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Incoming and returning fellowships from the Belgian Science Policy Office

Final Report Summary - MOBEL GRANTS (Incoming and returning fellowships from the Belgian Science Policy Office)

The MOBEL Mobility scheme
1. The Federal authority
In Belgium, the Federal Science Policy Office (BELSPO) is the main actor for what concerns R&D at the federal level. It manages the federal research programmes and organises the cooperation between the federated and federal entities.
Among others, BELSPO supports Belgian space research and technology in the frame of ESA, the membership of Belgium in European intergovernmental large infrastructures for research, the Belgian telematic research network BELNET, ERANETs, bilateral S&T agreements, the financing of ten federal scientific institutes, "national" research programmes (among others the Interuniversity Attraction Poles, networks assembling research teams from both Regions in Belgium), the provision of R&D indicators, the stimulation of international mobility of researchers...

2. Mobility schemes: objectives and achievements
Over the years Belspo has created and developed 2 mobility schemes, developed in concordance with political changes and the implementation of the European Research Area (ERA):
A. Post-doc fellowships to non-EU researchers (Incoming):
Initiated in 1991, on the ruins of the Berlin Wall, this scheme was intended to provide the opportunity for highly-qualified scientists of Central Europe to have a stay in top Belgian research units for a period of 6 to 12 months. The objective was also to help the research institutions in Eastern Europe to maintain their scientific level, by developing partnerships with Belgian institutions and ensuring that their researchers come back after their post-doctoral stay in Belgium (therefore avoiding nefarious brain drain detrimental to the developed countries).
The Belgian units were selected for their ability to welcome and integrate these post-doctoral fellows. These researchers from Eastern Europe were given access to "western" infrastructure capacities and their alma mater was involved in a lasting cooperation relationship. In 1993, the New Independent States of the former Soviet Union were included too (in parallel to the INTAS initiative of the EC). After the extension of the EU to several Central European countries, offering them ample opportunities to cooperate, it was decided to exclude them from the scheme (this is also the case for countries allowed to enter the FP7). This gave BELSPO an opportunity to allow other regions of the world, which are also of political importance to Belgium (and Europe) (such as non-European Mediterranean countries, Latin America and Central Africa) to be added in the scheme. The list of target countries is revised yearly and covers more than 41 countries.
BELSPO has no contractual relationship with the researcher, but with her/his host institution. Financial conditions are fair, BELSPO pays a lump-sum amount (revised yearly by BELSPO to follow the cost of living in Belgium, but without any impact on the flat rate given to COFUND fellows), provides a full social security coverage, reimburses the third party insurance cost, in addition to a one-shot travel allowance. The stipends and social security is first paid by the
university/research centre, and then reimbursed by BELSPO.
BELSPO is Euraxess BHO and a key actor in the Scientific Visa legislation. Therefore, BELSPO can help the researchers in their visa and stay permit requests (with the Embassies, the Immigration Office and the local administrations).
The MOBEL COFUND mechanism allows BELSPO to increase the number of fellowships and also to improve some modalities:
-for the Incoming scheme, the list of targeted countries has been enlarged, adding Asian countries such as India or China; the duration of the post-doctoral stay is increased to a maximum of 18 months;
It is expected to launch 4 calls (2010-2013) with approximately 25 fellowships granted, for an average duration of 15 months. As selected candidates sometimes resign, and as there is an a priori uncertainty concerning the number of months that will be asked by the applicants, we managed to get as close as possible of these estimates. At the end of the reporting period (August 2014), a couple of researchers have not yet started their research project. Incorporating China and India has proven quite successful as the number of applications coming from those 2 countries was huge.

Four Calls have been launched under the COFUND.
2010: 75 applications for 29 selected, but only 26 researchers have accepted the fellowship,
2011: 63 applications for 28 selected, but only 24 researchers have accepted the fellowship,
2012: 49 applications for 26 selected, but only 20 researchers have accepted the fellowship,
2013: 45 applications for 14 selected, all have accepted the fellowship (with the use of the reserve list),

In 60% of the cases, the fellow has resumed his/her activities in the home lab.

One of the main objectives of this INCOMING scheme is the building of a long-lasting partnership between the two research units. In 87.5% of the cases, the research stay of the fellow was followed by some form of collaboration (whereas colaboration was seen in 48.6% of the cases before the research stay of the fellow in Belgium). This continuing collaboration takes mostly the form of publications, or informal contacts, but this also implies exchange of students or researchers (32% and 46% respectively). Taking jointly part to national or international Calls was also seen in more than 30% of the cases. The existence of a memorandum of understanding between both institutions, in Belgium and abroad, raises the chances of a formal and more durable partnership, when the fellow returns home.

