EU enlargement - what impact on research in Bulgaria, Romania and the EU?
When the European Commission approved the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union on 26 September, reactions around Europe were mixed. Commentators honed in on immigration, the structural funds, judicial reform or the final farewell to the Iron Curtain.
But at a time when research is being talked up as the way to a knowledge economy, and consequently competitiveness and growth, what does Europe's research community, and in particular that of Bulgaria and Romania, make of the enlargement? What will research from these countries bring to the EU? And as Bulgarian and Romanian researchers have been fully involved in EU research programmes for some time, will it actually make any difference?
Worker mobility has been a talking point in many countries, and several have introduced restrictions on the number of Romanians and Bulgarians able to take up employment following their accession to the EU on 1 January 2007. With science and research problems being international in nature, this could have a detrimental impact on the sharing of knowledge between the EU's newest and more established members.
All of the researchers and representatives to whom CORDIS News spoke believe that enlargement will bring changes for science and technology in Bulgaria and Romania, in spite of mobility restrictions. 'The accession will bring a higher interest and confidence in including Romanian partners in FP7 [Seventh Framework Programme] project proposals and an increase of the quality of their contributions in partnerships,' according to Mircea Sbarna, Romania's Counsellor for Research and Education in Brussels.
Vesselina Ranguelova, a Bulgarian researcher working at the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC), believes that her country's accession to the EU will raise awareness in Bulgaria of EU research programmes. 'Although we are part of the European Research Area [ERA] already, not every researcher knows about the possibilities of the EU,' she told CORDIS News. She also expects accession to make moving around in Europe and making contact with potential research partners easier.
Dan Dascalu, Director of Romania's National Institute for R&D in Microtechnologies, expects that Romania's membership to the EU will lead to more of a correlation between the research done in his country and that done EU-wide. 'Romania is not strong enough to have critical mass in all areas. We need to cooperate on common projects. I hope accession will bring a higher degree of consistency in national programmes,' he says.
Of course both countries have already come a long way by themselves. In 2004, Romania launched a national programme to prepare its research community for European integration and FP7. Some 2,052 projects were funded in four categories: complex R&D projects; human resources; participation in European and international projects; and research infrastructure. Mr Sbarna draws attention to some immediate pay-backs, witnessed in 2005: 11 PhD researchers from abroad decided to work at a Romanian research institute; 18 technological platforms were set up; and 36% of the available budget went towards new equipment.
Romania's budget for research and innovation increased by 80% from 2005 to 2006 to 0.4% of GDP. For 2007 it is expected to rise by a further 52.5%. According to Romanian Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu, this is money well spent: 'After a long period of stagnation or even decrease, the research and innovation started again to increase and the results of public-private partnerships presented here are good proof in this respect,' he told an international fair in Bucharest in October.
Bulgaria adopted a national plan aimed at increasing research investment to 3% of GDP. This is an ambition shared by the EU-25. In September 2006 the plan was updated to include actions on university capacity-building and preparing for FP7. This will include co-financing for teams that win FP7 grants. Albena Voutsova from Bulgaria's Ministry of Education and Science, as the national coordinator for FP6 and FP7, has received an informal but positive response from the European Commission on the plan. The ministry is headed by the country's Deputy Prime Minister, reinforcing how important science is to Bulgaria.
Bulgaria also commissioned an international review of its National Science Fund. The ensuing report made some important recommendations, but also had praise for initiatives such as the 'Promotion of young scientists' scheme and the funding, in 2005, of Bulgarian proposals submitted for funding as an EU Science Support Action, which were rejected at the last hurdle by EU evaluators.
Those that spoke to CORDIS News also pointed to other positive trends such as a move towards the establishment of private sector research bases in Bulgaria and Romania, and the increase of publications and citations are also on the increase.
For some at least, the changes have made Bulgaria and Romania more welcoming for researchers. Dr Ranguelova has seen Bulgarians return home after time spent abroad. Brain drain was at its height between 1992 and 1995, but has now practically stopped, she believes. She puts this down to improved conditions and the 'dynamic environment for good ideas', which offers better opportunities than those available in other countries.
Romania too has seen some of its researchers return home, in particular the 11 PhDs mentioned above. Roumen Nikolov, Vice Dean at the Faculty of Mathematics and Informatics at Sofia University, is not quite so confident however. He would like to see a move away from brain drain and towards 'brain circulation', but predicts that enlargement will lead to a new wave of Bulgarians packing their bags for shiny new laboratories and enticing opportunities elsewhere. 'Europe has a shortage of one million researchers and we are becoming the main suppliers,' he told CORDIS News. He is though keen to emphasise that he is not against his country's accession to the EU, and has in fact been campaigning for it for many years.
