14 oktober 2021

‘Better connecting researchers requires perseverance, institutional support and thinking about the future’

Joep Bresser

Joep Bresser


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Solid and authentic consortia with clear roles for all partners; alignment with important long term national and European policies; sustainability strategies; institutional support and sensitivity to cultural specifics. All these aspects are key to building long-lasting and durable partnerships beyond the lifespan of a project. During the first of two webinars in the webinar series ‘Better connecting excellence across the EU’, Neth-ER and KNAW invited researchers from Horizon 2020 projects and representatives of COST and the Commission to reflect on lessons from research cooperation in Horizon 2020 and share expectations for future cooperation in Horizon Europe and beyond.

‘Better connecting researchers requires perseverance, institutional support and thinking about the future’

How to better connect researchers across Europe

How can we better connect researchers across Europe? During the first webinar in the ‘Better connecting excellence’ webinar series, Neth-ER and KNAW invited researchers to discuss learnt lessons from their experience in Horizon 2020 projects and what to expect for the future of their partnership. prof. dr. Aart Liefbroer, Theme Leader Families and Generations at the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute and dr Gerli Nimmerfeldt, a researcher at the Institute of International Social Studies at the University of Tallinn, presented their Horizon 2020 project Life course perspectives in studying youth transitions to adulthood: bridging qualitative and quantitative approaches" (YouthLife) and prof dr Vladislav Popov, PhD, Vice-rector Science and Projects at the Agricultural University of Plovdiv and dr Berien Elbersen, senior Researcher land use and integrated environmental assessment, presented their project “Strengthening the research & innovation capacity in the area of Bioeconomy for the Plovdiv region” ( CAPBIO4BG).

The role of COST in connecting researchers

Judith Litjens, policy officer at the funding organisation COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology) took the floor and highlighted connecting researchers is at the core of COST. In the past 50 years, the organisation actively contributed to the advancement of the European Research Area as the networking activities funded by COST are an ideal way to encourage brain circulation: by participating researchers and innovators return to their institutions of origin, empowered with new ideas, and linked to an excellent international network that will last beyond the COST action lifecycle. Lastly, she mentioned the role of COST as a pre-portal to other EU-funded research and innovation schemes through its established networks. Spin-off H2020 proposals from (former) COST participants have had a success rate of 37%: three times as high as the average success rate in H2020.

Lessons from the panellists: how to start a project?  

Jurgen Rienks, director of Neth-ER led a panel discussion among the researchers and welcomed Federica Roffi, Deputy Head of Unit Spreading excellence & widening participation at Research Executive Agency (REA), to the panel. She kicked off the discussion by explaining what the Commission is looking for from an evaluation perspective. The Commission attributes high value to solid and authentic consortia. Simply adding an advanced institution is not enough: the role of each participant needs to be crystal clear both in terms of what they can bring and receive interlinkages with the industry and commercial sector and alignment with the smart specialisation strategies can also count on positive feedback from the Commission. Aart Liefbroer echoed Federica’s words and emphasised the importance of the non-scientific elements in applications, such as a good management structure and a clear stakeholder engagement plan.

Lessons from the panellists: key success factors? 

The discussion continued with determining key success factors. Federica explained how the Commission looks at promising results beyond expectation: media appeal, the possibility of winning new competitive grants and a clear sustainability strategy are elements that make a successful project. Berien Elbersen added that perseverance is of utmost importance, especially in the most chaotic phases of the application process. Besides this, also opening up to other cultures is crucial in any given project: if you’re not open, collaborating is impossible. Lastly, Vladislav Popov outlined the need to align the topic of any capacity building programme with the national and European policies of the future. At the moment some EU countries lack the capacity and experts to develop national strategies together with stakeholders. Projects like Twinnings can ensure these policies and strategies will really happen at the national and regional levels. 

Lessons from the panellists: sustainable partnerships?

Finally, the different panellists reflected on how they see the future of their partnership. All panellists emphasised that a sustainable partnership is the goal. Gerli Nimmerfeldt explained sustainability of the project was one of the aims from the start and therefore included in their action plan. In one of the working packages, the project participants develop a research design for youth study in Estonia, which could provide the basis for further collaboration and funding for comparative European studies. Aart Liefbroer added that the WIDERA program does certainly not only benefit the institutions in the widening countries.For Dutch institutions, schemes like Twinning provide idle opportunities to find strong partners in these countries, which in turn can strengthen the building of future consortia for other research funding schemes. Federica Roffi pointed out how the Commission puts emphasis on sustainability right after the start of a project and actually sees concrete examples of institutes that participated in a Twinning to grew into a Teaming project or other project beyond the WIDERA scheme. She also mentioned the upcoming audit of the European Court of Auditors shows the positive impact of the WIDERA actions on coordinators, researchers and institutions in widening countries. 

Conclusions and key messages

Looking ahead to the second part of the webinar series on institutional strategies to enhance cooperation across Europe the panellists said they are curious to hear what institutional boards can do to support their scientific staff, both showing the advantage of participating in instruments like Twinning as well as facilitating support for their researchers. Vladislav added we should not wait with forging links and utilising contacts until opportunities are offered by Horizon Europe. Contact points within the ministries, universities and other organisations will need to be proactive in helping to connect the missing links.

Stay tuned for the summary of the second webinar next week!


This webinar of Neth-ER and KNAW is part of two webinar sessions on how to better connect researchers and research organisations across Europe. In the second webinar on 30 September board members of research organisations commented on institutional strategies that can increase cooperation and interlinkages between research and innovation actors in the European Research Area.