The coronavirus pandemic has not caused significant disruption to Hungarian research but it has definitely demanded a great deal of flexibility from all stakeholders and exposed the innovation readiness of society – István Szabó, Vice President of the National Research, Development and Innovation (NRDI) Office said to the Hungarian business daily Világgazdaság.
NRDI Office | There is great potential in the digitization of healthcare and industry. How did the Covid-19 pandemic influence Hungarian research and development?
Many research projects that rely on interaction between people and the use of research infrastructures have slowed down, but the period also provided a good opportunity for processing research results and writing new publications, as confirmed by an international survey. Overall, the pandemic did not cause any significant disruption to research, but it did result in a shift of balance between activities.
How could the NRDI Office help researchers in this period?
The extraordinary situation demanded an innovative approach from the Office as well, and we managed to respond quickly and flexibly to the new circumstances. We extended the application and reporting deadlines, simplified the administration of applications, and eased and accelerated the disbursement of advances to make funds available as soon as possible to overcome the difficulties. This way, even those beneficiaries could continue their projects who fell behind schedule due to the pandemic.
The NRDI Office organised a contest for innovative ideas in collaboration with the Ministry for Innovation and Technology. Why was this necessary and what were the results?
When we face a serious global challenge like the current pandemic, useful ideas to alleviate the situation can come from anywhere. The Covidea contest was launched to scout for promising new ideas in all segments of society and all walks of life. In April, seeing the epidemiological trends and being faced with the tight restrictions, many people felt that they wanted to do something to change the situation, and they also had ideas. Hungarians are highly creative, but you need to bridge ideas to innovation. This was the idea behind the Covidea contest. The call received plenty of applications, so we doubled the original budget and ultimately awarded a total of HUF 120 billion to 29 projects and 5 ideas. To ensure that the winning teams move on to implementation, we provide them training and we are also working on a mentoring network for them.
In your opinion, what sectors offer the greatest opportunities for research, development and innovation in Hungary?
Due to the size of our country, we cannot be world leaders in industries such as aerospace. Hungary needs to find its own niche areas. There is great potential for the country in healthcare and industrial digitization. This is why many calls support the innovation activity of SMEs, since it will also contribute to their competitiveness and efficiency. Further focus areas are culture, society and the environment. In the latter area, green R&D projects that enable long term sustainability, e.g. in the energy sector, have exceptionally good opportunities. Recent infrastructure investments, which are significant even in international comparison, such as the ZalaZone test track for self-driving and alternative fuel vehicles in Zalaegerszeg or the ELI laser centre in Szeged, also sharpen the competitive edge of the country. The latter facility, by the way, facilitates research in molecular medicine, including the development of new procedures enabling the faster detection of tumor markers in blood. It is essential that research results reach the corporate sector. Hungary performs well in research and development, so we need to mature the results to marketable innovation. This area is marked by stagnation in the country but, in fact, in whole Europe. Researcher-industry partnerships and the commercialization of results are in the focus of the envisaged network of competence centres, science parks and national laboratories. With the services of these institutions, businesses can be more competitive, as they can outsource part of their innovation activities. Keeping all innovation processes in-house would be something many businesses could not afford, anyway.
The NRDI Office has recently announced a new scholarship programme called the Cooperative Doctoral Programme. What is the aim of this call?
The aims is the same: to bring researchers closer to the industrial needs and promote the use of their research results in the market. We connect doctoral students with Hungarian businesses: if the research area of a young researcher is relevant for a partner institution, they can now work together. This way, fresh research findings can be introduced to the company and the project can even be adapted to its needs. The scholarship programme rests on three pillars: net HUF 200 to 400 thousand is paid the participating doctoral student per month, and HUF 1.2 million is paid to each the supervisor at the host institution and the mentor at the partner business per semester. Furthermore, the host institution receives an additional HUF 1.3 million per semester for purposes such as research infrastructure development. Our preliminary surveys show that there is a great need for this programme. This is a pilot year with 100 students, but the applications are expected to exceed this number.
What are the selection criteria? And what companies could benefit from this funding scheme?
The right and responsibility of admitting and examining doctoral students remain with the doctoral schools. The doctoral school will consult with the candidate partner business on the research topic of the student, and if both parties are interested, they sign a memorandum of agreement which will form the basis of their collaboration. The scholarships will be awarded by a dedicated panel in which higher education institutions, the business sector, the NRDI Office and students will all be represented. The panel will assess the industrial relevance and added value of the applicants’ research project. These factors influence the amount of grant.
Grantees will have to regularly present their achievements to the panel which will then decide whether to maintain the financing. Pharmaceutical manufacturing and information technology companies will also delegate members to the panel, as Hungary performs very well in these two sectors in terms of RDI. Cooperation between the different players is key for Hungary to become a significant innovator in Europe by 2030.