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Excellence is the only way to competitive research and innovation
Excellence is the only way to competitive research and innovation
18 November 2016
Last modified: 14 December 2017
Reading time: 13 minute(s)
The Hungarian Science Festival and his recent visit to London were both covered when József Pálinkás, President of the National Research, Development and Innovation Office and former President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences between 2008 and 2014, answered the questions of the Origo news portal. He stated: the only way to improve Hungary’s competitiveness is to have more professionals and R&D experts being excellent on an international scale.

For nowadays there is no lack of funds: decisions on nearly HUF 200 billion (EUR 650 million) have been made so far to support RDI projects under the calls announced in 2015 and 2016.

The Hungarian Science Festival, a series of events started on 3 November, draws the attention to the achievements of research and development. You often emphasise the need for an excellence-based RDI system. What is the role of researchers’ excellence in research funding?

It strengthens the entire researcher community if centres with internationally competitive results are identified, reinforced and developed. We can be proud that Hungary has outstanding researchers in many fields which is clearly confirmed by the latest success story. Hungary was the only country to have two projects out of the ten awarded under the Teaming action, the most prestigious cooperation programme of the European Commission. These two projects will launch centres of excellence in the fields of medicine and production informatics & control in Budapest and Szeged, respectively. Obviously, the success is partly due to the strict preliminary assessment procedure. The NRDI Office received many project proposals and managed to select those which were eventually awarded. Besides their excellence, the Government’s commitment was also important to judge the winning projects. The funding system has been designed to strengthen centres of excellence with multiple instruments. Such communities can request funding for research infrastructure development, for creating collaboration between the industries, universities and academic institutions, as well as for the implementation of thematic blue sky research programmes.

Strengthening researcher excellence in Hungary implies a clear set of strict professional requirements while evaluating new R&D project proposals. How do these professional criteria work in practice?

It is aimed to strengthen not only research centres but also innovative businesses, and it is essential to demand professional commitments also from these applicants in the assessment of project proposals. Back to your question, we do have to enforce professional criteria, for this purpose we have an expert panel of disciplines to select and invite those relevant peers from a database of 15,000 who will evaluate the project proposals submitted to the calls of the National Research, Development and Innovation Fund (NRDI Fund) financed from Hungary's central budget. On the basis of these peer reviews the assessments bodies will decide which projects are proposed for funding. Compared to previous years, peer evaluation has an increased weight in the decision-making process. In the case of most EU funded RDI calls, project proposals are assessed by the experts of the NRDI Office, so the Managing Authority considers only those project proposals which qualify as genuine RDI projects.

The Momentum Programme was launched by you, as President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. How do you see the impact of this programme? Will there be any changes in the future?

The Momentum programme has been a highly successful science policy initiative of the last decade, which gained international recognition as a model of funding schemes. Recently, it was praised as a best practice recommended for other countries by the EU’s Peer Review expert panel assessing our national RDI system. This is based on the fact that the programme provides predictable, stable funding to world-class Hungarian researchers, enabling them to organise their own research groups. The two elements are both important: an inspiring, competitive intellectual environment and predictability. The programme ensures five years of stability to the most excellent researchers and may be prolonged in the light of their results.

To put a conceit with sports: Olympic champions enjoy proper appreciation in Hungary, perhaps over the average if compared internationally. If we want to have “Olympic champions” in research, we must appreciate and remunerate them for their world-class work. Once this is achieved, they will draw successful researchers to Hungary like a magnet. To meet the above conditions is a must, if Hungary wants to make headway in this global competition. Only then can we expect foreign corporate R&D centres moving to Hungary, since the key factor for them is the availability of properly trained professionals. In that case, the amount of benefits from the state is of secondary importance.

You have mentioned that in many areas researchers are competitive even by international standards. Hungary is actually far from being generous in its RDI spending compared to its GDP. How much EU and domestic funds are available for innovative projects in the period 2014–2020?

Regarding the RDI-spending-to-GDP ratio we still have much work to do. Overoptimistic or sinister reports with decontextualised indicators are recommended to view and interpret in their appropriate context, and RDI policy initiatives should also be based on preparatory documents made with the same critical approach. The RDI-spending-to-GDP ratio has slightly increased to 1.39% since the previous year. In terms of the steady increase of corporate RDI seen for years, it is important to achieve a similar improvement in quality. As an important innovation policy indicator, public spending on RDI has also grown since 2014 and hopefully this positive trend will continue. Considering the full seven-year period between 2014 and 2020, the total amount available for research, development and innovation from EU and domestic sources is outstanding, estimates around HUF 1,200 billion (EUR 3.9 billion), out of which HUF 750 billion (EUR 2.4 million) is provided by the EU. The major part of this support is non-refundable. There is also a significant amount (HUF 250 billion, i.e. EUR 800 million) of refundable financial instruments that businesses can use for research and development purposes. This title means access to preferential loans, venture capital and guarantee fund.

At the same time, efficient financing apparently comes not as smooth as it should. Several news portals claimed that decisions of certain calls were made with substantial delay. What is the reason for that and how much funding has been awarded so far?

So far, HUF 200 billion (EUR 650 million) has been awarded and in many calls the grant contracts are already being signed with the beneficiaries. I must add that these first round decisions have provided each RDI target group, i.e. basic research staff, companies and startups with substantial funds. Indeed, there were some delays with two funding programmes, but altogether 3600 project proposals were submitted for these two calls so it sounds reasonable that the decision-making authority needs more time to carefully assess them all. All in all, nearly HUF 1,200 billion (EUR 3.9 billion) of total funding demand has been submitted by the applicants to the calls coordinated by the NRDI Office. If we consider all of the calls announced under the Economic Development and Innovation Operational Programme, the Competitive Central-Hungary Operational Programme and the NRDI Fund, the number of applications totals around 8,800.

