Efforts to spread EU funding show their worth
By 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.