Bulgaria risks losing EU funding for research infrastructure modernisation

Education and Science Minister Nokolay Denkov and his deputy minister, Vanya Stoineva. [Capital Weekly]

EXCLUSIVE/ Documents seen by euractiv.com show that Bulgaria is set to lose millions of euros in EU funding aimed at modernising the country’s research infrastructure and stimulating its innovation potential, apparently due to its inability to select independent evaluators.

The EU has allocated €243 million from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) for Bulgaria for setting up centres of excellence and competence and for the selection of projects, under the Operational Program Science and Education for Smart Growth.

According to a letter from the Commission dated 24 March, this provides an “unprecedented opportunity” for the country’s public research system.

Over the funding period, the Program is expected to create 11 new centres of excellence and competence, support 20 regional laboratories and pilot centres and involve over 1500 researchers in activities under the Program. 1500 schools and 160,000 students will be given the opportunity to develop specific knowledge, skills and competencies. Some 30,000 students will receive scholarships while 850 students will be involved in mobility initiatives.

The project apparently begins to stumble over the country’s inability to select and propose Bulgarian and international evaluators for the projects of centres of excellence and competence.

Public tenders have been held for the preparation of an international independent evaluation, but none of the three consortiums who participated is reported to have presented the required information concerning the expertise of the proposed evaluators.

The EU condition for the proposed experts is that they should have at least three scientific publications with at least five quotations in the Top 10 scientific magazines for the relevant area over the past five years.

The Bulgarian scientific community, including the Academy of Sciences, attacked the EU procedure to select the evaluators via a tender system.

Following the cancellation of the tenders in February, as an alternative, Bulgaria proposed that a pool of experts be created and centrally managed by the Council of Ministers. However, the Commission is expressing doubts over whether the required number of experts with adequate qualifications can be mobilised in time. The deadline for the announcement of the successful candidates for ERDF funding is at the end of June, at the latest.

The Commission insists that the designated experts should be independent vis-à-vis potential beneficiaries and speaks of “expertise gaps” which it has apparently identified.

Bulgaria’s Deputy Minister of Education and Science, Vanya Stoineva, was quoted by the Bulgarian weekly Capital on 21 February, saying that the list of evaluators would be ready by mid-April.

Bulgaria is also expected to incur expenditures amounting to €28.6 million as well as hiring up to 35 new researchers, and having 50 researchers working in improved research facilities outside Sofia.

The European Commission is flagging the risk of a “suboptimal pace of implementation”. Should the risk materialise in full, the priority might suffer a net loss in the millions.

Stoineva, to whom the Commission addresses the correspondence seen by EURACTIV, is part of a caretaker cabinet expected to be replaced by a government led by Boyko Borissov, whose GERB party won the 26 March snap election.

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