Thinking locally, acting globally: Europe’s regional scientific institutions

By Dr. William Burns PhD MSc


  • Taxpayer-funded scientific research is mostly institutionalized at the national level. But national scientific institutions are joined by hundreds of regional research institutions legally associated with Länder, autonomous regions and devolved governments.
  • What does science look like in regional institutions? There is great diversity in the topics under investigation covering most areas of civilian science. We can observe both application-oriented and basic research but, probably, as a guess, the balance is on application.
  • Drawing on my interviews with a sample of senior managers in these institutions, it seems they often operate in an environment that includes responding to regional and national policy priorities (and funding streams), private sector research contracts, and international scientific trends.
  • The EU is the only agency able to mobilize both scientific institutions and regional policy across an entire continent (backed with billions of €). EU officials have expressed renewed interest in synergies between their science and cohesion (regional) policies.
  • How could regional research institutions contribute to the design and delivery of these synergies? The answers are not necessarily obvious. But as a starting point, regional research institutions ought to be brought systematically into the discussion. This does not currently seem to be happening as much as it might.


Taxpayer-funded science and research is often talked about as if it is mainly an affair for national governments. However, this is not accurate. Scientific institutions connected to regional administrations are a notable phenomenon around the world.

It is possible, although not easily provable, that such regional scientific bodies actually outnumber their national counterparts (although almost certainly operating on a lower budget). I have not checked into the details, but global examples would appear to include prefectural research institutes in Japan, provincial and municipal laboratories in China, and state universities in the USA.

The legal forms these institutions take are, of course, varied, including universities, research institutes, public-private partnerships, funding agencies, and research associations. The relationships they have with both regional and national authorities are also varied (summed up by the term multi-level governance).(1)

Europe harbors hundreds of such institutions, citing as obvious cases those associated with the German Länder, autonomous regions (e.g. Sardinia, Trentino Alto-Adige) and autonomous or devolved governments (Catalonia, Scotland). These institutions investigate a range of scientific topics covering, it would seem, the totality of civilian scientific inquiry. The overall budget is probably several billion € p.a.

Types of regional public entity associated with R&D(2)

Coordination, membership, or networking group(3)Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute); Brussels Studies Institute (BSI); Forschungsverbund Berlin; Johannes-Rau-Forschungsgemeinschaft (JRF)
Public-private partnership (regional government shareholding)(4)Deutsches Forschungszentrum für Künstliche Intelligenz (DFKI); Silicon Austria Labs (SAL)
Public research institute(5)Centres de Recerca de Catalunya (CERCA); Fondazione Bruno Kessler (FBK); NORSUS Norsk institutt for bærekraftsforskning; Zentrum für Sonnenenergie- und Wasserstoff-Forschung Baden-Württemberg (ZSW)
Regional research funder(6)Ikerbasque
Regionalized national entity(7)Délégations régionales académique à la recherche et à l’innovation (DRARI); Sociétés d’Accélération du Transfert de Technologies (SATT); regional bases of academies of sciences and agricultural sciences and of national research centers(8)
UniversityAalto University; Delft University of Technology; Leiden University; Norwegian University of Technology(9)

The European Commission has been at the forefront of describing the regional dimensions of universities across Europe (reflecting its traditional policy focus on universities). For example, officials in the Joint Research Center (JRC) sought to define ‘regional orientation’. Factors included income from regional sources, ‘joint agenda setting with regional partners’, public relations emphasizing the regional dimension, management incentives for regionally-relevant work, and so on.(10) Officials have not yet extended this work to include other forms of regional scientific organization.

There is obviously a lot of economic writing on ‘regional innovation systems’ (many thousands of books, reports, journal articles, etc.). But, as far as I can find out (and I did not look too closely), there seems to be less on the specifics of regional research institutions such as their histories, governance, the science they did and do, and their relations with stakeholders.(11)

It is also important to note that regional research institutions are not a coherent legal or organisational category. Nor would the term be recognized or even accepted by many of the institutions themselves. In truth, it has simply been a convenient label I used to gather information!

With this background in mind, I spoke to senior managers in a small selection of non-university research institutions which I believed had connections to regional governments.(12) My goal was to shine some light on these institutions across several regions and fields of science.

Perspectives from institutions

Centres de Recerca de Catalunya (CERCA) can be described as either a regional or national research institution. Headquartered in Barcelona, the organization has responsibility for 42 centers covering many areas of basic and applied research. It has an annual budget of €576m.

“Each center is its own legal entity but there is a common point, and there are Catalan government representations on the boards. There is coordination, a common ombudsman, an evaluation system, and a common code of conduct for all the centers,” the director of CERCA, Dr. Lluís Rovira, told me in a phone call last October.

