The Black Sea, used as a communication route since the time of the ancient Greeks, continues to connect countries. “The Black Sea is not like the Atlantic, which marks where Europe ends,” says BLACK SEA HORIZON (Enhanced bi-regional STI cooperation between the EU and the Black Sea Region) project manager Martin Felix Gajdusek, from the Austrian Centre for Social Innovation (ZSI). “This is a shared European resource that brings the countries in the region closer together. All these countries are affected by comparable challenges, such as environmental degradation, resource efficiencies, water supply and waste water treatment, and access to the sea as a transport corridor.” This is also a region where geopolitical tensions exist. Shared science and technology objectives could therefore help to support regional political, as well as sustainable economic, co-development.
Identifying shared priorities
With this in mind, the BLACK SEA HORIZON project was launched in 2015, to foster regional cooperation in science, technology and innovation (STI). “The region boasts 500 000 researchers, 1 500 universities and some 3 000 research institutes,” notes Gajdusek. “We felt that through enhanced coordination between funding bodies, and increased support for researchers to access EU funding, much more could be jointly achieved.” The earlier Black Sea ERA-Net project lay the groundwork for boosting cross-country research cooperation. This was built further in BLACK SEA HORIZON, through connecting funding agencies, ministries and researchers from all Black Sea countries, as well as a number of EU Member States. “The basic foundation of the project was to open up STI dialogue,” adds Gajdusek. “Our aim wasn’t to develop a strategic research agenda as such, but rather to identify concrete actions to encourage cooperation.” To begin, three key thematic areas relevant to all Black Sea countries were identified: sustainable agriculture; water resource efficiency; and applied chemistry and smart materials. “These fields are really important for all countries, with adequate capacities and room for more intensive research cooperation,” notes Gajdusek. “For example, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have all been working to improve cultivation of crops. Scientists in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Bulgaria have made advances in enhancing water quality for soil, through detoxification. Russian scientists have been pioneering new membranes for fuel cells.” Guidelines on developing regional industrial research clusters – institutes and businesses with complementary skills and shared interests – were developed. Stakeholders involved in research and development were brought together for workshops and conferences, to discuss how to better coordinate research investments. “Trust-building was extremely important to bridge geopolitical differences,” explains Gajdusek. “We also looked at ways of encouraging more mobility of researchers from Black Sea countries within the EU.”
Building research capabilities
The project succeeded in encouraging Black Sea countries to participate directly in EU-funded projects, and inspired new cooperation projects like Black Sea CONNECT. Since the project was launched, there has been an increase of at least 10 % in the number of project proposals that include partners from non-EU Black Sea countries. A Horizon 2020 Summer School successfully trained 25 young researchers from non-EU Black Sea countries, preparing them to participate in future EU-funded research projects. The project also successfully identified at least 30 research-based industrial clusters in the partner countries. Around 15 industrial cluster managers from the Black Sea region were trained and put into contact with managers from EU Member States. The partnership, comprising 19 partners in the region, including partners from Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine, has opened new avenues for young researchers in the region. “We wanted to create new opportunities to encourage the next generation to be a motor of change,” the coordinator says. “For this to happen, the role of researchers and the direction of research need to be clearer.” Gajdusek also sees promising developments. “Moldova, for example, has restructured its science and technology funding system and established a dedicated agency,” he adds. “In Georgia, there is now better awareness of the topic of social innovation and how research can contribute. This is really an ongoing process.”
BLACK SEA HORIZON, cooperation, water, environmental, transport, social innovation, funding, coordination, industrial, research