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Reaching out to Central and Eastern Europe

22 November 2018

​For the Europe team at UUK International, the last few months have been hectic, to say the least. In addition to lobbying in Westminster and Brussels to push for an EU withdrawal deal that protects universities, we have been striving to maintain and strengthen bilateral relationships with higher education and research stakeholders in other European countries.

 

In recent weeks, this bilateral engagement has taken us to a selection of capital cities in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) as part of a campaign that has been organised and supported by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Science and Innovation Network (SIN). The SIN operates globally, with 110 officers in over 40 countries, and has recently significantly expanded its presence in Europe.

To mark this expansion and build bridges with parts of the continent with whom our research and innovation links are less well developed than with Western European counterparts, SIN officers organised roundtables with higher education, science and innovation stakeholders in Bratislava (Slovakia), Budapest (Hungary), Prague (Czech Republic), Sofia (Bulgaria), and Zagreb (Croatia).

There is substantial variation in the level of investment and performance of research and innovation systems in CEE. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Czech Republic actually invests a higher share of GDP in research and development than the UK (1.70% compared with 1.67%), whereas Slovakia lags behind on 0.79%. What is common across all five countries that we have visited or will visit is that collaborating with UK researchers dramatically increases the bibliometric impact of their publication, as shown by Scival figures for 2013-17 on field-weighted citation impact (FWCI).

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There are several key messages that we have been keen to push at these events. The first is common to all our European engagement, namely that we remain 100% committed to our research collaboration and student exchange links with European partners, and that we would like to continue to strengthen these bonds through continued UK participation in EU higher education and research programmes. We have also seized every opportunity to flag the steps taken by the UK Government to underwrite UK participation in EU programmes in order to reassure EU counterparts that they should continue to develop joint proposals with UK peers.

The second message relates specifically to the design of the Framework Programmes. We are aware that many in Central and Eastern Europe would like to see steps taken to ensure a more equal distribution of EU research funding across the bloc. On this front, our position is clear; we think it’s vital that Horizon Europe remains first and foremost a programme driven by identifying and funding excellent research ideas. We are keen to do what we can to support spreading excellence, for example by facilitating the exchange of UK expertise in university research management. We even accept that there is a place for a small share of the budget to be used to help build centres of excellence in widening participation countries through so-called ‘Widening actions’. However, we are unequivocal that geography has no role to play in the evaluation criteria for Horizon Europe, as we have clear in our response to the Horizon Europe proposal.

Finally, we want to explore how we can help share information with UK university researchers about the opportunities that exist for collaboration with partners in Central and Eastern Europe. Many of these countries have invested heavily in world-class research infrastructures through a combination of national funding and EU structural funds. For instance, the ELI Beamlines infrastructure has recently opened in the Czech Republic, the most intense laser facility in the world to date. We want to explore whether there is more that we could do, for instance through our Europe Network or International Research Development Network, to help enhance the understanding of these research systems in the UK.

The tone of these meetings has been constructive, leading to productive discussions about how we can intensify the scale and scope of research collaboration through both bottom-up initiatives and participation in the EU Framework Programmes. CEE stakeholders have echoed the same message that has been communicated via joint statements with Austrian and German rectors’ conference in recent weeks; namely, that European collaboration in science and research is a win-win, and that we must not let the current political uncertainty undermine our valuable collaborative links.



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