A number of the top research centres are located in Budapest and many of them find it unfair that most of the EU funds are available to rural organisations, which can mean a serious handicap to Budapest-based research centres. In some cases rural universities invite professionals from Budapest universities to meet their obligations in a funded project. How can you reinforce research excellence without major sources for the development of the Central Hungary region?

Indeed, universities and research centres in Central Hungary have a smaller share in EU funded operational programmes since the European Union restricts the eligibility for these funds by the development level of the regions. However, EU funds for this purpose are available also under the Competitive Central-Hungary Operational Programme and the domestic sources of the NRDI Fund are also focused to this region. We have recently announced a programme called “National Competitiveness and Excellence” with a budget of HUF 28 billion (EUR 90 million) and just finished the assessment of the entries. In addition, we finance corporate research projects in a value of HUF 21 billion (EUR 68 million) which practically mirrors the similar funding programmes of regions outside Central Hungary. Members of the research community have to accept that cohesion funds are provided to bridge the gap between developed and less developed regions. Naturally, this should not be done to the detriment of Budapest-based organisations; this is why we facilitate the above mentioned system of “mirror calls’ to advance this region too.

Hungary has fallen six places on the competitiveness ranking of the World Economic Forum in one year, and occupies the 25th place among the 28 Member States. What do these figures mean? Mihály Varga, Minister of National Economy has recently urged better cooperation between research institutions, businesses and universities. In your opinion, what is the major obstacle to our competitiveness?

Reports on rankings often contradict each other, so when considering them it is useful to first have a look at methodologies, samples and databases they rely on. It is enough to recall another data published in late summer and interpreted by most news sites as a major success even in international comparison. It said Hungary had moved two places upwards to 33rd in the Global Innovation Index released by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). However, Hungary’s competitiveness really needs to get strengthened, among others by focusing funds to investments which truly improve competitiveness and by coordinating the elements of our portfolio of tools fostering innovation.

This would call for a more intense collaboration between industry and research centres which is stimulated as a priority by competitive calls: more than HUF 147 billion (EUR 475 million) is available specifically for networking between universities, academic research centres and businesses within the framework of five calls. In my opinion, Hungary’s competitiveness lies in having much more professionals with proper qualification in the country. In the field of research and development, this is a lengthy process as it takes years and decades to educate excellent researchers. There is a severe shortage of teachers specialising in natural sciences, which is a serious problem because teachers are the ones who can awake scientific interest in the young generations. On the other hand, Hungarian universities, research centres and research teams must be provided with conditions that make working in Hungary attractive for researchers.

The Office under your leadership is a relatively new organisation, created by the merger of several institutions in 2015. What results have you achieved so far?

It is an important principle of science policy to keep balance between the stimulation of discovery research, the incentive system of R&D programmes focused on “customer needs” and building an inspiring innovation environment. Moreover, it is important that all this should be driven by the power of excellence. Thus, we had to design the funding system that gives room to basic research programmes driven by researchers’ curiosity with no thematic restrictions, while also defines the main thematic priorities in the case of applied development and innovation programmes, and specifies the strategic directions of infrastructure development.

Our main task is to design the utilisation of EU funds on innovation, i.e. to participate in the preparation of related calls and in the assessment of submitted project proposals, and to manage the National Research, Development and Innovation Fund, which covers research, development and innovation from the state budget. Our aim is to make research funding predictable and to provide funding for the infrastructure development of existing research centres, with a view to long-term sustainable operation.

Finally, we would like to operate an applicant-friendly financing system to ensure quicker disbursements to researchers. Of course, institutions also have their share in this: they are particularly responsible for making direct disbursements to researchers faster and simpler. In order to support the next generation of researchers, we announced a call for postdoctoral fellowship to researchers with a recent PhD degree, thus contributing to their employment costs, and assisting them to stay in the play, join a research group led by an experienced researcher, and pursue their career here in Hungary. Additionally, there are another five calls with a total budget of around HUF 150 billion (EUR 485 million) from domestic and EU sources available for the development of research infrastructure and excellent research centres.

During your Cambridge visit in late October, you met university leaders and Hungarian students studying in Britain. Can you see any chance to have these students build their careers in Hungary in the future?

I think it is important to allow students to mutually join research programmes and development projects at different stages of their researcher careers. Students told me, for instance, they would be eager to participate in summer traineeships in Hungary. As a major advantage, they could have a direct experience about the opportunities of joining research programmes at Hungarian institutions. Relevant to this, there is an initiative aimed to develop business ideas of Hungarian students studying abroad. Starting next year, some of these ideas will be further developed in Hungarian research institutions by London or Cambridge students. At the meetings we talked about those various opportunities Hungary can offer now to finance research and business development, which can be decisive for them when judging the perspectives for building a career and harnessing their talent at home.

Though latest news indicate there still might be unexpected lines to the Brexit story, what do you expect from the scientific cooperation of the two countries and the EU?

The Hungarian R&D community has very strong ties with British universities, research institutions and innovative businesses, since there are around 200 British-Hungarian RDI projects running right now, and only at the University of Cambridge a dozen of Hungarian members participate in research projects related to nanotechnology, food safety and healthy society with a total value of EUR 5 million. As regards the totality of calls announced under the Horizon 2020, the EU’s funding programme for research and development projects, the UK is the second most frequent partner country of Hungary. This makes it even more important what we have mutually confirmed during my meetings: our two countries intend to keep strong relations whatever scenario unfolds when the UK eventually leaves the EU.


Updated: 14 December 2017
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