There are many ways in which boards of research organisations can support cross-border collaboration. They range from the right incentives for researchers, through account managers for Central and Eastern European countries and supporting European associations, to setting up new reward and recognition practices. These were some of the conclusions drawn by leaders of research organisations in the second webinar on ‘Better connecting excellence across the EU’.

 ‘Connecting excellence requires not just strategies but also institutional leadership’

Strategies to enhance cooperation across Europe

How can institutional boards support scientific staff in cross-border collaboration? This was the question posed by one of the panellists during the first webinar in the ‘Better connecting excellence’ webinar series by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) and Neth-ER. In the second webinar, board members of research organisations and governmental representatives took up this question in a discussion on strategies and support measures for European research cooperation.

Common push for research excellence 

Prof dr Marileen Dogterom, vice-president of KNAW and Professor at TU Delft, kicked off the webinar with a mission statement on better connecting excellence. She underlined the importance of optimising international cooperation within the EU to maintain Europe’s leading position in terms of innovative power and contribution to contemporary challenges. The KNAW and other members of Neth-ER strongly believe a common push for research excellence should involve all of Europe’s talent, whether from West, East, North or South Europe. The new Horizon Europe program offers plenty of opportunities for collaborative research projects compared to Horizon 2020. The increased focus on collaboration reinforces the need to better connect excellence, whether it is on the part of researchers, institutional boards or policymakers. Dogterom concluded by stressing that EU programmes alone are not enough for a fully integrated European Research Area (ERA). It requires commitment from all parties involved to connect European excellence in the best possible way.

Ministries should foster EU collaboration 

Next Jurgen Rienks, director of Neth-ER, interviewed Karina Angelieva, Adviser to the Bulgarian Minister of Education, on how ministries can enhance cooperation across Europe. Bulgaria invests in pan-European research infrastructures as it can be a ticket for Bulgarian researchers to build up an international profile. Bulgaria also funds Horizon Europe projects that received a ‘Seal of Excellence, especially for Twinning actions. Angelieva hopes the Bulgarian government will use ample funds from the RRF and structural funds for synergies with Horizon.  The country is also looking to invest in an international partner brokerage platform and a Bulgarian ‘ERC’ to invite foreign researchers to establish research teams in Bulgaria, which she hopes will bring a change of mindset.  She also broke a lance for simplification: researchers spend too much time navigating through the jungle of EU instruments. But simplification extends beyond researchers to general rules, for instance when a region cannot fund cancer research because it is not in line with its smart specialisation strategy.

Lessons from the panellists: why aim for a cohesive R&I system? 

A panel then turned to how board members of research organisations can encourage cooperation across Europe. Katrin Niglas, Vice-Rector and Member of the Executive Board at Tallinn University, argued that we should aim for a more integrated and cohesive R&I system. The research community cannot provide good solutions to wicked problems if local realities and cultural and historical backgrounds are not taken into account. “We do not want to include excellent researchers from EU countries if they just move around the big centres. We also want them to contribute to regional development in local universities. Helga de Valk, director of the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute & Professor at the University of Groningen, expressed her support, adding that Europe is changing demographically: if Europe is to remain competitive in the world, we will need partners from across Europe. The number of young people is decreasing, so we need to nurture all available talent.

Looking back and forward

Looking back at the results of Horizon 2020, Arthur Mol, Rector Magnificus and Vice-President of the Executive Board at Wageningen University and Research, evaluates the WUR performance positively. But looking forward to Horizon Europe, WUR would like to build different types of partnerships. Traditionally WUR is focused on North-Western Europe, while its researchers cooperate less with Central and Eastern European countries. Widening its partnership is also in line with the WUR’s mission, as the university strives to have an impact on global challenges. Hristina Yancheva, Rector of the Agricultural University of Plovdiv, also looks back positively on H2020, as it helped the international reputation of her institution. Looking to the new programming period, she pleads for more attention to training on proposal writing and research management skills. Another priority on her list is stimulating young scientists to spend time abroad, participate in brokerage events and apply for more calls in general.

How institutions support internationalisation

At Tallinn University, the board decided internationalisation is the only way to grow, Niglas explained, and it has been a core strategic principle since 2015. The board supported this by setting up Centres of Excellence using national and European funds to provide a basis for partnerships and project-based funding. The university also developed support systems, services for project preparation and Niglas even initiated some ERA Chairs applications herself. De Valk chimed in, saying that NIDI also supports internationalisation, targeting young researchers and students in particular. The institution expects every PhD student to spend a couple of weeks elsewhere. NIDI has also been an active supporter of the European Association for Population Studies (EAPS), which offers ways to connect researchers more easily. The WUR took a different approach and set up an account management system for Central and Eastern European partners, which llowed the institution to set priorities with an action plan to widen their networks.

Institutional leadership is key

Reflecting on her role as an institutional leader, De Valk highlighted that leaders are role models who show young researchers that there is more to being a researcher than publishing, such as contributions to academia or society at large. Yancheva tries to foster ties between West and East and raises the EU profile of her university together with the vice-rector. Niglas underlined maintaining the spirit of a researcher is very important. You might have a strategy on paper, but it takes strong leadership to implement these ideas while taking account of realities on the floor. Especially in a smaller university, someone has to step up and lead the change. Finally, Mol said it is important to show how you divide your scarce time as a leader. For instance, he recently spent quite a bit of time setting agendas in EU associations and participating in webinars like these. This gives a signal to people in his organisation. Another aspect where you can make a difference is setting up ways to co-finance Horizon projects from a central level to make life a bit easier for researchers.

What is on the wishlist?

The panellists had different wishes for support from national or European policymakers:

Katrin Niglas suggested that the EU should pay attention to small countries and not lean too heavily on large-scale projects by industry. This poses a serious risk to small countries to be left out. At the national level, building up strategically important infrastructures is essential. Governments should build up open science data management systems, as it is impossible for individual institutions to do so. She also hopes that the Estonian government will support the mobility of researchers, invest in the right conditions to attract foreign researchers and provide more core funding instead of competition-based funding.

Helga de Valk pled for less bureaucracy and more trust. She reiterated that the research community and governments should start working on better recognition and reward practices so researchers can also be rewarded for building transnational and interdisciplinary bridges. Besides this, she hopes the EU and member states will invest more in European associations such as EAPS . A small annual investment will have a huge impact on transnational cooperation.

Arthur Mol appealed to national governments to take European education and research a little bit more seriously. To tackle challenges together the EU and national governments must accelerate the development of the EEA and ERA. For example, national governments could better support European Universities financially as well as by linking up the different programmes. The Commission should consult more often with European associations in different scientific fields.

Wrapping up

In conclusion, Rienks noted the essential role of collaborative projects in tackling today’s challenges and fulfilling our societal role as knowledge institutions by delivering excellence and impact. Expanding Europe’s excellent knowledge base through enhanced collaboration and investments is a necessary precondition for open strategic autonomy. This requires a pan-European approach as well as speeding up the delivery of the ERA and EEA, as it is the only way to maintain our innovation capacity and guarantee the wellbeing and health of our citizens.


This webinar of Neth-ER and KNAW was part of two webinar sessions on how to better connect researchers and research organisations across Europe. The summary of the webinar on “Connecting researchers across Europe" can be read here.