MIRRIS Final Conference, Brussels, 26 May 2016

The final conference of the MIRRIS project (July 2013 to June 2016) took place on 26 May in Brussels attended by an attentive audience of 60
R&D&I stakeholders mainly from EU13 representation offices/delegations based in Brussels. However, as MIRRIS coordinator, Andrea Di Anselmo, Vice-President of Meta Group, pointed out, the day’s event was neither a conference nor final in that the momentum gathered over the 3 years of the project was set to continue with new and follow-on actions


Setting the scene

The first speaker of the morning was Roman Arjona-Gracia of the European Commission who introduced the work of the H2020 Policy Support Facility, a special EC initiative which studies the national reform programmes of EU13 member states and associated countries; with a view to removing barriers to participation in ERA and in general improving the R&I ecosystem in each country. PSF activities include peer reviews, such as recently carried out in Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine, specific support, such as focusing on start-ups and entrepreneurship in Slovakia, and country-specific recommendations, such as promoting private investment in R&D in Estonia. For Mr Arjona-Gracia, “MIRRIS has been a highly useful initiative, which thanks to its micro-projects has ‘provided the glue’ to help make the policy stick”.

MIRRIS outcomes

The floor was given next to Anita Tregner-Mlinaric, MIRRIS coordinator from Meta Group, who had the pleasant task of thanking the EU stakeholders without whose collaboration the project would never have succeeded. In addition to the impressive project deliverables of 13 policy briefs and 13 specific roadmaps (the tangible results of the 3-step policy dialogue process in the EU13), MIRRIS had also been able to match demand for improving specific R&D&I management capacity with hands-on coaching delivered by peers from other European countries. When it came to identifying the obstacles to the EU13’s participation in EU Framework Programmes, MIRRIS had detected similar behavior and trends across all of the target countries, including
  • The low salaries of EU13 researchers (perceived as the biggest obstacle by many), which made it difficult to compete with the EU15;
  • Under-use of mobility schemes;
  • Preference for applying for ESIF funding (simpler procedure with higher chances of success);
  • Reactive rather than pro-active attitude (waiting to be invited to join a consortium, rather than initiating).
On the other hand, the project’s investigations had revealed that those EU13 countries with the highest researcher mobility are also the most successful in attracting FP funding.
U13 representatives were given the floor in the following session, which set out to shed light on some of the good practice initiatives put in place to encourage wider participation in H2020. Katarzyna Walczyk-Matuszyk, Deputy Director of the Polish NCP for H2020, explained how Poland considered participation in the ERC a priority and that proposals submitted by Polish researchers are now receiving better evaluation marks. Researcher mobility is on the increase with more international researchers being attracted to Poland. Professional managers in contract research offices are helping researchers to prepare proposals and a “grant for grants” scheme is helping to pay for proposal writing. National money is also being provided for salaries as a bonus in the case of successful H2020 funding. Other Polish initiatives which demonstrate active efforts to widen participation in H2020 include the creation of a multi-stakeholder network to discuss issues of mutual interest, increased interest in the Polish liaison office in Brussels, an ongoing dialogue with other EU13 countries on remuneration practice, the creation of an NCP Academy as well as work on synergies between H2020 and Structural Funds.

Szonja Czudi, Head of the Department of International Affairs at the National Research, Development and Innovation Office of Hungary, commented on some of the  incentives to encourage Hungarian participation in H2020. These include travel grants for helping to set up research consortia, a support scheme to exchange experience with successful ERC grantees as well as support for applying to the SME Instrument, such as an e-learning programme and coaching. National funding is also being made available for unsuccessful SME Instrument Phase 1 applicants who score above the threshold to prepare a business plan and submit an application for Phase 2 funding.
Asked by the session moderator Christian Saublens which issues they would tackle as a priority if given a job in the cabinet of the EC Commissioner dealing with ERA, the replies from the panelists were quite diverse. Vladimir Albrecht, Deputy Director of the Technology Centre AS CZ in Prague, wished that the CZK 30 billion invested in new R&D infrastructure could be used in H2020. Ms Czudi was keen to address the remuneration issue by paying researchers higher salaries from ESIF and then calculating salaries for H2020 proposals on this basis. She was also in favour of increasing the number of small scale projects and launching calls which were more tailored to the EU13.