Regional research centers were established in Catalonia in the 1980s a few years after the restoration of autonomy, under the administrations of Felipe González and Jordi Pujol (respectively, Madrid and Barcelona). The creation of a network for these institutions dates from 2000. Dr. Rovira attributes that idea to the (then) Catalan minister of research, Andreu Mas-Colel. The network took its current legal form as CERCA in 2010.

Raising the profile of research and innovation in Catalonia is a core priority for CERCA.
“CERCA has only been in operation for a decade. At the moment we are making CERCA more prominent. We want to appear as one institute rather than a collection of institutes,” he said.

“We didn’t have any direct allocation of the EU covid recovery funds (NextGenerationEU).(13) On the other hand, we have submitted applications to Spanish calls and in that way we are beginning to be funded.”

“I believe we could do a lot of useful and innovative science with that extra funding which will benefit the local economy and also Spain and Europe. CSIC, Spain’s national agency, might see us as a competitor. This is not our perception and we ought to be collaborating.”

“We win significant amounts of EU funds. In fact, looking at Horizon 2020, we were the fifth most successful organization in Europe after such agencies as CNRS and CEA in France and Max Planck and Fraunhofer in Germany. But, in terms of conversations with EU officials, I would say we never get a call from Brussels to ask what we think. Despite our size, we are in the shadow of the member states.”

“We also cannot join Science Europe. They told us only agencies attached to national governments can join,” he said. “I would like to see this handled with more flexibility.”

Science Europe is the main representative body in Brussels for research organizations.

Historically, as one of the most industrialized areas of Europe, Catalonia has more than a century of scientific and technical achievement.

“In future years we want to win Nobel Prizes,” Dr. Rovira added.

Considered as a state of about 7.5m inhabitants, Catalonia’s European peers would probably be other wealthy countries of similar population, notably, Switzerland.

As such, it seems informative to compare the annual budget of CERCA (€576m) with that of the Swiss ETH-Bereich (about €3.5b). The CERCA budget is not quite at the Swiss level yet, but it is not small either and if you include the budgets of the Catalan universities, it is high by international standards.

The Basque Country (Euskadi) is another of Europe’s most scientifically renowned regions. I spoke with Iñigo Atxutegi, General Manager, Ikerbasque, a government organization that aims to attract more talented scientists to the Basque Country (who are then employed in Basque universities and research institutes).

“We currently fund around 300 researchers in our region. We pay about 60% of their salary. The rest is covered by the host institution.”

The organization has a budget of around €20m p.a. from the Basque government and the EU, with the majority coming from the Basque government.

“We calculated that for every €1 we spend recruiting researchers, the researchers bring back €2 in competitive grants. This is a great ratio and demonstrates the strength of what we are doing.”

“We fund a mix of about ⅓ Basque scientists returning from abroad, ⅓ Spanish citizens, and ⅓ others, mainly from European countries. Our scientists do not have teaching responsibilities if they are working at a university because the goal is for them to concentrate on research.”

“Our relations with the EU are through the Basque government. These are not conversations I am having separately. We have five people employed in our own administration so it would be difficult for us [to interact with the EU more] in terms of capacity,” Iñigo Atxutegi added.

“I would say we talk to CSIC [Spain’s national science agency] but they are a research-performing organization that does not have much influence outside their own labs. We do have two labs we jointly fund with CSIC.”

“By 2024 we hope to have expanded our financial support to around 400 scientists. Hopefully the years ahead will be OK in terms of funding as we have the strong backing of the Basque government,” he added.

French experiences with regionalism

A study by Aust and Cret (2012), while obviously not covering developments over the last decade since publication, offers insights on historical efforts to devolve scientific research in France.(14)

In the 1980s, President Mitterand was determined to decentralize power (he intended it as the big reform of his term in office). This idea fed into science policy in 1982 through the creation of regional technology and research delegates (known as DRRTs). The initial idea was for them to form partnerships between different levels of government to take forward science and research.

During the early, reforming years of the first Mitterand administration, there were, without doubt, sincere intentions to bring local control to science and research policy.
DRRTs were strengthened by their role in negotiating EU regional funding. The DRRTs could exercise genuine control because French scientific elites, focused on Paris, lacked high-level links to Brussels, according to Aust and Cret.

However, in the bigger picture, the DRRTs had difficulty establishing themselves, they were under-funded (often only having a handful of staff), and the coordinating or brokering role was not welcomed by the central ministries.

Nor did they find favor with local governments or university presidents (universities would brief against the DRRTs in Paris to get funding recommendations reversed).

