Austerity, impact and divided Europe of Knowledge

Europe of Knowledge |

Inga Ulnicane

‘Crisis should not be wasted’. Since the beginning of the global economic crisis in 2008, this idea has been repeated many times suggesting that crisis should rather be used as an opportunity for innovative solutions and necessary reforms. One of such potential changes emphasized by European institutions has been prioritization of research and innovation as sources of sustainable growth and a way to avoid similar crisis in future.  What actually happened to research and innovation policies in Europe during the times of crisis? Which measures have European institutions taken to facilitate research and innovation? Has the crisis been used as an opportunity to facilitate research and innovation? These are some of the questions I address in my recent article ‘Research and innovation as sources of renewed growth? EU policy responses to the crisis’ (Ulnicane 2016). The article is part of a special issue ‘EU policies in times of crisis’ comparing the impact of crisis on nine EU policies, e.g. energy, migration, and health.

The article primarily analyses EU research and innovation policy which during the recent decades has considerably expanded (see e.g. Chou and Gornitzka 2014; Chou and Ulnicane 2015; Metz 2015) and combines a number of funding and coordination instruments. However, as research and innovation policy is a shared competence between the EU and national level and most research and innovation funding is allocated nationally, it is also important to look at developments at national level.


Increasing expectations vs. decreasing or stagnating budgets

While expectations that research and innovation will help to solve major societal and economic challenges increased during the crisis, funding for research and innovation at the same time decreased or stagnated in a number of countries. Although according to Eurostat data overall share of research and development funding within the European Union increased from 1.85% of GDP in 2008 to 2.03% in 2014 (which nevertheless is still far from declared target of investing 3% of GDP in research and development by 2020), there are huge differences across European countries. The table below shows the data from the Public Funding Observatory 2015 (page 11) of the European University Association. According to these data, during the times of crisis from 2008-2014 public funding for universities continued to increase considerable in Norway, Sweden, and Germany, where it also was part of economic stimulus package. In some other countries like in Austria the increase in funding continued but at a slower pace than before the crisis. At the same time, in many countries in Southern and Eastern Europe public funding for universities has experienced smaller or larger cuts. This has led to growing concerns about increasing innovation divide in Europe among leading and catching-up countries. However, in recent months austerity measures have also affected universities in leading innovation countries – Finland and Denmark.


Evolution   of public funding for universities 2008-14 (adjusted for inflation) Countries  
Between 20% and 40% increase Germany, Norway, Sweden
Between 10% and 20% increase Austria, Belgium, Denmark,   Poland
Between 5% increase and 5%   decrease France, Netherlands, Portugal
Between 5% and 10% decrease Croatia, Slovakia, Slovenia
Between 10% and 20% decrease Czech Republic, Serbia, Spain,   Iceland, Italy
Between 20% and 40% decrease Ireland, Lithuania, United   Kingdom
More than 40% decrease Greece, Hungary, Latvia


At times when national public funding is cut, universities are increasingly looking for other sources of funding either from industry or from international programs such as EU Structural Funds or Horizon 2020. Although an overall EU budget for 2014-2020 was cut for the first time, funding for Horizon 2020 program increased for 30% in comparison to the previous Framework Program 7 and reached almost 80 billion euros (which is less than 10% of the overall EU budget). Since then some funding has been redirected to the European Fund for Strategic Investments. First predictions about the next post-2020 EU Framework Program do not foresee a big increase in budget.

Since World War II research and innovation funding and system has expanded tremendously in many European countries. Might the prolonged and predicted stagnation in many European countries and potentially also at EU level imply that in future expansion of research and innovation activities in Europe will slow down? Would expansion of knowledge-based activities move to other world regions like Asia?


Reinforced focus on fast and quantifiable impact

In times of austerity, idea of doing ‘more with less’ became more popular expecting research and innovation system to become more efficient and deliver more economic and societal impact with limited resources. Representatives of European research and innovation stakeholder organizations interviewed (Ulnicane 2016) recognize importance of impact but also pointed out challenges of quantifying it and choosing appropriate time horizons for evaluating it. While idea of research impact has been widespread also before the crisis, experts have experienced that during the times of crisis focus on impact increases. One of them explains: Pressure to have to demonstrate that your research is going to produce that many euros in return, it comes and goes but during the times of crisis this is very strongly present.’ A leader of a stakeholder organization tells that research and innovation organizations increasingly have to prove their impact using quantitative indicators:

‘You have to prove your value even tougher in the environment where the budgets are lower. Am I paying for research which may bring something back in years or am I paying for health care? The national governments and politicians have to answer. If you are going to pay money which is long-term and not helping cohesion of society today, you need to prove your impact much more. So research organizations are even more scrutinized by the national governments with very strong knowledge indicators. And reporting on institutional funding they get is getting more and more detailed every year: How many patent applications? How many cooperations you developed with industry? How many contracts you get from industry? How many researchers go to the industry? […] They have to give numbers. When I talk about impact, it is real economic impact. And how do you show that in research? It is tough. It is not an easy question. And they are asked to prove that more and more.’

