is head of Czelo, the Czech Liaison Office for Research, Development and Innovation.