Bulgaria and Romania have been associated to the EU's research framework programmes since the Fourth Framework Programme (FP4), which ran from 1994 to 1998. Over that time, participation has increased, and during FP6 they had the same rights and obligations as EU Member States for the first time, allowing their researchers to become project leaders and create consortia made up exclusively of partners from the then candidate countries.
This made research the first area in which enlargement became a reality. A glance at the latest statistics shows 332 Bulgarian participants in 268 FP6 signed contracts, with a total EU contribution to Bulgarian participants of around €31.2 million. Some 407 Romanian teams participated in 317 signed FP6 contracts, with a total EU contribution to Romanian participants of around €39.8 million.
Both countries have seen the most success in the information society technologies (IST) programme, followed by 'sustainable development, global change and ecosystems'. But participation is still significantly lower than that of EU Member States. Thus far, teams from Germany have been involved in 3,027 projects, teams from Poland in 1,005 projects, teams from Portugal in 597 projects, and teams from Hungary in 655 projects. All of these figures are clearly higher than Bulgaria's 268 and Romania's 317.
Mircea Sbarna for one is not satisfied with Romania's record, but points out that 'when you invest, the results don't come immediately. We now have a good strategy and economic growth.' He also drew attention to the number of Romanians abroad who may be participating in EU projects.
The researchers interviewed by CORDIS News had various views as to what their country needs in order to inflate these figures and improve the quality of their research in general. Dr Nikolov believes that subsidies, particularly for infrastructure, are the answer. 'The free market is good, but we need additional measures, for example funding for infrastructure, inside the Member States,' he told CORDIS News. 'It's a matter of policy, not money...This would make sure that our universities attract researchers as other universities do.' He suggests that policies devised for the current EU Member States won't always 'fit' with acceding countries' circumstances. Infrastructure support could begin with arranging access for Bulgarian research institutes to the high speed internet.
For Dr Ranguelova, networking and prioritisation are important. Bulgaria is a small country and cannot be a big player. Through a network the country is however able to share its expertise and learn from partners.
Networks are also key for Dr Dascalu, and he believes that EU accession will grant greater access to these networks. 'Romania is not strong enough to have critical mass in all areas. We need to cooperate on common projects,' he says. Dr Dascalu would also like to see yet more correlation between Romania's national research priorities and those of the EU.
Dumitru-Dorin Prunariu is the director of the recently opened Romanian Office for Science and Technology (ROST) in Brussels. He is already well known among Romania's scientific community as the country's first cosmonaut. For him, what Romania needs in order to advance scientific performance and results is to be included in the international community. For this reason, Romania sends some of its students abroad to do their Masters or PhD. 'We have good experts, but not necessarily science management experts,' he told CORDIS News. 'If we don't learn to be an efficient part of the international community, it's difficult.'
Inside Bulgaria and Romania it seems that scientists are unanimous in expecting positive returns from EU membership. And this in spite of mobility restrictions and the fact that both countries already participate in the framework programmes. But what about the rest of the EU? Will researchers from the current Member States also reap rewards from enlargement?
Dr Ranguelova is very positive. Bulgarian and Romanian researchers will bring diversity as well as new ways of working and thinking, she believes. 'Bulgarian researchers have been exposed to a very dynamic environment. They have had to adjust rapidly. Things are going much more slowly in the EU - there is more inertia. Bulgarian researchers had to think a lot about how to survive and have therefore become innovative,' she explains. She also points to academic performance in material sciences, solar energy, fuel cells and nuclear safety.
Romania has notable strengths in information technology (IT), nanotechnology, material science and aerospace. Romanian experts are already sharing their knowledge with less developed countries such as Moldova and Azerbaijan, according to Dr Prunariu.
In addition to skills and expertise, researchers from Romania and Bulgaria may also inject a new wave of optimism when they become EU nationals on 1 January. Attitudes are overwhelmingly positive, they say, and a certain anticipation awaits the date for accession.
The future looks bright. 2007 will witness not only EU accession for Bulgaria and Romania, but a new framework programme, FP7, surely a defining moment for European research?
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Data Source Provider: CORDIS News interviews
Document Reference: Based on CORDIS News interviews
Subject Index: Coordination, Cooperation; Policies; Scientific Research