Alliance4Life suggests: Next FP should consider the experience of participants in Widening

On December 12, 2023 the Alliance4Life consortium composed of 12 top-level life science institutions from 11 countries in Central and Eastern Europe hosted the conference "Widening Instruments – Participants' View" at the Permanent Representation of Estonia to the EU in Brussels.  

The conference targeted a broad audience from politicians to policy-makers and practitioners. Special attention at the conference was paid to Alliance’s experience with the Widening measures and the resulting recommendations for shaping future Framework Programme. The Alliance’s policy paper on the efficiency of WIDESPREAD measures was presented, which contains both desktop research and results of structured interviews with Alliance4Life’s member representatives. The paper provides valuable insights and recommendations based on the experiences of Alliance’s  members focusing on the Widening measures of Twinning, Teaming, and ERA Chairs by examining their impact, challenges, and sustainability at national and European levels. The conference provided a venue to present the conclusions of the policy paper and clarify the opinions of the study to the decision-makers. 

A common theme among the conclusions drawn and suggested policy changes is the need for the EU to understand and consider the experiences of the participants in the widening measures. Without adequate feedback from the targets of their policies, the policies cannot be fully effective. Examples include the need to shift the widening paradigm from „supportive to empowering“ and a focus on proper follow-up measures in the programme. 

The welcoming words of the conference on behalf of the organizers were delivered by Kristel Oitmaa, Estonian Liaison Officer for EU R&I in Brussels. The programme included four presentations by experts from the European Commission and participating Widening countries of the Alliance4Life. 

Signe Ratso, Deputy Director-General, DG RTD, titled her presentation “Horizon Europe mid-term: what we’ve learned and what’s next”. Mrs Ratso emphasized the successful example of the Alliance4Life among the Widening countries. Despite unfavorable historical background, the universities and institutions in these countries have implemented a series of reforms and rapid changes. Some Widening countries have performed very well in Horizon2020, especially Cyprus, Slovenia and Estonia benefitting most per capita and investing themselves more to science and excellence, but the overall increase of Widening countries’ funded budget is also positively 1,5% in comparison with FP 7. However the FP 10 is still in early planning phase, the Widening budget is expected to increase to 3,3 % of the total FP accompanied by the wider portfolio of topics. Ratso concluded that the impact of Widening measures can only be assessed after a sufficient amount of time has passed.  

Stefan Weiers, Head of Sector ‘Widening, ERA and Research Infrastructure Programming’, DG RTD, dedicated his presentation “The widening component in Horizon Europe and Horizon 2020 – lessons learned and future perspectives” directly to the Widening component and its future implementation. Mr Weiers gave a brief overview of the background and experiences in framework programs and Widening measures of the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries. The present status and success rate of CEE countries in FP should be viewed in context of the lack of investments in R&D, relative weakness of national R&I systems compared to advanced countries, lack of synergies and learning effects, insufficient information, lack of advice, training, international cooperation, professional project management and significantly lower salaries. Mr Weiers pointed out that the success of one or another CEE country in H2020 Widening measures (e.g. Teaming, Twinning, ERA Chairs) depended also on the choice of the country where to put the effort, e.g. Cyprus was successful in Teaming because the country chose to invest specifically in that, while Estonia succeeded in ERA Chairs. In this sense Portugal brought home the most projects by investing in all measures.   

Currently we are witnessing the situation where the R&D innovation divide between the old and new EU member states still persists and the innovation gap also exists among the later joined countries themselves. As the FP is still in planning phase, there are no answers to the size of the global budget of FP 10, the size of the Widening budget, the selection process to select beneficiary countries for Widening, the activities to be supported from Widening (e.g. more to research and infrastructure, less to supportive actions as mobility). In conclusion, the European Commission supports the idea that countries undertake necessary reforms, make required changes at the institutional level, and do not simply rely on Widening funding.   


