As the framework for the distribution of the next long-term EU budget for 2021-2027 has already been created, the European Commission came out with a statement regarding the main investment priorities of the EU. In the 2021-2027 budget period, between 65 and 85 percent of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), which amounts to €217B, will be invested in technologies for smart growth and the green economy, while it will also support other activities such as connectivity, social issues, and local development. For the previous budgetary period (2014-2020), cohesion policy funding amounted to €351.8B, i.e. almost a third of the total EU budget.
For Bulgaria, which will receive a little above €5B from the ERDF, the EC also came out with an executive summary with policy recommendations to the government and other parties. Special attention was paid to the innovation and tech sectors and their connectivity to the Bulgarian academic institutions and the new research complexes – Centres of Excellence (CoEs) and Centres of Competence (CoCs), established under the “Science and Education for Smart Growth” Operational Programme (SESG-OP). The problems identified include the lack of effective mechanisms to support shared infrastructures, limited technology transfer, and a fragmented research and innovation system suffering due to inefficient governance.
To what extent do the observations of the EC match with the problems identified by people from the Bulgarian innovation community?
Problems and solutions from a different perspective
“Bulgaria faces some policy, structural, and institutional challenges that must be addressed to improve its innovation performance in the EU and globally,” states the EC, later focusing on the fragmentation of the public science base and the weak science-business links. Among the main recommendations towards the government is to optimize public intervention in the research sector and to become the link between innovative sectors and academic institutions. The Commission also suggested the creation of public research institutes to help universities integrate and consolidate their R&D activities and thus participate more effectively in the Centres as a way to centralize the academic institutions and make connecting them with tech and innovation sectors easier. Another way for the government to interact more with universities, as proposed, is by allocating financing for innovative scientific projects when they reach the proof of concept stage or if they establish a startup based on a scientific idea or technology.
Bulgaria’s innovation Centers
So far, a total of 4 Excellence Centers and 9 Centres of Competence have been established. Total funds allocated for their creation amount to approximately €190M. The investment per CoE/CoC project is roughly between €6.5M and €35M with an average of about €12.7M. As noted by the EC, the cohesion policy already invests largely in research infrastructure in Bulgaria, giving an example of co-financing the creation of the flagship Sofia Tech Park project. While the centers are expected to become self-sustainable after 2023, they are created for scientific research, so they will significantly rely on public funding. In practice, this suggests a good funding allocation strategy on behalf of national legislators, but also efforts on the side of the governing institutions to develop an R&I ecosystem that will serve to improve economic performance in the sector. Another note by the EC to national institutions is to create a centrally coordinated network to encourage academic collaborations with industry and technology transfer. When it comes to this, the Bulgarian government has been planning to establish a special body – the State Agency for Research and Innovation – which will be directly accountable to the Council of Ministers to facilitate the creation of an institutional framework.
The flagship centers
Among the featured centers is one of the Bulgarian academy of science (BAS) – the National Center for Mechatronics and Clean Technologies – which aims to develop technologies in the fields of virtual engineering and digital production, bio-mechatronics, and micro/nanoengineering. Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” also has two projects – “Universities of Science, Informatics, and Technology in the e-society” (UNITe) whose goal is to build a research center that meets the requirements for modern e-infrastructure and will carry out research in the areas of sensitive data collection, image recognition, and the development of digital mathematical methods and models. The other project of the university is the Center of Excellence in Informatics and Information and Communication Technologies, whose objective is to build a data center and a new generation supercomputer system.