The use of calls for proposals from the center further undercut the influence of DRRTs in shaping regional R&D. They set regions competing against one another for funds in projects defined by the central ministry. Unproductive regional competition has been an unfortunate feature of regional policies in many parts of Europe.

The DRRTs alongside local governments were sometimes completely bypassed with the heads of universities negotiating directly with the central government.

Aust and Cret conclude that in areas where scientists were well-networked with Paris, the DRRTs had little role. However, in situations where networking was poor or for new, under-developed, scientific topics, they were of greater significance. By the time of writing (2012), the DRRTs had become a marginal force.

Fondazione Bruno Kessler (FBK) is located in the Italian autonomous region of Trentino-Alto Adige (also known as Trentino-Südtirol) next to the Austrian border. It employs around 450 researchers across the sciences, engineering, and humanities, and operates with an annual budget of about €50m.

It was founded as a cultural institute in 1962 by the (then) president of the province, Bruno Kessler, a Christian Democrat politician. Part of the institute was spun off to become the University of Trentino. In 1976, the scientific and technical part of the institute was opened. It would later become the most dominant part in terms of staff and funds.

Today, the autonomous government supplies around €30m of funding p.a. with the remainder coming from competitive sources such as public grants and commercial contracts with the private sector.

I spoke with Giuliano Muzio, Chief Industry Strategy Officer, FBK, who described a goal of “generative autonomy” for his institution, which he defined as follows.

“At the beginning our focus was on the local territory in terms of topics and companies but I think we are moving towards more open interests. We will always preserve our links with the local area. That is a given. But we also want to open the frontiers, so to speak, with the aim of having half our business coming from the local needs of Trentino and half responding to national and international needs,” he said.

“We have had research contracts with Boeing and Thales, as examples of international firms, and with ENI and Snam on the national level,” he said.

“I guess we are a strange type of organization in that we have a double soul, by which I mean we are a sort of a mix of Fraunhofer and Max Planck, combining both applied and basic research, although of course operating at a smaller scale,” he said.

As in Catalonia, a big discussion point is how the EU covid recovery funds, NextGenerationEU, will be dispersed in relation to science.

Mr. Muzio believes there are new opportunities to work with the private sector that these funds could facilitate.

“Our work with companies is important. I see companies asking for more research. They are lowering their technology readiness levels. They want to have a strong approach in a competitive market. We are no longer talking just to the R&D departments but also the business units and the boards that make the investment decisions.”

Turning northwards, Baden-Württemberg describes itself as one of ‘four motors of Europe’ (alongside Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Catalunya and Lombardia).

I exchanged emails with Petra Nikolić, Director of Public Relations, Zentrum für Sonnenenergie- und Wasserstoff-Forschung Baden-Württemberg (ZSW), an institute located in Stuttgart and connected to the state government.

“We are playing a leading role in shaping the course of the energy transition towards a climate-neutral world. In terms of strategy, we are developing scenarios and solutions for a sustainable transformation. When it comes to advising on policy, our role involves monitoring, evaluating, examining innovation mechanisms, and exploring ways of adding value,” she wrote.

“ZSW provides policy consulting to the federal government and the regional government of Baden-Württemberg. So, for example, we are a member of the German government’s independent expert commission for ‘Energy of the Future’ monitoring process and as a member of the Baden-Württemberg government’s advisory council for sustainable development.”

“We find a strong network with project partners you can rely on is vital for our successful work at ZSW. Our contacts are excellent with commercial enterprises, departments of state and federal governments, universities and other research institutes and they enable close cooperation with the common aim of realising technology transfer for renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.”

“In terms of Brussels, it is impossible to comment on the strength of current links because we have only a few EU projects at the moment. But we received an invitation to present our ReFuels Roadmap to the EU Parliament in July 2022,” she added.

The German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (known as DFKI) was created in 1988 on the initiative of Heinz Riesenhuber, the long-serving federal science minister in the West German CDU government of that time.

It is a non-profit public-private partnership (PPP). Apart from the state governments of Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland and Bremen, high-tech companies from a wide range of industrial sectors are represented on the DFKI supervisory board, according to Reinhard Karger, Spokesperson, DFKI, who I phoned last October.

The Center has campuses in Kaiserslautern, Saarbrücken, Bremen, Osnabrück, Oldenburg and Berlin. It has about 1250 staff (including scientists, students, and administration).

“In the 1980s, especially with the Fifth Generation project(15), it seemed that Japan would dominate in information technology, so the federal government decided it needed a new research center for artificial intelligence and invited states to bid for it,” Mr. Karger said.

Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland won the competition to host the institute, due to expertise at Technical University Kaiserslautern and University of Saarland (Saarbrücken), he added.