Katarzyna Walczyk-Matuszyk of Poland went one step further by advocating embedding EU13-specific criteria in calls for proposals, e.g. compulsory to have a partner from the EU13. She was also in favour of a better EU15/EU13 balance in advisory groups (e.g. on ICT) where sometimes the imbalance was as much as 3:1. In their final comments, the panelists looked forward to finding practical solutions. While Vladimir Albrecht called on Czech researchers to overcome the obstacles to H2020 participation on a national level (this was not an EU problem), Szonja Czudi advocated using different sources of funding in a smart way and Mrs Walczyk-Matuszyk called for a reform of the system: after investing in infrastructure during FP7 it was now time to put the focus on attracting good researchers during H2020.

A window on EU excellence

The MIRRIS organizers were keen to showcase outstanding examples of ways in which individual R&D institutions boost their level of participation in international collaborative research programmes. Špela Stres, Head of the TT a nd Innovation Centre at Jožef Stefan Institute in Ljubljana, kicked off the next session with a presentation of some facts and figures which demonstrate the impact of their strategy to increase their participation in the European R&D&I funding arena. JSI researchers demonstrate good mobility as it is a condition that all post doc researchers go abroad for part of their studies. In 2007 an international office was created as a centralized support system for researchers and in 2011 the Centre for TT was created with researchers retaining the right to decide on which projects are suitable for transfer. In 2014 an NCP body was set up to group together stakeholders, while in 2015 a national lobbying body for innovation was set up, and last, but not least, the post of assistant director for EU matters was created at JSI in 2016.
The next example of excellence was presented by Stijn Delauré, Head of Unit for International Research Funds, at KU Leuven’s Research Coordination Office. Ranked N° 2 in Reuter’s listing of innovative universities, the University of Leuven can boast the acquisition of 143 projects so far under H2020. Mr Delauré was quite frank about the success factors contributing to this level of performance: 1) the national funding base, which is competitive in nature, is used to leverage follow-on funding, e.g. H2020 and with industry; 2) the existence of a climate of competition to achieve excellence; 3) Knowledge Transfer with 75% of professors having contacts with industry; 4) membership of international networks to increase visibility; 5) support structures to help with applications for research funding, e.g. H2020. He admitted that his university enters into fewer collaborations with the EU13 for the simple reason that they do not know the different R&D&I players in these countries. To overcome this they have recently created a strategic alliance with institutes in Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia with activities such as a staff exchange programme, teaming and twinning actions and travel grants to help establish H2020 partnerships.
Helen Haab, Senior Expert for External Funding at the University of Tallinn in Estonia, explained how a relatively small university (5 000 students) with a focus on the  arts and humanities could also excel in their efforts to obtain H2020 funding (currently 8 projects, of which 3 as coordinator). She highlighted measures such as financial support for project preparation using external consultants and increased collaborations with the NCPs as contributing factors to their success.
When asked about other channels which can help widen participation in EU funding programmes, Ms Stres recommended building bridges to sectoral associations and EEN, while Ms Haab referred to membership of EARMA and Mr Delauré was in favour of going to conferences, while mentioning the role of knowledge brokers who are paid and evaluated for the parents and contacts with industry that they broker as well as their involvement in H2020 projects. In their conclusions, Ms Stres emphasized the importance of knowledge transfer since “every researcher believes in the potential impact of their research”, while Mr Delauré proposed a “seal of excellence” for ERC, Marie Curie, Fast Track to Innovation proposals, which meet the threshold but are not approved for funding, so that they can be supported from other sources.
In the final session of the day, panelists from the European Commission, the JRC and the MIRRIS consortium debated the policy dimension of widening participation. Dimitri Corpakis, Head of Unit Spreading Excellence and Widening Participation at DG Research and Innovation, emphasized that structural reform was a priority of the whole Commission. For Katja Reppel, Deputy Head of Unit for Innovation Policy Development at DG Growth, cross fertilization between programmes, e.g. using public procurement in support of innovation, was a key to sustainable growth. Mathieu Doussineau of the Stairway to Excellence initiative at the Joint Research Centre also highlighted the aspect of looking for synergies for common actions.
When looking at ways to improve the system, Ms Reppel reminded the audience of the motivation factors for doing it, e.g. public money should always be matched by private funding and gave the example of students being obliged to find a job pl acement in order to be admitted to their exams. She also stressed that it was necessary to allow time for infrastructure investments to give results and gave the Slovenian example of a successful public -private partnership when the public authorities consulted local and international firms on what kind of equipment they considered useful for their own research purposes. Mr Corpakis reiterated the need for more entrepreneurial universities and more knowledge-oriented businesses which are open to collaborating with RTOs. He went on to make the very valid statement that “in the EU15 it has become natural to collaborate, but it was not like that 20 years ago; this gives a strong message of hope for the EU13”. In his concluding statement Christian Saublens of the MIRRIS consortium lamented that there was not enough marketing of research excellence and that there was a lack of follow-on funding to enable researchers to capitalize on their project’s results. While Mr Saublens called on stakeholders to leave their comfort zone and become more willing to contribute to change, Andrea Di Anselmo pronounced the final words with a call for action – while there is still time.

