Committee on Employment and Social Affairs (EMPL)

No one left behind: The COVID-19 crisis has disproportionately hit research and development in some Member States. Students and early-career scientists are leaving their regions in order to obtain better funding in others, resulting in a vicious cycle of brain drain. How can the EU stop this trend whilst treating all regions fairly?

Chaired by Nikoleta Chapanova (BG)

Innovation is the only way to win.’

– Steve Jobs

The Topic at a Glance

Innovation is the engine of economic growth, leading to significant benefits for workers and companies, and especially in times of crisis, innovation is an essential part of ensuring a smooth recovery. According to the EU, innovation is the main building block in creating a sustainable, digital and resilient recovery from the pandemic. To support this statement, the EU plans to invest up to EUR 95.5 billion in supporting researchers and entrepreneurs, making research and development one of the main pillar’s in the EU’s recovery plan. 

The uneven development of innovation systems among Member States and regions is not a new problem. In some Member States, a lack of political strategies combating youth unemployment, poor infrastructure, bureaucracy, and a lack of access to high quality services have been the leading causes for slowing down innovation and increasing migration to other countries and regions. Those effects can be seen in countries such as but not limited to Southern Italy, Greece, and Romania.

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed our lives, affecting living and working conditions. This has increased disparities between different countries, regions, and sectors. With increased public debt, especially in countries hit hard by the pandemic such as Italy, Spain, and Greece, the funding for research and development might be limited, resulting in a tangible need for the EU to act.


  • Innovation is the evolution of ideas and technologies into better goods, services, or production. 
  • Brain drain is a term regarding emigration and immigration of highly-skilled individuals from one country or region to another in search of better living conditions or due to the existence of better professional opportunities in other countries. 
  • Brain Gain is when a country takes advantage of the immigration of highly skilled people from other countries. 
  • The European innovation scoreboard (EIS) provides an analysis of innovation performance in EU Member States and regional neighbours, through evaluating strengths and weaknesses of national innovation systems.
  • Entrepreneurship is the activity of setting up a business, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit.
  • National innovation systems are the flow of technology and information among people, enterprises and institutions which is key to the innovative process on the national level.
  • ‘Multi-speed Europe’ is the idea that individual Member States can have the opportunity to group together to work on specific goals or projects and implement legislation, even if not all Member States join. It is already a reality with the existence of the Eurozone or the Schengen area.

Key Stakeholders 

The European Commision is the executive body of the EU, which executes policy and initiates legislation. The Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture (DG EAC) is a department of the Commision responsible for developing policies on education and youth and supporting research through programs such as the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions or the European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT). 

The Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (DG GROW) is responsible for fostering entrepreneurship and growth to guarantee a sustainable and inclusive EU economy by providing funding and reducing the administrative burden on SMEs. The Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion (DG EMPL) aims to provide better working conditions for EU citizens and address challenges linked to globalisation.

Member States are responsible for their own national innovation systems or policies regarding living and working conditions. Member States can be mainly divided into two groups, those experiencing brain gain like Sweden, Ireland, Estonia, and Denmark, and those suffering from brain drain such as Romania, Poland, Italy, and Portugal.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Italian ‘Resto al Sud’ work on providing better opportunities for young people in less developed regions. 

Figure 1: The Key Stakeholders of the Topic.

Key Conflicts 

I can devote every minute to science.

The pandemic has been a catalyst for the wider establishment of remote working systems, which allow for more flexible working arrangements and people with care responsibilities or located in remote areas to have greater involvement in the labour market, thus improving diversity among research teams. The creation of open data systems like the European COVID-19 Data Platform allowed for more cooperation and transparency on an international level, minimising duplicated research efforts. Also, remote working reduces the time spent travelling as noted by Akiko Iwasaki, professor of immunobiology, in the quote above.

Remote working gave many people the opportunity to return to their home regions, as shown in the cases of Italy, Romania, and Greece. At least 45 000 Italians moved from the well developed Northern regions to the central and Southern parts, while as many as 1.3 million Romanians returned home from countries like Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France

The pandemic created a divide between different sectors, regions, and countries. While the demand for health and digital products is increasing, leading to more investments in the technology, pharmaceuticals, and biotech sectors, other sectors such as the automotive and aerospace industries are struggling. COVID-19 is also affecting more countries that were already hit harder by the financial crisis in 2007-2008, affecting living and working conditions. 

The one who is ahead does not hear the one who is behind him, but if you are walking next to me, we can communicate and exchange our opinions.

In 2007, only 4.8% of the funding from Horizon 2020, the predecessor of Horizon Europe, went to countries from the Eastern regions of the Union, even though they account for 17% of the EU population. While traditional innovation hubs like Paris, Berlin, and Stockholm thrive, those in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe lack behind

With a number of countries, the so-called ‘core’, wanting to move forward as fast as possible, the concept of “enhanced cooperation” is not new, the fear of ‘a new kind of Iron Curtain between East and West’ has already been mentioned by Jean-Claude Juncker. 

With brain drain mostly affecting Member States with a weak research and innovation performance, establishing a working research environment requires reforms of national innovation systems and improving working conditions for highly-skilled workers. It should be noted that each country has a unique set of challenges and there is no ‘one fits all’ solution. 

‘Science knows no country.’ – Louis Pasteur

National innovation systems play a key role in enhancing innovation and boosting a country’s economy, allowing for more cooperation between universities, research institutions, and enterprises. Reforming innovation systems on a national level can facilitate better policies and support for researchers. Through national systems, governments can provide targeted support for research and development. 

Member States like Sweden, Ireland, Estonia, and Denmark offer higher employment rates and salaries, overall higher quality of life, and better funding for research, attracting mainly young researchers and students from countries such as Romania, Poland, Italy, and Portugal, where youth unemployment and enterprise death rates are higher. 

Measures in Place 

NextGenerationEU is the EU’s post-pandemic recovery plan and the largest stimulus package in Europe with an investment of EUR 806.9 billion

One component of the plan is Horizon Europe, the world’s largest research and innovation program with a budget of over EUR 95.5 billion for 2021-2027. It builds on its predecessor, Horizon 2020, by making the application process easier and focusing on more small-scale projects, referred to as missions. The Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions is a funding programme for doctoral education and postdoctoral training of researchers and part of Horizon Europe, with a budget of EUR 6.6 billion

The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) is an independent EU body and part of the Horizon Europe program. It aims to support entrepreneurship and develop regional outreach strategies to increase Europe’s competitiveness. In 2014, the EIT Regional Innovation Scheme (EIT RIS) was introduced to boost the performance of countries with moderate scores on the European Innovation Scoreboard in Central and Eastern Europe, such as Bulgaria, Croatia, Malta, Portugal, Slovakia, and Slovenia , with a budget from EUR 300 million to EUR 450 million

The European Research Area (ERA) is a set of policies launched in 2000 with the idea of creating a single borderless market for research and innovation, thereby improving circulation of researchers. It seeks to work alongside Member States to address challenges on national and European level. 

Key Questions

  • How can the EU ensure equally strong national innovation systems in all Member States?
  • How can the EU guarantee equal distribution of its funds? 
  • Should the EU continue to focus on borderless innovation or should it help improve innovation systems on a national level?

Further Reading