According to the GA, 100 fellows, for an average stay of 15 months, were supposed to be funded. Nevertheless, no jury will accept to fund average (or below average) projects. This explains why we have a score under what was foreseen. Usually we have no reserve list for this INCOMING scheme. This means that if a researcher resigns, he/she cannot be replaced. Since 2013, a system of reserve list has been put afoot. This system allows us to be more reactive.
It has to be noticed that, thanks to the COFUND, we had decided to go for a maximum of 18 months for the research stays. This was an answer to numerous requests from promoters, as 12 months is too short a stay for a scientific project. With the COFUN we were able to meet this request, raising the maximum length of stay to 18 months. A large proportion of researchers opted for this possibility (48 researchers on 84 actually stayed for 18 months, but more have asked for this length, and had to leave prematurely).
A second objective was the inclusion of new eligible countries, among which China. This has been a great success. Applications from China over the period amounted to 41, with 21 funded researchers. A large collaboration existsbetween Belgium and China (especially in plants, genomics...). Candidates from Thaïland, Sri Lanka, Bengladesh or Pakistan were also funded.

B. « Back to Belgium » Return grants (Re-integration):
Initiated in 2002, this « brain drain » scheme finds its origin in the recommendations and actions of the EC, to build a stronger European Research Area. The scheme aims at reintegrating talented Belgian researchers after a post-doc stay of at least 2 years in a foreign country. One of the main aspect is the willingness to valorise the expertise gained abroad by the researchers. Ideally the funded researcher should find a permanent position after (or thanks to) her/his Back to Belgium grant (which is the case, actually, for most of the grantees).
The mandates cover the salaries, a bench fee for research costs and the repatriation costs (fixed fee). The bench fee is devoted to research equipment costs. The budget amounts to 12,500 EUR per year. This budget is in the hands of the researcher, who decides of its use, and not given to her/his promoter/lab. For most of the researchers, this is the first time they are in charge of a research budget on their own.
The MOBEL COFUND mechanism allows BELSPO to increase the number of return grants (from 8 to 11 for each Call), and contains other features:
-the Re-integration grants are now open to foreign researchers "having spent a certain period (minimum 3 years) in Belgium for higher education or research purposes", allowing Belgium to attract a broader category of excellent scientists with close ties with Belgium and willing to pursue their career in Belgium.
It is expected to launch 4 calls (2010-2013) with 11 grants funded yearly for a duration of 24 months.
In order to anticipate the possibility of resigning, a reserve list was always established.

The objectives for the REINTEGRATION scheme were not so ambitious as for the INCOMING fellowships.
Allowing foreign researchers (with connections with Belgium) to apply did not lead to a huge number of applications. No application was received in 2010. For the subsequent years, there were 3, 2 and 7 candidates. Foreign candidates came from France, Italy, Spain, Canada, Greece. Few have been funded.

For the REINTEGRATION scheme, four Calls have been launched under the COFUND, too.
2010: 21 applications for 11 selected, but only 8 researchers have been funded (reserve list not long enough / quality of researchers insufficient),
2011: 22 applications for 11 selected, but only 9 researchers have been funded (reserve list not long enough / quality of researchers insufficient),
2012: 29 applications for 12 selected, but only 9 researchers have been funded (reserve list not long enough / quality of researchers insufficient),
2013: 37 applications for 8 selected, but only 7 researchers have been funded (reserve list not long enough),

Instead of the 44 grantees foreseen in the GA, we managed to select 42, and fund only 33. Most of them (24 on 33) did stay the 24 months of the grant. Most of the time, they left because they had found a permanent position (this amounts to 62 months that are lost). A small survey on the framework conditions in which the REINTEGRATION take place has given a few interesting results. Over 1/3 of the grantees has succeeded in finding a permanent position at the end (or sometimes before the end) of the grant.

3. Comment on the achievements
The period of the COFUND programme (MOBEL) coïncides with major political turmoils and uncertainty in Belgium. More than 500 days without a government, huge budgetary controls as well as unprecedented budget cuts in research, delayed research programmes... this has created a defiance climate, quite detrimental to the selection of researchers (under both schemes). Furthermore, failure to secure the budget for both schemes in 2012 has had for consequence that the foressen amount brought by BELSPO in the GA has been diminished by nearly 25%.

Many researchers apply for a fellowship or a grant in several countries. Therefore, a highly qualified researcher will be able to chose among several positive answers. No doubt that the problems endured by Belgium in that period have had an impact on the number of funded researchers, in the REINTEGRATION and the INCOMING schemes. We can certainly speak of missed opportunities. It must also be noticed that researchers have academic or family constraints. If they are accepted with a huge delay, most of the time they cannot react immediately. They ask for a delay too. So, at the end of the programme, on February 29, 2016, some researchers were still working on their research project funded by BELSPO under the COFUND.

Finally Belgium has modified some rules for what concerns immigration. Longer delays for family reunification. Higher costs for a visa request. These are strong and negative signals for the mobility of the researcher.

4. Websites and coordinates

Global website is and available in EN, FR and NL.
The page for REINTEGRATION grant is
The page for INCOMING fellowship is

Full coordinates of the host organization:
Belgian Science Policy
Avenue Louise 231 Louizalaan
B-1050 Brussels
Tel: +32 (0)2 238 34 11
Fax: +32 (0)2 230 59 12

The department in charge of the COFUND programme at BELSPO is the Federal, Interfederal and International Coordination directorate, with Mrs. Margarida Freire as the head of unit.
People in charge of the management of the two mobiilty schemes under MOBEL are: Mr. Francis Swennen (retired in 2012) and Dr. Bernard Delhausse.