“The business model was innovative for the time. We were founded as a not-for-profit PPP involving companies, universities and the state governments. Our existence depended on winning projects. If there were no projects, the company would get closed down. I think this made everybody very ambitious.”

“We have close interactions with academia. For example, we are located on the campuses of universities. All our R&D labs are headed by a university professor who still teaches students, as well as being a DFKI employee.”

“Students are very important and bring lots of energy into the company. I don’t mean just doctoral students but undergraduate students. We need all the talents we can get. We don’t just draw from the obvious subjects such as computer science but also linguistics, design, psychology, and many other backgrounds.”

“The advantage of being located on the campus is that students can come in between their studies to work on projects.”

Mr. Karger told me that the institution had plans for “modest growth” with the opening of a new site near Frankfurt (Darmstadt) by the beginning of 2022. But there were no plans at present to open campuses abroad although the organization cooperated with ICSI, a German federal government-sponsored initiative in California.

“We talk with the EU Commission regularly as advisers. For example, the EU asked us to take part in the High-level expert group on artificial intelligence (AI HLEG) . We had a good and very intense intellectual dialogue with Brussels and were involved in the Ethics guidelines for Trustworthy AI of the European Commission.”

“Without doubt, Europe needs more community building in AI research, but the initiatives need to be grassroots or bottom-up. Surely, we need funding as well but energy and spirit are important too.”

“An initiative we started, known as CLAIRE-AI, is a good example of that kind of thing. It has been a highly-effective engagement. As of 2018, the active CLAIRE network has now grown to 435 labs with around 24000 employees in Europe and is the largest AI initiative on the continent and around the world with almost 4000 personal supporters.”

Let us now end our virtual journey in Norway. I spoke by phone with Dr. Ellen-Marie Forsberg, Director, NORSUS Norwegian Institute for Sustainability Research.

NORSUS, located in Fredrikstad, south of Oslo, traces its history to 1988 when it was founded as a regional research institute associated with the Ostfold region.(16)

It is still owned by the local government. However, due to limited funding, Dr. Forsberg said, it has narrowed its scientific focus to life cycle assessments (a vital element of environmental policy) while expanding its customer base.

“We also have an office in Oslo because we cannot attract all staff to live here.” Fredrikstad is about an hour and a half by train from Oslo.

“As long as we don’t leave the area, the local government is happy,” she said. “Furthermore, as we receive so little funding from them they don’t expect to exercise much control over our programs.”

“Our goal is to become stronger in our field, grow and strengthen our academic publishing and win European grants,” she added.

“Norway has particular strength in social sciences research institutes. This is unusual in Europe.”

But external forces, notably the struggle for funds, shaped the institutional trajectory as well.

“We lobby for higher funding in Oslo through the FFA, which is the group of research institutes here in Norway. One big challenge is that basic public funding for research institutes here is very small compared to France or Germany. This lack of funding is a barrier for us in publishing as much as we want.”

“Our national science budget rises, yes, but the higher education sector gets the bulk of the funding. They are taking over tasks the research institutes used to carry out at the applied end of research. It has become tougher for us.”

“Basic funding at around 15% of our budget comes from the national research council. This is not enough. We have to earn the rest through a mix of competitive grants and contract research,” Dr. Forsberg said.

“In terms of Brussels, we have very good connections with the European Commission. But these are not formalized. They are down to individual relations, rather than the Commission reaching out to Norwegian research institutions like my own.”

Business models

Across the great diversity of legal forms, business models, and historical trajectories we observe in regional research institutions, there is not really any clear-cut benchmark of performance (beyond basic financial survival of institutions). This is not surprising given the category is so loosely defined. Institutions are all successful in different ways.

Nevertheless, having looked briefly at regional research institutions across Europe, I am going to make three general points.

The first point is that many focus on application-oriented R&D (although there are exceptions). This is obviously not a unique feature of regional institutions but a correlation.

As regional institutions become more national, such as in Catalonia, the focus on the longer time horizon, the abstract topics, and so on, seems to increase (as do the budgets available). Local and regional governments are interested in scientific research. Only a few have the finances to do it.

My second point is the relationship to different scales of government (and other stakeholders). Some regional institutions have converted into or been absorbed by national centers. Others exemplify co-working with national funding agencies. Funding for research tends to come from a mix of contracts and grants from quite a wide range of bodies.

Germany in particular harbors many hybrid legal structures that combine local and federal funds, universities, and other types of research institutions in a single site. But these kinds of joint or mixed structures are also found in other places such as Italy and Spain.

