Shifting the discourse on research and New Europe

What if we thought of Europe’s lower-performing regions in positive terms, as our biggest opportunity?

We largely think of the low participation of EU-13 countries in framework programmes as a problem, and the figures speak their own language: the participation gap between EU-13 and EU-15 countries in Horizon 2020 has increased, with EU-13 countries attracting 4.9% of H2020 funding in the first three years of the programme. And, as Zygmunt Krasiński – Director of the Polish National Contact Point – reminded me last week, of the 100 most successful recipients of H2020 funding, not a single one is in EU-13 countries. As Europe’s best universities and research organisations focus on competing on a global scale, it seems that there has been little progress in addressing the problems in our own backyard.

But what if we thought of Europe’s lower-performing regions in positive terms, as our biggest opportunity? Such a change in mindset would begin by recognising what has already been achieved. Before the 1990s, universities in most EU-13 countries had very little direct exposure to academic freedom. From that perspective, the success of many institutions and national systems has been remarkable, in ways that cannot be measured by international rankings. Of course, we can lament that they have not made the same progress as some universities in Asia, for instance. But that progress has often been achieved with a level of state intervention in politics and society that we would find unacceptable in Europe. It is high time that we start to acknowledge – and appreciate – how much has already been achieved, in so many academic institutions in EU-13 countries.

Europe’s greatest asset is its people. As a university professor in the UK, I have much personal experience with the energy, intelligence and hard work that students from all over Europe – including EU-13 and our neighbourhood countries – bring to our classrooms. The ERC’s statistics also demonstrate the success of so many EU-13 nationals in obtaining awards, even if they are hosted abroad. The question, then, is how we can enhance this potential, ensure it has room to flourish, and help Europe – all of Europe – to succeed.

Focusing on this potential will direct our attention to mobility, collaboration, and structures. We need to increase student mobility in Erasmus+ in all directions, including students going to EU-13 countries and learning the host language. We need forms of bolder collaboration in which all parties have a real stake; the new European University networks are one example of what that might mean, centres of excellence funded by the Teaming instrument might be another.

Finally, we need to remove all structural barriers that stand in the way of realising excellence, ranging from the optimal provision and use of research infrastructures to the ability to co-fund EU-projects from locally-managed funds to appropriate flexibility on salaries.

Realising our potential is not just the job of the European Commission, and it is not just the job of national governments, important though these actors are. It’s about culture change, throughout Europe. My hope for the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit on Research Excellence in New Europe is that we can truly reflect on how we can bring about this change.

Published Apr. 23, 2018 1:03 PM - Last modified July 9, 2018 4:43 PM