In one of the first events of the Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU, high-level representatives of the European Commission (EC) and the Member States (MS) met to discuss facilitating synergies in research & innovation funding in the European Research Area. The Synergies2022 conference was held in Prague on 7th and 8th July 2022, with a webstream for online participants.
Opening the conference, Vladimír Balaš, Minister of Education, Czechia, highlighted that the timeliness of the event. It followed the EC’s publication on 5th July of its guidance on the synergies between Horizon Europe (HE) and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) programmes. This guidance document provides legal and implementation details, along with practical examples of funding combinations.
Mr Balaš said that synergies in R&I are a priority for the Czech presidency. And he noted that the EC and the MS have been making efforts in this area since 2014. These focused on Horizon 2020 and the European Structural and Investment Funds, with a key aim to close the ‘innovation gap’ between different European countries. However, a recent European Court of Auditors report indicates there is still work to do in this area.
From talk to action: The Prague Declaration
To contribute towards concrete action, the conference outcomes will be synthesized into the “Prague Declaration on Synergies in the Research and Innovation Funding in Europe”, Mr Balaš explained. The Czech Presidency will invite MS to endorse the Declaration and it will be presented at the EU Competitiveness Council in December 2022.
Creating conditions for greater synergy and bigger impact
Helena Langšádlová, Minister of Science, Research and Innovation, Czechia, remarked positively on the growth of EU funding instruments to meet emerging social and economic challenges. However, this leads to challenges in alignment, policy making and harmonization, she said. In addition, Ms Langšádlová stressed the importance of private investment and the need for the right conditions to drive such investment and leverage its effects.
Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, invited the Conference to provide examples and solutions. How could EU instruments be further combined for greater effectiveness and impact in achieving EU policy goals such as the Green and Digital transitions?
She stated that the Commission had greatly enhanced opportunities for operational cooperation between HE and Cohesion policy (regional) funding programmes. Plus, like other EC speakers at the event, she emphasized that the Commission is committed to simplifying administration and increasing flexibility in R&I programmes.
Ms Gabriel also commented on the many funding programmes available. 10% of the budget so far approved under the EU Recovery and Resilience Facility will go to R&I (some 44 billion euros), she added. And in the period 2021-2027, the EU Regional Development Fund will provide 56 billion euros of support for R&I.
Examples, issues and possible solutions
After the opening speeches, Allen Weeks, Director General of the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) explained how synergies between EU, national and regional funding had enabled the creation of this unique facility and now support its operation. Later, Vit Vondrák, Director of IT4Innovations National Supercomputing Centre, VŠB, told a similar story about the High Performance Computing Joint Undertaking and the development of world-leading supercomputer resources for Europe.
The following panel and breakout sessions explored good practices, obstacles and potential solutions to increase synergies. Governance models, reduced administration, harmonization of rules and the impact of state aid rules featured prominently in the discussions. There were also calls for the EC to involve stakeholders in the development of programmes and to facilitate synergies through practical steps. For instance, coordinating the timing of calls and providing a single EU overview of all programmes, their results and potential synergies.
Partnerships and missions
The partnerships within Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe were frequently cited as examples of synergies already in action. And there was optimism that the new guidance would enable MS to increase their support and participation.
However, several speakers, including two from HE partnerships (Rail and Clean Energy) emphasized that while synergies are key to achieving EU societal goals, the challenges are complex. In such areas, there are vast numbers of potential partners ranging from national, regional and local governments to operating companies and end-users. Moreover, while avoiding gaps and duplication of effort is desirable, these can never be completely eliminated.
Beyond these established partnerships, the conference focused strongly on the five new European Missions. These represent a whole new level of ambition in creating synergies to achieve rapid results in areas with crucial impact for European society: climate, health and the environment. As multi-disciplinary, cross-cutting, cross-sectoral and bottom-up initiatives, these missions will require new forms of governance, evaluation, and knowledge sharing to name just a few of the challenges. Many speakers pointed to the TRAMI (the TRAnsnational Cooperation on the Missions approach) as a vital support in establishing these synergies and in moving to implementation.
In an intense two days, the participants shared a wealth of details on these topics and more. They spanned broad issues related to the Missions. And dived into details, from the value of local support for SMEs seeking EU funding to the specifics of the new Plugin and Fast Track approaches within the EIC Accelerator.
Synergies key to achieving EU goals
In her summing up, Radka Wildová, Deputy Minister for Higher Education, Science and Research, Czechia, recognized the breadth of challenges around synergies and funding. Nonetheless, she concluded that only if “we master synergies” will the EU tackle great societal challenges, achieve the goals of its Green and Digital transitions, and boost its competitiveness and EU cohesion.