Jiří Nantl, Deputy Minister of Education, Youth and Sports, Czech Republic, Chair of Alliance4Life, concentrated on the highlights and lessons learned from the nearly 5 years of activity of the unique alliance, Alliance4Life, which has in short been all about the institutional reforms done by the participating institutions themselves to enhance their competitiveness and being even more empowered by Widening measures both presently and in future. The center of gravity in the context of Widening has shifted more towards the east, backed by foreign policy. Alliance4Life is clearly a role model in Europe demonstrating the need to make the homework before expecting more funds. The experience of the alliance is embedded into the context the countries know very well and what they have carried out in terms of changes sometimes even without the help of national funds. The context of CEE is as unique as the alliance itself, the model of the USA or Western Europe might not be appropriate for it at all. Mr Nantl explained the experience of Alliance4Life in closing the gap between old and new EU countries, which is much deeper than just funding, as we also have to keep in mind career systems, policies, ecosystems, supporting mechanisms to scientists and many more. Shortly, good performance in Widening is correlated with good governance, institutional management and internal culture. Another very important aspect Mr Nantl stressed is that the new ERA should be based on the leadership from the middle (e.g. rectors, vice rectors, PI-s). 

Toivo Maimets, Professor, University of Tartu, Deputy Chair of Alliance4Life, a contributor to the Alliance’s policy paper on the efficiency of WIDESPREAD measures, presented the most important conclusions of this paper from participating Central and Eastern European countries in the FP. In his presentation prof. Maimets reminded the aim of the Widening measures (from HE Work Programme 2023-2024), which is tackling the innovation divide towards a more integrated European research and innovation ecosystem in the EU because R&I policy can only ensure excellence at EU if every country progresses. The more inclusive approach in EU R&I system means that every country can both participate and benefit. Comparing FP7, H2020 and HE we can see that the Widening countries share of participation in the FP has constantly slowly increased, all together less than 4 % (from 16,6% to 20,2% among EU 27), but there are still plenty of disparities in success rates between non-widening and widening countries, especially in case of ERC and EIC grants. No doubt, successful participation depend on the number of applications, confirming why Slovenia, Cyprus, Estonia and Malta succeeded well after submitting more than 3x the number of proposals per capita than the average of remaining widening countries.  However, the state of the art (depicted in European Innovation Scoreboard 2023) is that the gap between EU 14 and EU 13 has not been bridged, it is still growing, and the ‘Widening’ countries themselves are diverse with the disparities within the group.  

Professor Maimets described the principles and foundations of drafting the policy document and summarized what participation in the Widening measure has given to the countries – improved scientific cooperation, increased mobility of researchers and more grant writing trainings to name just a few. Recommendations for changes in the measure are also provided, such as allocating more funds to research and less to soft activities (trainings, mobility) taking also into condideration the different needs and costs of different research areas, resources to attract new talents supported hand-in-hand at national and EU level to address challenges of wage differences and visibility of institutions. As Widening countries are excellent themselves, incentives both for widening and non-widening countries should increase, more funding directed to Seal of Excellence at EU level and a ranking system worked out within Regional Cantres of Excellence. Recommendations from the policy document include shifting from supporting to empowering, enhancing coordination at national and EU levels, improving call coordination, and accelerating strategic changes. 

Formed in 2017, Alliance4Life successfully executed its first Horizon 2020 action in 2018-2019.   It is currently engaged in the second H2020 project through spring 2024. Plans for a follow-up 4-year Horizon project focus on enhancing the institutional profiles of its members to attract and retain international talents with the aim to create favorable operational conditions, improve research management, and address historical challenges. Alliance4Life strives to be a model for institutions in less developed regions in Europe, collaborating closely with established European networks. Additionally, the Alliance actively contributes to science policy, shaping priorities at national and EU levels, and providing insights for increased participation in the Framework Programme. 

The event was moderated by Zlatuše Novotná, Alliance4Life Coordinator, Head of Strategic Partnership and International Relations in CEITEC Masaryk University. The event was attended by 48 participants.  

The event was organized in cooperation with the Estonian Research Council in Brussels and the Embassy of Estonia in Belgium.