Another form – the public-private partnership (PPP) where the regional government takes a certain share of the ownership or membership of the board. DFKI, noted above, is one pioneering example. Across the border in Austria and on the hardware rather than software side – Silicon Austria Labs (SAL). The state of Carinthia takes a 10% stake in that institution, citing the SAL website.

In cases where the purposes of the public and private sectors align, PPP might succeed. An element of local control ensures that benefits arising help, at least in principle, the local population.

In eastern Europe we can observe a degree of formal regionalization of research, such as in the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (with regional offices dating from the years of the USSR). Attention must also be drawn to regionalization in agricultural research, extension and education activities as seen in agricultural universities and academies of agricultural science.

I am not in a position to comment on the significance of these observations. But, evidently, if there is little public science funding in general, there can be little regional R&D. Only wealthy regions can afford large scientific institutions.

To finish, an obvious point. Where institutions have not been attached to stable local or regional governments they probably struggle. A case is England where Labour governments promoted regionalization, whereas Conservative/Liberal governments opposed it (and, therefore, abolished the structures founded during periods of Labour rule).(17)

This created instability. It is a problem because economic pay-offs from R&D investment are likely to appear quite slowly, perhaps even over several decades, but are repeatedly disrupted.

The French example cited in this report (see box above) seems to present a relatively more successful case of regionalization driven from the national capital. The EU (and predecessor bodies) played a crucial role in successes because it was a political counterweight to the (supposed) ‘Paris or the desert’ attitude.

As we can also see, both regional and national politicians, and from both ends of the political spectrum, have played important roles in the formation of regional research institutions. Overall, the capacity to sustain regional R&D depends perhaps not so much on scientists, but on the wider political environment, one that scientists often struggle to shape.

Science policy is typically conceived in national terms. The position of regional research institutions therefore seems, at least in some cases, precarious.

Research as public service in one of the world’s biggest cities

Japan has a network of research institutes that cooperate with the prefectural governments covering such topics as environmental protection, agriculture and support for local industry.

To bring a perspective from outside Europe, I sought insights from the Tokyo Metropolitan Research Institute for Environmental Protection. It is one of the most well-known of the prefectural research institutions and funded by the largest local government area in Japan.

“Our main role is to support the environmental administration of Tokyo. There are a variety of potential environmental issues that may arise when Tokyo implements environmental policies. So we are conducting research on these issues in a forward-looking and accurate manner,” a spokesperson, who did not wish to be named, informed me in an email.

“The scientific knowledge gained in this way is provided to Tokyo. It will be used to improve the lives of people, preserve the natural environment, and avoid and mitigate ecological damage.”

“We will also aim to minimise future risks from the effects of climate change.”

The institute was established in 1968 under Ryokichi Minobe’s pioneering administration of the city.

Minobe promoted the concept of ‘Open Squares and Blue Skies for Tokyo’ (meaning both citizen engagement and environmental concerns).(18) It appears that the institute has successfully maintained a similar ethos since, despite changes of political direction in the city government. It places particular emphasis on communicating with local citizens.

“We are supported by the local government and don’t receive any funds from the national agencies, but we sometimes collaborate or conduct joint research with national and local research institutions. That research is always carried out with a shared understanding of the issues,” the spokesperson added.

Coordination of EU science and regional policies

The EU is the only agency able to mobilize both scientific institutions and regional policy across an entire continent (backed with billions of €). In terms of EU actions in this field, is it possible to understand what the organization is doing?

To answer the question, I looked at coordination between the framework programs (Horizon 2020, Horizon Europe) and cohesion policy, the former being the main science policy and the latter (which applies to the member states only) being the main regional policy.

How the various EU science funding programs work together is perhaps not just an administrative detail. It could be important for the unifying project of the EU as well as for the vitality of science on the continent as a whole.

EU framework programs and cohesion policy

Budget2014-20202021-2027Legal basis
Framework€80b (Horizon 2020)€86.1b (Horizon Europe)*Regulation No. 2021/695
Cohesion€65b†€372.6b*TFEU Article 174
*Budgets taken from The EU’s 2021-2027 long-term budget & NextGenerationEU: Facts and figures (29 April 2021), citing p. 7. In the case of the latter budget, I have no idea what might be allocated for science and research and therefore state the total budget (which, of course, will fund other activities).
†‘Research & Innovation’ as cited on p. 7 of COM(2021) 213 final (28 April 2021).

