Go back

Efforts to spread EU funding show their worth


Research strength is growing across Europe—but continued success is not guaranteed, says Jan Palmowski

As the budget for EU Framework Programmes has increased, so have concerns about unequal participation between different European nations. Awards in the latest programme Horizon Europe and its predecessors have, after all, been distributed according to excellence. For this reason, Horizon 2020, which ran from 2014-20, devoted 1.2 per cent of its €75 billion budget to a new set of funding instruments for Widening Participation and Spreading Excellence.

On 15 June, the European Court of Auditors published its assessment of these programmes. This came on top of previous analyses by the European Commission of both Horizon 2020 widening instruments and EU structural and regional funds in the previous funding period (2007-13). 

Together, these studies offer insight into a fundamental question: can an excellence-based programme also be inclusive, particularly for the ‘EU13’ countries that have joined the union in 2004 and since? 

To begin with, countries eligible for widening measures at the time, namely the EU13, plus Portugal and Luxembourg, won 7.2 per cent of Horizon 2020 funding, up from 5.5 per cent of its predecessor Framework 7. Money from widening measures accounted for a third of the increase. Remarkably, the six countries showing the biggest jumps in overall participation were all in the widening group. 

The most striking divides affected the widening countries themselves. Measuring Horizon 2020 funding won per researcher, the EU’s eight bottom performers are all EU13 member states. Yet Cyprus, Latvia, Estonia, Slovenia, Portugal and Malta each attracted more funding per researcher than Germany or France. 

This difference is closely related to performance in the widening instruments. Accounting for population size, the top group of widening countries—Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia and Portugal—attracted €10 per capita or more, while eight countries attracted €5 or less.

These instruments generate top-quality publications, leverage extra national funding, and generate and strengthen research networks. They also reinforce the academic strengths of national research and innovation strategies and fields of academic distinction.

The documents also show the influence of national policies on the impact of widening measures, and Horizon 2020 participation more generally. The Court of Auditors laments some countries’ unwillingness to reform their research and innovation policies, and raises concerns about national and regional co-financing commitments, some of which are mired in red tape and delays. 

Analysing differences in the use of regional and structural funds reinforces the importance of national policies. In 2007-13, around €16bn was allocated to capacity building in research and innovation, of which EU13 countries spent 78 per cent. But how that money was shared out between fundamental research and more innovation-focused activities differed widely.

Trebled budget

In Horizon Europe, the budget for widening participation has trebled, to around €3bn over the programme’s 2021-27 duration. These reports suggest strongly that this should be enough to lift every targeted country’s participation in EU R&D funding decisively, boosting participation across the board, including in EU13 nations with larger R&D systems, such as Poland and Romania, which have been less successful at winning excellence-based funding. 

For this to happen, more countries need to put in place more enabling, supportive research policies. This may be about the more effective use of regional funds, which in countries such as Poland or the Czech Republic comprised over 90 per cent of EU research and innovation funding. It may involve changing restrictive national laws on researchers’ pay that make it nearly impossible to hire outstanding foreign talent, as in Slovenia. Or it may be about developing strategies to succeed in particular competitions, as Cyprus has done. 

Success is not guaranteed. Recent changes mean regional funds can now only be spent on research if it leads to innovation. This will be a massive challenge to some of the more successful widening countries that have invested these funds in fundamental research, like Portugal, or in higher education capacity, like Estonia. 

New instruments for widening participation also focus on innovation, notably the European Research Area Hubs and the Excellence Initiative. This must not undermine investment in research excellence. 

The EU has a crucial chance to build on past success to make Horizon Europe inclusive as well as excellent. For the sake of future framework programmes, it must not squander it. 

Jan Palmowski is secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities

This article also appeared in Research Europe