The Western Balkans are Becoming More Interested in EU Research Mobility Schemes

As the EU takes measures to welcome countries in the region as associate members of the Horizon Europe research programme, new data shows that Western Balkans scholars are increasingly participating in EU academic exchange programmes.

To avoid the emergence of a new R&D performance fault line in the near future, the Commission is aiming to direct R&D investments to Western Balkans countries that are EU candidates

Horizon 2020 funding for research projects in the Western Balkans increased between 2014 and 2019, according to the European Commission. A total of 845 researchers received funding from 290 awards. Serbia was able to establish a centre of excellence in modern technologies for sustainable agriculture and food security thanks to EU funds.

Another initiative involving Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, and Serbia is merging raw resources and subsurface energy understanding.

Many scientists, engineers, and technicians from the Western Balkans have relocated to northern Europe and North America in recent decades. A comparable brain drain has occurred in Central and Eastern Europe, causing the EU to re-launch discussions on creating a more inclusive European Research Area and investing more Horizon Europe funds to increase participation in research projects and improve R&D performance in poorer member states.

Slovenia, which now holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council, wishes to assist Western Balkan countries in becoming fully integrated into Horizon Europe and assisting researchers in the region in establishing successful careers at their own institutions.

Until then, mobility programmes that allow for knowledge exchange and short-term stints abroad are considered as a method to slow the brain drain.

According to a study by Klaus Schuch of the Centre for Social Innovation, released by the Austrian Platform for Research and Technology Policy Evaluation, an increasing number of Western Balkan researchers and academics are engaging in European mobility schemes. In particular, Schuch looked at how Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia fared in regional and European mobility programmes.

In terms of absolute numbers, participation in the EU’s Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) for doctorate networks, post-doctoral fellowships, and staff exchanges is low. However, the research demonstrates that the programme is well used when viewed in the context of existing scientific human capital in the six countries.

Students in the six countries use ERASMUS+ extensively, and participation in the European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) programme has risen dramatically.

The main concern is that outgoing mobility is still higher than incoming mobility, which could indicate problems with the region’s inadequate research infrastructure.

Institutions from Serbia, Slovenia, Moldova, Poland, and North Macedonia, for example, are sending more students overseas than they are taking in under the Central European Exchange Programme for University Studies (CEEPUS).

The number of persons who take part is determined by the number of higher education institutions in each country, as well as the size and research capacity of the country. However, according to CEEPUS data, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovakia, North Macedonia, Croatia, Romania, and Serbia have higher relative CEEPUS involvement than the rest of the EU.

According to Schuch, if all six countries join ERASMUS+ as full members and COST can at least retain its scope and size in Horizon Europe, participation in these programmes will certainly continue to rise.

While students and researchers from the Western Balkans use CEEPUS and ERASMUS+, MSCA has a smaller user base. Serbia has comparable participation numbers to Croatia, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Slovenia, however, analysts believe the other five Western Balkan countries participate in MSCA at a lower rate. All countries, with the exception of Kosovo, have more outgoing researchers than incoming researchers.

There are also significant disparities in MSCA success between the countries, according to the study. The average success rate among EU member states and associated countries is roughly 12%, whereas third-country applicants receive an MSCA award at a rate of 19.04 percent.

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