What’s the deal with Horizon Europe’s Widening and Spreading actions?

An explanation of how the EU research agenda is trying to boost R&D performance in lagging countries like Malta

R&D expenditure in the EU. Source: Eurostat

When it comes to research, Europe is divided. Talent and excellence are widespread throughout the block, but the measurement of R&D performance reveals large differences between regions. To close the gap, the EU is now implementing a Widening programme to help 15 Member States and some associated countries catch up.

The Widening programme aimed at closing the R&I performance gap was launched under Horizon 2020, spending 1% of the EU budget on 2014-2020 research, not much. It has made several attempts to help bridge the gap, but a recent report from the EU auditor found that Widening was not a “miracle pill” and needed to be complemented by reforms in the Member States.

But it was successful enough to warrant its transfer to Horizon Europe, and Members of the European Parliament and the Member States, receiving less money from EU framework programmes than they put in, wanted to make it bigger and better. In 2019, EU research ministers earmarked 3.3% of the EU’s €95.5 billion research programme for Widening. The fight was tough, and governments in the lagging countries wanted more money, but the deal was hailed as a victory.

The final shape of the programme agreed upon by policymakers consists of two parts: one dedicated to increasing EU research participation across the bloc, while the other aims to boost excellence in research. Concretely, this means increasing geographic diversity, strengthening R&I capabilities, and fostering networking.

It has only been going for a year and a half and we still must see the fruits from Horizon Europe in lagging countries like Malta. In July, the 15 Widening countries fared slightly better under Horizon Europe than in the previous EU research programme, with a success rate of 13.6%, relatively closer to the overall average of the Member States 14.2%. They are also receiving more funding, securing 8.7% so far under Horizon Europe, compared to less than 6% under Horizon 2020. European Commission sources have shown cautious optimism as they reflect on preliminary data.

But not all numbers are positive. This week, the European Research Council (ERC) assigned its prestigious proof of the conceptual subsidies to 55 researchers, but only one of them came from a Widening country, Cyprus. This is not an anomaly in the statistics: since 2011, with an average of 133 subsidies distributed every year, only 73 have gone to current Widening countries.

Why should we care?

The Widening programme is a political tool. It is a tangible response to inequalities in the EU’s research ecosystem, aimed at preventing the build-up of excellence in some key positions and stopping the brain drain.

It is also strategic. Giving the underperformers a boost is one way to strengthen the EU’s overall position in research. Today Europe lags behind the United States and China in translating research into innovation. Lagging regions that are not fully utilizing their talent pool and technological capacity are contributing to the stagnation. If all parts of the bloc go well, European R&I will get a big boost.

That is why, in 2020, the European Commission relaunched the ambition to create a European Research Area (ERA), an internal research market in which knowledge, research results, and talent circulate freely and quickly. The ERA has 20 objectives which include setting standards for research careers and aligning national plans and investments in a common strategy to multiply their effects and avoid duplication.

The Widening programme is part of the plan, but it is not enough just to make a difference. To strengthen the European Research Area, national policies and budgets for research and innovation also need to be strengthened.

On average, in 2020, EU member states spent 2.3% of their GDP on public and private research, but none of the Widening countries reached this average. Malta devoted only 0.7% of its GDP to research. The only countries to hit the 2% mark were Slovenia and the Czech Republic – but they are still one percentage point away from the European target of devoting 3% of GDP to public and private research by 2030, according to the ERA Pact member states have committed to 2020. A €3 billion EU programme alone cannot close these gaps.

And why now? The EU has big goals to achieve in the green and digital transitions. At the same time, crisis after crisis is erupting, from energy shortages to supply chain disruptions to the COVID-19 pandemic. Horizon Europe has been designed to be more impact-oriented to help tackle these societal challenges over the next decade. Challenges are ever-present and more than ever, excellence must be everywhere, which makes Widening an increasingly important undertaking.

The essentials

Like the rest of Horizon Europe, the Widening programme will be implemented through calls for proposals. During the first two years of the programme, the calls will pursue three main objectives: improving access to excellence, attracting, and mobilizing talent, and improving and reforming the EU R&I system.

To improve access to excellence – the biggest piece of the pie in terms of budget – the Commission launches, among other things, calls for collaboration and twinning. Teamwork helps countries create new research facilities or upgrade existing ones with the help of other leading institutions. Twinning, on the other hand, is about networking; It connects the research institutions of the enlargement countries with those of the other Member States and helps them to set up the networks essential for setting up consortia for European projects. The talent part of the work programme aims to promote brain circulation by bringing the “ERA chairs” – outstanding scientists and innovators, to enlarged countries to lead permanent research teams, thus creating “pockets of excellence”. There are also ERA grants to support postgraduate cross-border grants in expanding countries, managed through the Marie Skłodowska-Curie research mobility programme of Horizon Europe, as well as the ERA-Talent programme, a type of grant that covers training and expansion of mobility costs researchers to land.

The third part of the enlargement of the work programme supports the reforms of the EU research and innovation system. Makes a series of smaller calls to set the tone for a better ERA. It is based on four objectives: prioritizing investment and reform, improving access to excellence, translating research results, and deepening the ERA. In 2023 and 2024, according to a leaked first draft work programme, the Commission will continue to hold invitations along the three lines, but the final plan has yet to be unveiled.