On 20 May, ERAdiate hosted a co-organised event with COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology) on the topic “Success factors of H2020 widening instruments in Slovakia: lessons learnt and future outlook”. The purpose of the workshop was to synthetize the experience from successful Horizon 2020 widening projects (such as ERA Chair project ERAdiate at UNIZA) and COST actions with focus on participation from Slovakia and neighbouring countries (Slovenia, Croatia).

Key invited speakers included Mickael Pero, Science Officer for the COST Association; Daniel Straka, Executive Director of the Slovak Organization for Research and Development Activities (SOVVA); Peter Hošták from the University of Trenčín representing the Teaming ‘FunGlass’ project; Zuzana Lisoňová from Comenius University representing their newly acquired ERA Chair ‘Laboratory for Advanced Materials (LAM)’ project; Tomislav Vuletic from the Institute of Physics in Croatia representing COST Action CA15126; Michael Burnard from the University of Primorska representing COST Action FP1407 (Slovenia), and Constantina Makri, H2020 NCP for Cyprus who joined remotely. Key representatives from UNIZA included Pavol Rafajdus, Vice-rector for Science and Research; Milan Dado, both the ERAdiate Project Coordinator and national COST contact point for Slovakia, and Tatiana Kováčiková, ERA Chair Holder for the ERAdiate project.

To mention a few key moments from the keynote speakers, Prof. Dado referenced the ‘quadruple helix model’, a holistic approach for promoting excellence and knowledge exchange based on engaging four stakeholders by design in project implementation (as was done in ERAdiate): business, government, academia, as well as the community. Mr. Pero gave a thorough presentation of COST in terms of its history, benefits, requirements, success stories and best practices such as the need to be relevant, ambitious, self-motivated, collaborative and visible in project design and implementation. He noted the increase in Slovak participation, but also highlighted the gap compared to similar sized countries. Finally, Mr. Straka more particularly stressed the need and opportunity for the first COST action to be initiated and led by a Slovak institution – something UNIZA could step in in the near future. Most importantly, COST Actions should be seen as a springboard for successful H2020 applications (with a reported success rate of 33%!).

The main take-aways in terms of success factors and challenges from this intensive session were synthetized in a policy report following the workshop, which will be made public during the summer 2019. Overall, research excellence is translated as the ability to connect with other leading research communities in Europe and beyond. Being involved in a Widening Action allows a better knowledge of the overall mechanism for EU funding, and therefore may result in being more competitive European project applications in general. Widening Actions can also enhance the reputation of an institution at home, hence attracting reginal or national funding. As a note of caution, one must keep in mind the context in which the widening instrument is utilized as there is “no universal recipe for success”.

The main recommendations made based on lessons learnt from highly successful projects are:

Improving Excellence:

  1. By allowing top researchers of Widening Actions to dedicate more time to knowledge transfer in their local university, which can be further encouraged when they are made members of governance bodies or scientific boards at their local institution;
  2. By building a critical mass of researchers on a given topic – a necessary condition for success and continuity;
  3. By putting further emphasis on attracting and retaining talented researchers;
  4. By increasing participation in COST Actions as a way to develop and validate ideas for new projects – COST is a powerful networking and “matching” instrument, as well as for hiring new resources;

Speeding up supportive institutional changes:

Substantial changes at the structural level are difficult and tend to evolve slowly: it takes all involved actors to make a change. This usually happens when top-down leadership support is joined up with bottom-up engagement:

  1. By supporting a flexible structure and providing autonomy to the Head of Department in charge of the project e.g. in terms of choosing collaborators and gathering best available competences across faculties or departments;
  2. By providing Local administrators managing Widening Actions training and mentoring to efficiently implement the related coordination tasks;
  3. By obtaining formal financial commitment from national authorities as well as from the institutional level (e.g. from the rector) to back initiatives – this is considered a key success factor;
  4. By implementing structural changes around clear long-term targets based on a deeper alignment between the instrument objectives and institutional objectives;
  5. By supporting structural changes with Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), particularly in terms of establishing the ‘basics’ e.g. language skills, internal processes efficiency and flexibility;
  6. By setting up a project office to provide expertise and skills beyond the scientific sphere e.g. legal advisors, or specialised staff to relieve research staff from administrative burdens;
  7. By supporting close collaboration with National Contact Points: they play a key role in training and supporting project applicants, e.g. for pre-screening proposals before submission, building business plans, handling Intellectual Property Rights, and ensuring continuity;

Presentations for all the speakers can be downloaded here.