As we all know, richer regions of Europe tend to invest more in R&D. The regions that invested more also gained more funding from Horizon 2020.(19) Regional research institutions (as much as any scientific institution) in these regions will therefore, in principle, benefit. However, there is no explicit regional governance nor regional funding stream within the program.(20)

The cohesion policy is not typically thought of as science policy (and the majority of the funds have not much to do with science). But, as can be judged from the budget in the last multiannual financial framework (2014-2020), a big sum, €65b, was labeled ‘research and innovation’. The policy is intended to redistribute prosperity across the territory and therefore has a regional basis.(21)

How exactly was this cohesion funding spent on science? Primarily, as far as I could see, application-oriented topics. There have also been systemic programs such as the Urban Innovative Actions (€372m). Expenditure on high-tech research facilities was prominent; a significant amount paid for re-equipment of science in eastern Europe (see table below).

Research facilities funded through the cohesion policy (examples)

ProjectEU investmentFacilityLocation(s)
ELI€850mLasersDolní Břežany, Szeged, Măgurele
ACCORD€105mClassrooms & labsBratislava
BOMAG€68mResearch shipCádiz

However, overall, I lack comprehensive data on science and technology spending within the cohesion policy (the online database seems incomplete).(22) It is therefore impossible to draw solid conclusions about the science that taxpayers are buying through it.

Regional policy has been somehow connected with science and technology for decades (and, in individual member states, the connection can be traced back further).(23)

Efforts at the EU level have typically been by encouraging conversations between different stakeholders. The Smart Specialization Strategy (S3) has been the largest intervention of this kind by the EU over almost a decade. The strategy encourages local authorities to look for synergies between science and innovation policies.

A recent appraisal of S3 based on a survey of stakeholders was generally positive about its impacts. The authors wrote that it had led to the ‘adoption…of more inclusive forms of governance in innovation policy across the EU…to promote a more structured and regular interaction between public and private parties, by strengthening (or creating new) coordination bodies, platforms and networks of actors.’(24)

One worry seems to be that at least some local authorities lack the remit or capacity to identify synergies at a continental scale. The Commission does its best to support them in this task such as through web platforms.

A Commission report showed that ‘synergies’ between Horizon 2020 and cohesion policy funds were occurring in some regions and for some topics but the authors were uncertain if anyone had deliberately looked for these synergies or whether they had arisen by chance.(25)

Local or regional governments, for their part, might feel they are not consulted enough in policy formulation, nor have enough support to design and execute their own policies (with the member state governments being over-dominant).

I believe the system is also under-powered at a strategic level in Brussels both in terms of legal underpinning and administrative support. The parts of the Commission and Committee of the Regions (CoR) intended to make connections, for example, do not seem to have enough staff for the task (the EU bodies in general lack the headcount needed).(26)

I do not follow the politics of the cohesion policy. But the member states said in 2020 that ‘particular attention will be paid to the coordination of activities funded through Horizon Europe with those supported…through cohesion policy’.(27)

The Commission has over the past year invited representatives of the Committee of the Regions to meetings about research and innovation (on the assumption, I guess, they were not invited before). Renewed interest in the European Research Area (ERA) might also be significant. However, thus far, not much concrete has emerged publicly.(28)


Regional research institutions are often anchor points in regional innovation systems. Over decades, they have made links between officials, businesses, citizens, and scientists in their regions, while synergising national or international funding streams and scientific collaborations.

Why are we not making more of this resource? For years, policymakers have wondered how to maximize the innovation assets in a given region. Answers have varied. As we have seen from the interviews, scientific institutions themselves have their own well-thought-through approaches often suited to their particular circumstances.

Referring specifically to the EU member states, regional policy has been a crucial element of EU action for decades. Without the EU, development in many regions would be impossible due to lack of consistent funding and political support from domestic sources.

The question of how regional research institutions could contribute to the design and delivery of European science policy is an important one. I certainly do not have answers (although the institutions themselves might have if we asked them).

At least in some cases, regional governments would like to see greater devolution of science funding. In other cases, the solutions are not so obvious.

I feel the latest statements from the EU to link regional and science policies would benefit from in-depth dialogue with regional scientific institutions. Regrettably, many of the regional research institutions would not have the staff time to engage in such discussions (others might not be particularly interested). It is also not yet clear if ‘Brussels’ offers an equitable framework through which all the institutions could engage.(29)

Looking at the EU funding schemes as a whole, none are the perfect fit for the science and research that European citizens need. Given the multiple crises the continent faces, all available scientific capacity needs to be mobilized to the maximum. I believe this must include the regional capacity highlighted in this report.

I would like to thank the experts who gave their advice and comments. I would also like to thank Mr. Shunsuke Goto for the translations needed to write the section on Japan. However, opinions expressed in this report remain my own and should not be construed as representing the views of others, except where clearly attributed.

