1.Context and scope
The European Commission, Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy, drafted a staff working document to report on the results of the ex-post evaluation of investment in research and technological development (RTD) infrastructures and activities supported by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) in the period 2007-2013. The evaluation study was conducted by an external contractor and the final report was published 1 in December 2021 2 .
In the period 2007-2013, over EUR 86 billion, nearly 25% of total Cohesion Policy funding, went towards innovation in the broader sense. Looking at RTD specifically, some EUR 17 billion was invested under the ERDF through 215 operational programmes (OP) in projects supporting RTD infrastructure, competence centres and activities in Member States and regions. Of these resources, more than EUR 11 billion supported the construction of new infrastructure, the modernisation of existing infrastructure, and equipment purchase. The remaining almost EUR 6 billion was invested in other forms of support to research activities.
Operational programmes highlighted two main groups of investment needs: a lack of a critical mass of infrastructure endowments and research capacities to enable the production of top-class research (relevant in particular for EU13 3 ) and a need to increase the industrial relevance of the regional science base by linking existing or emerging poles of scientific excellence to areas of industrial strength.
Between 2007 and 2017, the average growth rate in the number of research and development (R&D) personnel and researchers in the regions receiving ERDF support was 40%, and average regional ERDF expenditure on infrastructures and R&D projects in higher education institutions was about EUR 35 million. Over the same period, scientific publications almost doubled in terms of volume over the EU as a whole, but the EU13 regions experienced a higher growth rate as compared with regions in the EU15 4 (145% against 96%), highlighting an ongoing catching-up process. The observed growth rate in the share of tertiary-educated people in the target regions was, on average, 7% in the period 2007-2017, from a minimum of -5% in the German region of Chemnitz (DED1) to a maximum of 18% in the region of Prague (CZ01).
The average value growth rate in the number of patents in the period 2008–2016 in the target regions was 48%. Looking at the two extremes of the distribution of the growth rate, four regions, located in Poland and Romania, experienced an increase in the number of patents higher than 500%, while a set of regions, located mainly in the EU15, recorded negative growth rates. The growth rate in the number of public - private co-publications in the period 2008 – 2015 followed a similar path.
The evaluation has shown evidence that ERDF investments, aimed at modernising education facilities, have contributed to increasing both the number of people with tertiary education and the number of tertiary-educated people employed in science and technology. Evidence also points to an increase in scientific publications as a result of ERDF support. Some positive results were also reported in terms of softer innovation aspects measured by the growth rate of EU trademark applications. Positive effects were also reported regarding the managerial capacity of research institutions and the enhancement of their research and innovation capacities.
The evaluation has shown no evidence that ERDF support was successful in stimulating business R&D, which is the main driver of technological outputs. The capacity to generate economic benefits from the commercial valorisation of R&D results and to increase knowledge transfer capacities and mechanisms from scientific to industry partners was also limited. Expected results in terms of consolidation of research partnerships showed limited sustainability in the long run. The ERDF was also less effective in facilitating coordination and interactions between all actors involved in the innovation ecosystem.
ERDF RTD investments were geographically concentrated: more than 50% of mapped funds were invested in Poland, Germany and Czechia, 70% were directed to convergence regions and 64% to urban areas. ERDF support for RTD was overall sufficiently concentrated to lead to upgrades in both the quality of research infrastructure and research management capacities in most of the countries examined.
Some implementation issues may have led to inefficiencies. This was mainly related to limited administrative capacity or an unclear legal framework, as reported especially for collaborative R&D. Uncertainties in the interpretation and application of rules, especially for what concerns State-aid rules, caused delays and generated confusion and adjustments during the implementation process.
The long-term financial sustainability of RTD infrastructures was challenging in some cases. The limited use of infrastructure by the private sector and external users made the infrastructures highly dependent on public funding for their operation and maintenance. The case studies confirm that collaborative R&D policy instruments were not fully successful in ensuring the sustainability of the research projects’ results, stemming from the lack of translation of research results into practical innovations.
The ERDF played a countercyclical role in many regions, preventing the erosion of R&D systems in a moment of severe cuts in public funding for education and research, given the economic downturn of 2008. The ERDF policy mix for RTD was also generally coherent with regional and national RTD strategies but was mainly driven by co-financing obligations. The role of the ERDF in shaping national and regional policies was stronger in those countries where it represented a significant share of national or regional R&D expenditure.
Coherence with other forms of ERDF support was generally high. There was robust coordination among different OPs and between different priority axes within the same OP, clearly considering possible synergies and complementarity of respective roles. Good synergies were reported with the European Social Fund, with specific reference to support in the higher-education sector, while coherence between cohesion and competition policy remains unsolved. The ERDF and the EU framework programmes for research and innovation were seen as serving related but essentially different purposes. Despite ambitions to build on complementary strengths, no specific arrangements were implemented to facilitate or promote active synergies.
EU Added Value
Managing Authorities highlighted that there was significant added value, in particular in the EU13, where ERDF 2007-2013 programmes represented the first systematic set of interventions addressed to the research field, after years of underinvestment and limited political priority.