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Amid intense debate on the future of widening in FP10, EUA’s Federica Garbuglia highlights that enhancing access requires a balanced mix of EU-level targeted support and a renewed commitment to national R&I investments.

As Europe gears up for a new round of negotiations for the next EU R&I Framework Programme (FP10), the debate on the future of the widening instruments is already heating up. Many European and national R&I stakeholders are highlighting the need to rethink, improve, remove or maintain widening in FP10.

In our vision for FP10, we at the European University Association (EUA) put forward a diverse set of recommendations on improving the widening measures, with the final objective of maximising excellence everywhere in Europe. However, closing the persistent R&I gap across European countries is not an easy task. It will require joint efforts and responsibilities at both European and national levels, as well as a more inclusive narrative around the widening instruments.

Are widening measures effective? Let’s look at the data

Widening measures were first introduced in Horizon 2020 to address the low participation rates of certain member states in the Framework Programme. These included the countries that joined the European Union in the 2004, 2007 and 2013 enlargements, the so-called ‘EU-13’ countries, with the addition of Portugal and Greece.

Data available in the Horizon Dashboard shows that, after 10 years of widening, access to the programme for countries with lower R&I capacity has improved. Their share of the total EU contribution received went from 7% in FP7 to 9% in Horizon 2020 and 13,5% in the current programme, Horizon Europe. While this might seem like a moderate improvement, beneficiaries of the widening measures have also highlighted significant benefits from their involvement in these instruments. At the same time, enthusiasm about the effectiveness of widening varies across the different instruments. For example, Teaming and Twinning measures are seen as successful tools, while the Hop-on Facility has received criticism from the research community.

Still, a significant R&I divide continues to exist across member states. Again, data from the Horizon Dashboard shows how the total share of the EU contribution received by countries with lower R&I capacity (13,5%) is lower than that of Germany alone (15%), currently the top-performing country in Horizon Europe. Such imbalances are indeed part of the rules of the game for such a highly competitive funding scheme.

Institutions from countries with lower R&I capacity often demonstrate their ability to perform excellent research. What they sometimes lack are the necessary resources to access European funding, especially in terms of institutional capacity and research support staff.

Balancing EU funding and national support

In the ongoing debate on the effectiveness of widening measures, two main perspectives have emerged. One viewpoint focuses on the need to remove widening instruments from the Framework Programme, putting forward that the most effective way for countries with lower R&I capacity to improve their access to the programme is to implement national R&I reforms and boost national R&I investments. Other stakeholders claim that widening instruments should be kept and further enhanced, by offering opportunities for collaborative research projects as part of those measures.

While these two approaches might appear conflicting, they both raise key points that should be addressed when we envision the future of widening in FP10.

Reinforcing national R&I investments and providing targeted support to countries with lower R&I capacity through the Framework Programme is crucial to bridging the R&I divide among countries and maximising excellence across Europe.

On the one hand, national R&I reforms are key to supporting the development of strategies to secure R&I funding and build institutional R&I capacity. However, such reforms require a strong commitment from national governments. To this end, the Framework Programme can act as a catalyst by ensuring the alignment of the its horizontal pillar with the current and future ERA Policy Agendas. The introduction of Research and Innovation Actions (RIAs) in the widening instrument will also enhance their attractiveness across all beneficiaries, providing more opportunities for European researchers to collaborate on excellent research projects.

On the other hand, the impact that widening measures have had in supporting access to the programme for countries with lower R&I capacity cannot be sustained in the long term without the revamping of national R&I investments. While national investments in R&I should be reinforced everywhere in Europe, this is even more crucial in countries with lower R&I capacity which are lagging behind the 3% GDP investment target.

Therefore, asking for widening measures to be discontinued or advocating for their enhancement, without acknowledging the need to act at national level, might both be short-sighted strategies. We must recognise that achieving more inclusive access to the Framework Programme requires a balanced mix of targeted EU-level support and long-term national commitment to improve R&I framework conditions.

Time for a new widening narrative

While the widening debate is probably here to stay in the negotiations for FP10, it is also crucial to start advocating for a more inclusive narrative around these instruments. This should take into consideration both the progress achieved in the last ten years by countries with lower R&I capacity and the work that still needs to be done to improve R&I systems at national level.

In particular, widening measures should be reframed as instruments that empower institutions from countries with lower R&I capacity to strengthen their role as R&I leaders. The focus should be on acknowledging that excellent research is performed throughout all European countries, but the means and capacity to maximise such research excellence are not evenly distributed.

In conclusion, as Europe prepares for FP10, it will be key to recognise that improving access to the programme is a responsibility that needs to be shared at both EU and national levels. A new narrative on widening that acknowledges existing disparities in R&I capacity and resources across EU member states will also be essential to create a more inclusive and excellent European research landscape.


Federica Garbuglia
European University Association
Federica Garbuglia is a Policy and Project Officer, Research and Innovation, at the European University Association.

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