The European Union and Ukraine took steps towards the creation of a “common knowledge and innovation space” last week, intensifying their bilateral relations ahead of a key summit in November where the two sides are expected to sign a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement that has irked Moscow.
A conference on science and research cooperation in Vilnius ended last week (1 October) with a joint pledge to create a “Common Knowledge and Innovation Space” between the EU and the six countries of the so-called Eastern partnership – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
While the declaration has no formal legal status, it does make a political statement that the EU is ready to engage further with Eastern countries on science and technology.
“Research and innovation should be considered a key priority within Eastern Partnership cooperation,” states the declaration, which seeks to promote exchanges such as twinning between universities and “brain circulation” in Europe within a “common knowledge and innovation space”.
As a first step, a dedicated panel will be launched, bringing together scientists and policymakers from the EU and Eastern partnership countries. The panel will hold its first meeting in Brussels on 13 November to draw up a regional cooperation roadmap on research and innovation.
Although technical at first glance, the conference took place within a sensitive political context. Ukraine’s moves towards closer ties with the EU have irritated Moscow, which warned that it might respond by erecting new trade barriers with its former Soviet ally.
Instead, Russia has offered Kyiv and other Eastern partnership countries to join the customs union it is currently establishing with former Soviet states. Belarus and Kazakhstan are already signed up and Armenia has signalled its intention to join on 4 September.
Keeping politics out
In such a tense context, officials and academics attending the Vilnius conference sought to underline the non-political nature of research cooperation.
Thierry Devars, a policy officer at the European Commission’s research directorate, said Eastern countries had already participated in FP7, the EU’s current research programme for 2007-2013, with a total of 309 projects receiving €45 million of EU funding.
However, cooperation is uneven and still largely dominated by Ukraine, which captured €26.5 million of those funds, Devars said. In fact, Ukraine is the only EaP country to have signed a bilateral agreement on science and technology cooperation with the European Union while Moldova is currently the only one to be formally associated to FP7, since January 2012.
“Ukraine is by far the champion of the region in terms of science and technology capacity,” according to a Commission briefing prepared ahead of the conference.
Dmytro Tabachnyk, Ukraine’s education and science minister, said Kyiv had already applied to extend its bilateral cooperation agreement beyond 2013 and link up with the EU’s new seven-year research programme, called ‘Horizon 2020’.
Speaking at the conference’s plenary debate, Tabachnyk stressed that the cooperation had no political strings attached and could move forward, even if Ukraine did not sign the association pact and free trade agreement with the EU in November.
Ukraine has many skilled researchers – in areas like aeronautics, space technology and nuclear power – eager to travel and build new skills. But they lack the entrepreneurial mind-set to exploit research results and transform them into commercial products, Tabachnyk said.
“I do believe that our close cooperation with the leading countries of the EU on science and innovation is an opportunity to raise our own level of expertise not only on research but also on development and innovation, which is very important for Ukraine, including issues on transformation our scientific results into real market products,” Tabachnyk told EurActiv in an interview.
From 'brain drain' to 'brain circulation'
With Horizon 2020, such East-West exchanges could become more commonplace. Kamila Partyka, an official at the Commission’s education directorate, highlighted the mobility opportunities offered to Eastern scientists under the EU’s new research programme, referring to "brain circulation" among the participating countries.
She said €6.2 billion had already been set aside for cross-border collaboration and mobility projects that could help Eastern researchers enhance their international careers and build the entrepreneurial skills that were too often neglected during Soviet times.
Closer exchanges with Western scientists would also motivate Eastern researchers whose career prospects have dimmed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the closure of many state-funded R&D centres. “Weak career prospects and motivation for young researchers is a common issue [for Eastern partnership countries], resulting both in a continuous brain-drain problem and the ageing of the remaining scientists,” reads the Commission briefing.
But not all EU countries are so keen when it comes to international cooperation on research and innovation.
Dainius Pavalakis, the Lithuanian minister of education and science who hosted the Vilnius conference, said that seven EU countries had rejected the proposed rules of participation, which govern the way non-EU countries can take part in the bloc’s upcoming Horizon 2020 programme.
He said the joint conference declaration marked an attempt at re-launching this process, saying he would present the text for approval by the EU’s 28 member states at a forthcoming meeting of the EU Council of Ministers.
“I wouldn’t say we did a great job but we did some job,” he said at the conclusion of the two-day conference.
Yuriy Chudnovskyi, member of the Academy of Sciences, director of the International Institute of Urban Studies, sent to EurActiv the following reaction:
"Cooperation of Ukraine with the EU in the sphere of creation of the unitary scientific, innovative, information and technological space doesn't foresee political conditions. It can move forward even if Ukraine doesn't sign the Association Agreement with the EU in November. Ukraine has got many qualified researchers in such areas as aviation, space equipment and nuclear power plants, and we aspire not to stop, but to get new experience. But our researchers lack enterprise mentality to use the results of their researches and transform them into commercial products.
“Science is the only reliable instrument of elimination of economic threats, increase of the health care level and solution of safety issues. Besides, the majority of questions connected with prosperity and also education and culture lies in the sphere of modern science. Therefore, today Ukraine sees the activization of scientific and technical cooperation with the European Union as the way of development of economy of knowledge included in the EU Sustainable Development Strategy 2020.
“This strategic objective corresponds with the innovative vector of development of the country's economy, access to modern technologies and improvement of the quality of life of the Ukrainian society.
“And today Ukraine is the most active partner of the EU on the way to realization of scientific and technical cooperation out of all countries of the Eastern Partnership".
Russia is showing increasing signs of nervousness as the 28-29 November Eastern partnership summit in Vilnius approaches.
The summit is expected to see the signature of a landmark association agreement and free trade pact between the EU and Ukraine, and the initialling of similar agreements with Moldova and Georgia.
These countries, along with Belarus, Azerbaijan and Armenia, are all members of the EU’s Eastern partnership initiative (EaP).
The opening of the Horizon 2020 research programme to non-EU countries is outlined in Article 7 of the programme regulation. Automatic association is granted to countries, like Moldova, which were previously associated to FP7 (Art 7.1.c).
Other countries have to fulfil 4 criteria (Art 7.1.b), including:
- close economic and geographic links to the EU,
- a good capacity in science technology and innovation,
- a good track record of participation in the EU’s previous research programmes, and
- a fair and equitable treatment of intellectual property rights (IPRs)
- Autumn 2013: Formal political decisions expected on Horizon 2020
- 13 Nov. 2013: First meeting in Brussels of the joint Panel on Research and Innovation, under the current Eastern Partnership initiative
- 28-29 Nov. 2013: Eastern partnership summit in Vilnius
- 11 Dec. 2013: First calls for proposals issued under Horizon 2020
Lithuanian EU Presidency
- Conference: Enhancement of European International Cooperation and Eastern Partnership in R&D&I (EEP 2013)
- EEP 2013 conference declaration (1 Oct. 2013)
- Conference presentations