Although several measures have been implemented to close the innovation gap between the old and the new EU member states, the gap continues to increase. An analysis focusing on life sciences suggests that instead of importing talent from Western Europe, more emphasis should be laid on nurturing local excellence.
More specifically, the experts from Alliance4Life, which brings together top research institutions from the new member states, focused on the EU Widening measures. These include creating new centres of excellence through improved cooperation, attracting distinguished researchers to the new Europe (EU-13) and establishing direct contacts in certain fields. “Widening measures became very popular seven or eight years ago, and a lot of political capital and funds were invested. However, each year we saw how the innovation gap they were targeting increased across all metrics,” admitted Toivo Maimets, Professor of Cell Biology at the University of Tartu.
In a recent analysis, Maimets and Heidi Ann Erbsen studied the experiences of 12 members of Alliance4Life. Although each country is represented in the alliance by just one research institution, it is generally where the majority of the top research in the field is done. Erbsen noted that the capacity of newer member states to benefit from the actions varies considerably. In some countries, the institutions did not succeed in receiving any support at all. In other cases, no information was available to assess the success rate. As a result, the institutions under review repeatedly described the experience as a ‘learning process’.
Therefore, Erbsen concluded that more time was necessary to assess the real impact of the measures. The importance of national support cannot be overlooked either. “Getting used to and learning to know the specificities of the European funding schemes takes time. But a lot depends on the national government when setting up the European Research Area (ERA) Chairs. Institutions can be very strong, but unless they have the government’s support, they can do nothing,” said Erbsen. In other words, it is important that things are understood in the same way at each level. She said Estonia is setting an example for the other recent EU members. However, the main conclusion of the analysis is that, besides attracting distinguished researchers from Western Europe, more attention should be paid to promoting local research excellence.
“The current logic is to import the excellence of the Western universities into the EU-13 countries and hope that it would spread here. But we’ve seen that it doesn’t work. We can see that unless the people who have been brought in this way get married here, they may decide one day that home is better [and leave],” Maimets said.
He believes that the requested excellence already exists in the universities of the new member states. It just needs to be nurtured. “Rather than importing, we suggest that excellence should be cultivated locally. That is far more sustainable,” the professor added.
Erbsen emphasised the same point, pointing to the ERA Chairs as an example. According to the existing schemes, they have guaranteed funding for five years. “After that, the money runs out, and the researcher brought here returns home or retires. In order to maintain the competencies, the universities, local research councils and governments must be able to adequately think ahead how to reach the set targets and secure funding for the coming years,” said the researcher.
Maimets believes that a closer look should be taken at what the money is currently used for. “Much of the funds of the widening measures was the so-called ‘soft’ money. It was used for travelling, meetings and networking. These are all very important activities but, at least in biomedicine, there were many opportunities for these already. Most of the project money should go to doing the research, paying salaries, buying reagents etc.,” the professor added.
In other words, if no fascinating science is being done at the university, no one is interested in making connections, no matter how hard you try. Furthermore, developing new lines of research and upgrading old ones in life sciences can often require purchasing very expensive equipment. According to Erbsen, this was one of the main complaints of the institutions.
“In the case of many widening measures, greater public investment is unavoidable, but it is not always clear whether there will be enough money to maintain the equipment in the long term. We cannot write a new proposal every year to use it,” Erbsen said. Avoiding such situations from the outset requires closer cooperation between the EU, the state, universities, and institutes.
In the current ninth framework programme Horizon Europe, the widening actions aiming to help EU-13 catch up account for nearly €3 billion of the programme’s budget. That is almost three times more than in the previous budget period. “It was clearly a political decision. I am sure that the accompanying actions can be improved continuously in response to feedback and that we do not have to wait until 2027,” Maimets said.
He said that there is no reason to worry even if Eastern Europe fails to catch up with the West in science and innovation overnight. “Germany did not start from zero in the 1950s, it started from below zero, and nevertheless, it has numerous excellent research institutions, universities and institutes today. Why shouldn’t we be able to achieve the same?” the professor asked rhetorically.
One may entertain the idea of specialising, but according to Maimets, if other scientific disciplines are neglected, university education will quickly begin to suffer due to Estonia’s small size.
Read the full overview by Alliance4Life.