Moreover, times of crisis, fast solutions are expected. An expert explains: ‘Science is expected to deliver next iPhone or innovation that creates jobs, that strengthens industry. Science can do all this but this is a long-term investment […]. There would not be tangible results tomorrow. And in times of crisis this is a thinking that disappears completely, everyone wants a quick solution.’ Focus on impact and efficiency priotizes applied research and puts fundamental science under more pressure. There might be some good opportunities to increase effiency of existing research and innovation systems but at some point there might also be limits how much more can be done with less.


Old tension in Europe of Knowledge: excellence vs. cohesion

Crisis reinforced one of the long-standing tensions in the Europe of Knowledge, namely, between excellence and cohesion. Since the early EU Framework Programs in the 1980s and 1990s, major share of highly competitive and excellence oriented Framework Program funding has gone to the Northern countries, while catching-up countries (at that time Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal) mostly benefited from research and innovation support within the EU Structural Funds allocated to less developed regions. Similarly, in the EU budget 2014-2020 the Horizon 2020 provides competitive funding primarily based on excellence, while a considerable share – 83 billion Euros – of Structural Funds goes to research and innovation and small and medium size enterprises in less developed regions. When 12 more recent EU member states released a common position that Horizon 2020 should address the needs of all member states, a specific objective of ‘spreading excellence and widening participation’ was added to the Horizon 2020.

Taking into account that this division – the Framework Program funds go mainly to the northern countries (share of FP funds in national budgets can be higher in catching-up countries because their overall research budgets are lower), while the EU Structural Funds support research and innovation predominantly in catching-up countries – is some 20 or 30 years old, some questions can be asked: Is this a productive division, does it work, and what might be alternative approaches? Have the EU Structural Funds for research and innovation helped to build capacities in southern member states and are they now more successful participants in the competitive Framework Program?  Can there be any lessons drawn from the experience of southern members (e.g. under which conditions Structural Funds help to build research and innovation capacities) that can be applied to ‘new’ members? What are the first results of the EU Structural Funds for research and innovation in eastern member states which have been receiving them for twelve years since 2004? Do new features of the Structural Funds such as ex-ante conditionality of implementing country specific recommendations from the European Semester before receiving the Funds help to increase their role in reforming research and innovation systems in catching-up regions?


New paradigms or gradual change?

Although crises are seen as good moments to carry out radical transformations and paradigm changes, developments in EU research and innovation policy in times of crisis can be characterized as incremental and path-dependent. New priorities and funding and coordination instruments largely built on earlier Framework Programs and the Lisbon strategy. Does it mean that crisis has been wasted? Is there a need for radical changes and new paradigms in EU research and innovation policy or is gradual change a more productive way for improving it? What would these new paradigms be? – More considerable shifts of EU funding from agriculture to research and innovation or of competences from national to EU level? Are there any innovative ideas for solving excellence vs. cohesion tension? Will ongoing discussions on Open Science and the European Innovation Council lead to radical or incremental changes?

The study of EU research and innovation policy in times of crisis suggest a number of academic and policy-relevant questions for further investigation including new developments in multi-level governance (e.g. conditionality, European Semester) and their effects; the role and interests of and interactions among the main actors and institutions (European Commission, Parliament, national governments, and stakeholder organizations); and implementation of new and revised policy priorities and instruments. The special issue on EU policies in times of crisis demonstrates that comparison of changes across different policy fields is a powerful approach with a great potential for deepening understanding of recent developments in European integration. I am looking forward to engaging with others interested in these questions also in future and creating novel spaces and forums for addressing them.


Dr. Inga Ulnicane is an Assistant Professor at the Institute for European Integration Research, University of Vienna (Austria), where she undertakes research and teaching on European and international knowledge policies and governance. Her recent research on the role of ideas in European science, technology and innovation policy, European integration in research and innovation policy, and international research collaboration has appeared in Journal of European Integration, Journal of Contemporary European Research, and Science and Public Policy. She is one of conveners of the ECPR European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group ‘Politics of Higher Education, Research, and Innovation’ which at the moment has more than 200 members from around the world.



Chou, M.-H. and A.Gornitzka (eds) 2014 Building the Knowledge Economy in Europe. New Constellations in European Research and Higher Education Governance  Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Chou, M.-H. and I.Ulnicane (eds) 2015 New Horizons in the Europe of Knowledge. Special issue.  Journal of Contemporary European Research 11(1): 1-152.

Metz, J. 2015 The European Commission, Expert groups, and the Policy Process. Demystifying Technocratic Governance Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ulnicane, I 2016 Research and innovation as sources of renewed growth? EU policy responses to the crisis Journal of European Integration 38(3): 327-41. doi: 10.1080/07036337.2016.1140155