BLOG: Welsh universities at European Research and Innovation Days

In this week’s blog, Catherine Marston from Welsh Higher Education Brussels, provides an overview of Welsh engagement in recent discussions in Brussels on the future of European research and innovation.

Last week Brussels was busy with policy-makers from universities, industry, and the entrepreneurial community for European Research and Innovation Days. Over 4,000 people participated in a wide range of discussions, seminars and workshops across three days that showcased the successes of the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme while also looking ahead to the new Horizon Europe programme.

A number of representatives from Wales were in Brussels to engage in the discussions including the Chief Scientific Adviser for Wales, colleagues from Cardiff University, Cardiff Metropolitan University, Swansea University, Universities Wales and the Welsh European Funding Office. Professor Paul Boyle, Vice-Chancellor of Swansea University and Vice-President of the European University Association, provided the closing remarks for the event focusing on the key role of universities in the research and innovation ecosystem.

The three-day event enabled researchers, businesses and policy-makers to help shape the priorities and strategic plan for the first four years of the new European Commission research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe, which will start in January 2021. The event had a number of strands including a policy conference focused on research and innovation, an Innovative Europe Hub that provided meeting and match-making space for investors and researchers and the ‘Science is Wonderful!’ exhibition that highlighted a number of Marie Sklowdowska-Curie Actions and other EU-funded research projects.

The discussions during the event, combined with the feedback received through the co-design consultations, will contribute to the first ‘Horizon Europe Strategic Plan (2021-24)’ which will outline the policy drivers, policy priorities and targeted impacts for the programme as well as further develop the ‘Missions’ and European Partnerships.

Within the scope of the policy conference there were sessions on the new ‘Missions’ within the Horizon Europe programme. The ‘Missions’ will focus research and innovation efforts on key challenges facing the world including cancer, climate change, healthy oceans, climate-neutral cities and healthy soil and food. These sessions were designed to be ‘co-creation’ sessions with experts and policy-makers discussing how the areas should be taken forward. Wales should be in a good position to contribute to the development of these Missions with several representatives from Wales involved.

There were also wider policy sessions on the priorities and themes of Horizon Europe. Professor Roberta Sonnino from Cardiff University spoke on ‘Circular food cities’ on day two of the event. Professor Sonnino is Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning in the School of Geography and Planning at Cardiff University. She is the Director of the School’s Research Centre for Urban and Regional Food Systems and Director of Impact for the School. She has been involved in a number of European research projects and is an invited member of the EU Think Tank FIT4FOOD2030 and was Vice-Chair of the FOOD 2030 Expert Group.

In his closing comments Professor Paul Boyle highlighted the value of curiosity driven research including the importance of integrating social sciences and humanities within projects. He emphasised that universities are at the heart of the knowledge triangle – education, research and innovation – with interactions between the points of the triangle being very important. The Horizon Europe programme must be open to the world so it brings together the best in the world and the UK must be part of the programme.

Colleagues from Wales also took part in a number of meetings with Brussels-based organisations or other visitors to Brussels. As Wales has received significant funding from Structural Funds and there is uncertainty about the post-Brexit funding landscape in this area, there was also the opportunity for dialogue with a number of regions across Europe. The discussions focused on regional planning for Structural Funds, links to research and innovation and the implications of the increasing focus on synergies between European programmes in the next EU budget period.

The role of European Technology Platforms was also discussed as a route to build Welsh engagement in key research areas. These platforms offer valuable networks across a wide range of areas that bring together industry and research with opportunities for engagement with the European Commission in call and priority development. Other discussions took place with the UK Research Office, the FCO Science and Innovation network and the European Regions Research and Innovation Network (ERRIN) to gather information on the strategic research and innovation agenda, opportunities for collaboration and input from Welsh universities to networks and activities.

It is anticipated that Research and Innovation Days will become an annual event with next year’s event potentially taking place in Berlin during Germany’s Presidency of the European Council.

As Wales moves forward in its European work with the draft Welsh Government International Strategy as well as HEFCW’s Research and Innovation: The Vision for Wales, both of which strongly emphasis commitment to Europe, it will be important for Wales to continue its engagement with European organisations and programmes. The European Research and Innovation Days in 2019 provided an opportunity for this engagement and future Research and Innovation Days will provide further opportunities that Wales will need to grasp.

As Kurt Vandenberghe, Director for Policy Development and Coordination at the European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, stated during Research and Innovation Days

‘Universities must be seen as the best investment we can make collectively in our future’.