Spreading Excellence: How can we foster and support research across Europe?
The Guild’s expert group on Spreading Excellence and Widening Participation met in Kraków on 29-30 June for a symposium organised by The Guild and Jagiellonian University.
The meeting brought together experts from Guild member institutions (Jagiellonian, Ljubljana, Oslo and Tartu), Polish universities (in Warsaw and Poznań), heads of the Polish research funding agency (National Science Centre) and Polish contact points for framework programmes as well as guests from the Polish Academy of Sciences. The Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education was represented by Undersecretary of State Prof. Łukasz Szumowski.
Discussions focused on the innovation gap between EU-15 and EU-13 Member States and boosting the excellence of Central and Eastern Europe by leveraging other related sources of funding, above all the EU structural funds of which EU-13 countries have been a major recipient. The need to maximise synergies between different sources of funding was addressed in light of the expected decrease of structural funds after 2020 (a prospect that the European Commission confirmed again in its latest financial prognosis of 28 June). Structural, economic and cultural barriers to excellence existing on national and EU levels were also discussed.
Participants agreed that the aim for research and innovation funding in Europe should be to foster true excellence across all of Europe, and that the current participation gap risks compromising this ideal. Participants underlined the need for national reforms, and stated that in Poland much attention is currently focused on the Higher Education bill that will be announced in the Autumn.
Prof. Toivo Maimets, former Estonian Minister of Education and Research and Professor at the University of Tartu, also noted that before 2008 the participation gap had contracted, but it has since widened because of the reduction in spending on research and innovation in many member states. Whilst acknowledging these critical national concerns, the discussion at the symposium also focused on changes to European funding for research and innovation, which could help reduce the participation gap.
Key points made include:
- A proposal to develop a more complex understanding of how excellence should be fostered, to overcome the current (and unhelpful) binary juxtaposition between scientific excellence and geographic inclusiveness. Participants discussed how we can best capture excellence, and how we can best encourage researchers to publish in internationally outstanding journals. A key question also related to how we could foster new types of meaningful international collaboration.
- Excellence has to be embedded within research institutions throughout Europe: not only with the use of existing instruments, but also through new, innovative support schemes that have not been proposed before.
- The vast investments in research infrastructure made in the past years in Central and Eastern Europe with the use of Structural Funds must be better utilised in order to support excellence, international collaboration and stronger performance in framework programmes; and this could be a priority for future priorities within Widening Actions or synergies.
- Given that funding schemes for research in the EU are becoming increasingly complex and highly competitive, it is crucial that academics from all parts of Europe, and especially from lower-performing regions, make their voices better heard by the EU institutions. This will also enhance understanding of some of the constraints faced by researchers.
- Researchers in lower-performing regions need stronger local support to gain the necessary confidence and know-how to succeed in competitive international funding calls. Many institutions, including the Polish universities that were represented at the symposium, have already been developing such schemes of support – but it is important to enable institutions more generally to better support applicants.
The symposium kicked off what is intended to be a series of events organised at Guild member universities in lower-performing countries to address the different causes of the innovation gap. In parallel, The Guild will continue engaging with decision-makers in Brussels as part of its engagement with the ninth Framework Programme, and its response to the Lamy report.