Interview with Andrea Di Anselmo on behalf of META, MIRRIS coordinator

Three years on, with the MIRRIS project about to end, what are the results of which you are most proud? 

MIRRIS was able to mobilize 1100+ stakeholders and engage 500+ institutions.  We facilitated not just a discussion on barriers preventing wider participation of the EU13 in EU Framework Programmes, but also – and this is even more important - the prioritization of actions to start a change. This is what makes us especially proud.

What do you believe to be the lasting benefits of the MIRRIS dialogue process for the EU13 R&D&I stakeholders?

All the countries highlighted that, thanks to MIRRIS, different ministries started to collaborate and discuss about synergies. This will pave the way to long- term impact, especially with respect to connections between ESIF 2014-2020 and H2020. Another important legacy is the better understanding of the importance of the international dimension and of promoting countries’ excellence abroad.

In view of the conclusions of the policy dialogue process in the EU13, what issues still constitute the major obstacles to greater participation of the EUR13 in ERA/H2020?

The approach of the EU13; their attitude is still reactive instead of proactive. There is still the tendency to wait instead of going out of the country and looking for opportunities. Countries are looking at the EU programmes as an opportunity for today. They do not consider the strategic dimension and what they can get tomorrow when exploiting the project results.

In which areas do you think there will be most breakthrough in the near future?

Each country has its own specificities and, when it comes to priority actions, it is not possible to generalize. For sure there is a new level of attention being paid to how to deal with countries’ representation in Brussels, how to make a better impact and, what is pretty new, how to leverage their scientific diaspora to connect to partners and create more and better opportunities.

If you were invited to give advice to EU12 R&D&I stakeholders about increasing their participation in ERA, what would that be? 

Invest money in marketing yourself and improve your organization’s visibility. The quality and value of science in these countries is not appreciated as it should be.

At the MIRRIS final conference on 26 May in Brussels you mentioned the need to move from a “learning” to an “action” mood. What exactly did you mean by that?

People came to the policy dialogue and to the peer2peer coaching to listen and learn. Listening is necessary, learning is important, but continuing to listen and learn prevents action. MIRRIS aimed to mobilize action, not facilitate learning.
The EU13 are ready to act, if they want.