(1) A detailed account of regional government competences in Europe is offered by Martinez Marias, Nathalie Noupadja and Pierre Vander Auwera, 2016, Local and Regional Governments in Europe Structures and Competences (CCRE-CEMR).
(2) The table is not systematic. The institutions are diverse. Legal forms vary (although important, I am afraid I did not pay too much attention to them). Readers should therefore note that regional or local institutions are not a coherent legal category.
(3) Diverse category of entities that would seem neither to fund research nor to undertake it (although they might, of course, do both, with the latter probably being performed by their member organizations). They are likely to be created for a range of reasons such as management efficiency (pooling core functions); improving public profile or legibility to business, officials, or the public; representation; lobbying; encouraging collaboration between members, etc.
(4) I lack information on exactly how many of these kinds of structures exist. As an example, the Forschungscampus initiative in Germany, which comprised 10 proposed centers, citing Koschatzky, 2017, A theoretical view on public-private partnerships in research and innovation in Germany (Fraunhofer ISI Working Papers Firms and Region No. R2/2017), p. 10.
(5) Could be more than 150 such institutions across Europe. Most obviously defined by having a building or buildings (not virtual) where they employ scientists to undertake R&D funded by taxpayers. The most well-known would be the German Landesforschungseinrichtungen (comprising 143 research institutes). But similar institutions are also found in other European countries, notably, in Italy, Spain, and the UK. The German research ministry provides schematic information on German Länder research institutions, notably, in the Research in Germany website and BuFI 2020 – Teil IV: Die Zusammenarbeit zwischen Bund und Ländern. I am not aware of any such comprehensive information for other European countries (but, lacking the time, I have not looked closely).
(6) Funding might be delivered by a separate agency e.g., Ikerbasque; or directly by the regional government e.g., Sêr Cymru (Wales).
(7) Created by initiative of the national government but with elements of regional control.
(8) Varied category with, no doubt, varying degrees of regional control in terms of governance, collaborations, and scientific focus. Agriculture, astronomy, environment, and oceans, appear to be common topics. Examples include regional institutions associated with the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (which date from the 1970s), Romanian Academy, Academy of Agricultural and Forestry Sciences (Romania), and national scientific research centers in Italy and Spain.
(9) I have not looked into whether these universities have legal connections to the local government (such as ownership or shareholding). But these universities were cited as ‘leader’ in the ‘Regional Innovation category’ of the sample of European universities studied by Tijssen, et al., 2021, Regional Innovation Impact of Universities (p. 48).
(10) Jonkers, et al., 2018, A Regional Innovation Impact Assessment Framework for universities (JRC Discussion Paper), p. 24.
(11) On the history of the term ‘regional innovation systems’, I found Doloreux and Parto, 2004, ‘Regional Innovation Systems: A Critical Review’, informative. My report is not a discussion of innovation policy (not a topic I know much about). Innovation policy is, in any case, a highly political term. Its focus on economic gains is sometimes too narrow to accommodate the varied uses of science and research in the public sector.
(12) The term I used will be disputed by some institutions. While we know large amounts about a small number of universities, we know much less schematically about non-university research institutions. The linking factor in the institutions I examined in this report is that they reflect dimensions noted by Jonkers, et al. (above), i.e., they are specifically targeted at regional or local development, have a clear element of local control in their governance (such as board membership) or are directly funded by regional governments (and often all three). Readers should note the distinctions between university and non-university research institutions can be both very well defined legally but also quite blurred depending on the case. That is another topic. It has been explored in the work of Prof. Dr. Knut Koschatzky (while legal structures have since changed, his work is still informative). I chose not to focus too much on legal forms in this report.
(13) NextGenerationEU is not a topic I looked at but Bennetot Pruvot and Esterman (2021) NextGenerationEU: What do National Recovery and Resilience Plans hold for universities? provide valuable insight (from a university perspective). The authors comment that ‘little information [on the investment agenda] is available to stakeholders and the general public’ (p. 20). It might be difficult for bureaucracies to execute such a large amount of spending.
(14) Devolution of scientific institutions in France is not a topic I know anything about. Nor, I regret to say, have I had time to read about it. DRARI seems to be the current version of DRRT. Beyond the paper cited here, my limited personal knowledge extends to: Gardon, 2013, ‘Les politiques régionales d’enseignement supérieur et de recherche: entre ancrage territorial et enjeux académiques’ (l’Association des sciences régionales de langue française, Mons, 8-11 July 2013) and the references therein (see in particular footnote 6). Personal perspectives on such efforts, especially under the Cresson government (1991-1992), are offered by Beauvais and Ledur, 2016, ‘L’ancrage de la recherche en région’, in: Histoire de la recherche contemporaine.
