Horizon Europe Excellence Hubs in Widening Countries link the European Research Area to Smart Specialisation
Author: Odysseas Cartalos
The policy context
The European Research Area (ERA) was launched in 2000 to address the fragmentation of the EU's Research and Innovation (R&I) system by creating a single market for R&I, fostering free movement of researchers, scientific knowledge and innovation, and encouraging a more competitive European industry.
The new, or revitalised, ERA, proposed by the Commission in September 2020, will be structured around four strategic priorities:
- directionality of R&I investments in alignment with broader EU policy objectives, in particular the twin digital and green transitions
- improved access to excellence throughout Europe, with special focus on R&I capacity and skills in Widening Countries
- increased emphasis on knowledge transfer and value creation of R&I results
- deepening of the ERA, moving from an approach of coordination towards more strongly integrated national policies
While the new ERA is currently taking shape through the works of the ERA Forum for Transition, a series of Horizon Europe calls is expected to pave the way towards the new ERA priorities. One such call is for Excellence Hubs.
Excellence Hubs in Widening Countries
This call has just opened (3 November 2021), with a deadline of 15 March 2022 for the submission of proposals. Approximately 10 Excellence Hubs are foreseen to be supported through this call.
Each Hub will bring together teams from at least two regions in Widening Countries. These are defined by the EU as countries that score below 70% in the EU's composite R&I Performance indicator. Under the Horizon Europe programme, these are Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. The list also includes the outermost regions of France and Spain, and may comprise associated countries once association agreements are completed.
Each team should have representatives of one or more of the following member types: academic institutions; established business entities; public authorities or authorised agencies; societal actors.
These four-year Coordination and Support Actions (CSA) projects are intended to develop:
- Joint R&I agendas aligned with national, regional and/or European strategies or policy priorities underpinned by concrete actions plans
- Conceptual design and pre-planning for pilots and demonstrators in line with the R&I agendas
- Associated investment strategies reaching out beyond the CSA lifetime and leveraging national, regional and European funds and private capital
The Hub R&I agendas should facilitate longer-term cross-border and inter-sectoral collaborative links. Starting with lab prototypes and moving to larger scale demonstrators, jointly conceived R&I projects should lead to scientific and technological results with market potential. A key success factor for the Hubs relates to their potential for raising funding for implementing the proposed agendas, which in turn largely depends on the quality and broader socio-economic effects, at regional, national and European level, of work resulting from collaborative efforts in the participating regions (note that pilots and demonstrators in the Hub R&I agendas will be financed by other sources, such as ERDF, RRF or private funds).
Excellence Hubs as an entry point to a new multi-level governance scheme for Research and Innovation
The Excellence Hubs concept is fully aligned with Smart Specialisation, the currently prevailing feature for regional innovation and industrial policies in many European regions. Indeed, R&I Strategies for Smart Specialisation (RIS3) are intended to identify strategic areas for intervention based on the analysis of regional economic strengths and potential together with the 'Entrepreneurial Discovery Process' to be organised with wide stakeholder involvement, similar to that required for the Excellence Hubs.
The Excellence Hubs, however, go a step further, as they are intended to create synergies and complementarities linked to cross-regional value chains with increased chances for international competitiveness and higher levels of socio-economic impact.
The Excellence Hubs are embedded into the broader European initiative on ERA Hubs, which has the potential of joining up R&I stakeholders in the European regions in coordinating schemes to meet broader objectives (priority 1 of the new ERA) in line with the European green, digital and resilience strategies.
The Excellence Hubs therefore offer public and private sector R&I stakeholders in Widening Countries the opportunity to participate in the initiation and shaping of a new governance framework that combines the top-down alignment towards common European objectives and the bottom-up priority setting of RIS3. With this perspective, Excellence Hubs have the opportunity to become influential actors for regional or local R&I initiatives, as well as promoters and key members of European alliances, combining a range of public (national and EU) and private funding sources.
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