(15) A 1980s Japanese government initiative to develop advanced computers. It was ‘largely a failure for the Japanese computer industry’ according to Aspray, 2003, in: The Cambridge History of Science: Volume 5, The Modern Physical and Mathematical Sciences (ed. Nye), p. 614 (this seems an excessively harsh judgement).
(16) Norway has several research institutes, besides NORSUS, with regional connections dating to the last century, e.g., NORCE Norwegian Research Center, Nordlandsforsking, Vestlandsforsking, Stiftelsen Telemarksforsking, and Trøndelag Forskning og Utvikling (the latter was recently absorbed by SINTEF).
(17) There are obviously unresolved political tensions between those who wish to govern England in regional units such as the north-east, London, and so on; those who seek to govern England as a single unit alongside Scotland and Wales; and those who would wish to retain a centralized governance structure for the entirety of the island. The independence movements in Scotland and Wales obviously have another set of ideas regarding their own territories. All the UK’s main national (or British) research institutes are located in England.
(18) ‘Open Squares and Blue Skies for Tokyo’ is quoted by Watanabe, 2006, ‘Tokyo: forged by market forces and not the power of planning’, in: Planning Twentieth Century Capital Cities (ed. Gordon), p. 110. See also: Hein, 2004, Reasonable Men, Powerful Words: Political Culture and Expertise in Twentieth Century Japan (chapter 8, ‘thinking locally, acting globally: the Tokyo governorship’); and Mckean, 1981, Environmental Protest and Citizen Politics in Japan (pp. 102-121).
(19) OECD Economic Surveys: European Union 2021, ‘Richer regions invest more in R&D and have received more Horizon 2020 funding’, Figure 2.13. A big amount has been written on the topic of regional policies to encourage prosperity (including, I suspect, science policies generated by European regions and regional policies proposed by national governments). I am not an expert on this and also, I am afraid, lacked the time to read it.
(20) I suspect, if one were to look through every Horizon 2020 project, one would find plenty of examples where regional benefits arose or where there was regional governance in the program (problem is that the CORDIS database does not allow you to do this easily). Obviously all research organizations have local links. At the least, unless they are entirely virtual, they will employ people who live nearby. This aspect might have impacts on the research program they undertake, even when not acknowledged. Evidently, institutions concerned with research relevant to agriculture, natural hazards, manufacturing, and cultural topics in particular tend to grow up around, and reference, their local circumstances.
(21) ‘reducing disparities between the levels of development of the various regions and the backwardness of the least favoured regions’, citing TFEU Article 174. C.f. Regulation (EU) No. 2021/695 (Horizon Europe).
(22) A search of the European Commission regional policy project database in October and November 2021 selecting the ‘Innovation, Research, and Technological development’ and ‘Research and innovation’ themes revealed about €1.6b total EU expenditure for 300 projects (modal expenditure was €350k). This would appear to be a small sample of the projects funded, given the figure of €65b cited above for research and innovation.
(23) Manzella and Mendez, 2009, The turning points of EU Cohesion policy, notes a ‘regional technology plan’ as early as 1989 (p. 26).
(24) Hegyi, Guzzo, Perianez Forte and Gianelle, 2021, The Smart Specialisation Policy Experience: Perspective of National and Regional Authorities (JRC), pp. 5-6. Participation of universities and research and technology organizations in S3 was reported to be ‘high’ or ‘very high’ (p. 24); they were considered ‘efficient bridges between individual businesses and collective strategic processes’ (p. 38). However the report did not specify if these scientific and higher education institutions could be considered regional or local in character.
(25) Doussineau and Bachtrögler-Unger, 2021, Exploring Synergies between EU Cohesion Policy and Horizon 2020 Funding across European Regions: An analysis of regional funding concentration on key enabling technologies and societal grand challenges (JRC Technical Reports), p. 26.
(26) The CoR was founded in 1993 (Maastricht Treaty). It is a group of approximately 300 elected officials from local or regional governments (it is up to member states to decide how to interpret that definition). Their opinion must be sought on new legislative proposals but that opinion is not binding.
(27) EUCO 10/20 (21 July 2020), p. 18
(28) We should note the continued promotion of the Knowledge Exchange Platform (created 2015) and a new Joint Action Plan (November 2020).
(29) Such an activity would require additional funding. But I do not believe there is anyone with an interest in funding it! An existing body, ERRIN, counts among its members mainly local authorities (i.e., it does not seem to directly represent regional scientific institutions). Science Europe only admits national institutions (see here for current membership). Other representation groups tend to be dominated by famous universities or research centers from the big member states primarily concerned with technology.