RIO Country Report Belgium 2014

The RIO Country Reports, co-authored by JRC policy analysts and independent experts, give an update on the performance of the national research and innovation systems, and examine policies to address key R&I challenges, assessing their effectiveness. They serve as a tool to inform EU and national policy-makers, and support policy learning in Member States (MS).

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The annual RIO Country Report analyses and assesses the development and performance of the Belgian national research and innovation system and related policies in the perspective of EU strategy and goals.

The report highlights recent national policy and system developments occurring and assesses the match between national policy priorities and the structural challenges of the research and innovation system. It addresses among others:

  • The progress of Belgium towards achieving the Innovation Union, focusing on areas where action is needed.
  • Progress in responding to the ERA actions, particularly in light of the ERA progress report findings published in September 2014.
  • Country specific R&D and innovation recommendations as indicated in COM(2014) 400 final '2014 European Semester: Country specific recommendations, Building Growth' adopted by the Commission on 2 June 2014 and endorsed by the Council on 27 June 2014.
  • Progress in tackling research and innovation system challenges beyond those outlined above.
  • Areas highlighted by the Commission's Communication on 'Research and innovation as sources of renewed growth' (COM(2014) 339 final) and its accompanying Staff Working Document 'State of the Innovation Union, taking stock 2010-2014' (SWD(2014 181 final).

The RIO Country Report 2014 builds on the experience of the ERAWATCH project. The ERAWATCH Country Reports from previous years are also available for download on this page. 

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Country Report file

RIO Country Report 2014_Belgium.pdf
(1.6 MB - PDF)
National economic and political context

On the 25th of May 2014, Belgium had elections for all of its governance levels (except the local level), i.e. for the federal, regional, community and European parliaments. The different Government agreements of July (Communities, regions) and October 2014 (federal authority) present broad political orientations (some of them regarding R&I policies) and the translation into detailed or operational propositions took place thereafter. In the field of R&D, major cutbacks are not planned except when considering the Federal Scientific Institutions, which will be granted a lower budget on the period 2014-2019.

ERA priority 2: Optimal transnational co-operation and competition

Belgium is very active in joint research agendas initiatives at EU level. Belgium is involved in 4 Article169/185 initiatives (Ambient Assisted Living, European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership, EMRP and Eurostars), in 8 of the 10 joint programming initiatives and in 30 ERAnet and ERAnet+ covering a diversity of societal challenges. In August 2013, Belgium was involved in 125 joint calls related to EU joint research agendas. Moreover, bilateral agreements are also implemented by yearly joint calls.

National R&I strategies and policies

Although there is no national strategy, each region/community has its own multi-annual plan that covers research and innovation (either as a sub-element of an overall plan or as a specific strategy). The current multi-annual plans that are currently running in 2014 are: the Flanders in Action initiative (VIA) (that will be replaced by a new long-term vision and strategy towards 2050); the Brussels-Capital Regional Innovation Plan (PRI 2006) that has been updated in 2012; the Walloon “Marshall Plan 2.Green” completed recently by the Research Strategy 2011-2015 and the Wallonia-Brussels partnership for researchers, both adopted in 2011.

National Reform Programmes 2013 and 2014

The key R&I relevant aspects of Belgium’s NRP 2014 refer to: • Increasing cross-regional cooperation • Increased fiscal support for R&D • Unitary Patent Protection • Strengthening and diversifying funding schemes • Reindustrialisation, KETs and technology deployment.

ERA priority 3: An open labour market for researchers

The Belgian market(s) for researchers is characterised by a strong autonomy of the universities. Each year the number of doctoral degrees awarded increases in Belgium, but the envisioned spill-over effects did in fact take place: a majority of doctorate holders make a successful transition from an academic environment to a diversity of employment sectors in all types of professions.

Policy developments related to Council Country Specific Recommendations

The federal Government Agreement of 1 December 2011 had already suggested an “inter-federal plan for research and innovation” to coordinate efforts of all entities towards this objective. The new Federal Government of October 2014 aims at reinforcing policy coordination with all other federated entities of the country.

ERA priority 5: Optimal circulation and access to scientific knowledge

Belgium has a proactive policy on open access to scientific publication: in 2007, Belgian public funding organisations signed the Berlin Declaration on Open Access. In 2012, the ministers of Science and Research at federal level and from each Community signed a Declaration on Open Access in Brussels in which they agreed to make Open Access the default for all Belgian research output. The main funding agencies (FWO and F.R.S.-FNRS) oblige to self-archive all articles coming from research funded by them.

Framework conditions

In recent years, the various Belgian authorities have sought to develop (or reinforce) most of the framework conditions conducive to business R&D and innovation. At the supply-side, direct support (funding) for RDI has been supplemented by the increasing use of tax incentives. The various Belgian authorities have also gradually reinforced or expanded demand-side policies and policy tools.

Science-based entrepreneurship

‘Science-based entrepreneurship’ as defined here (university spin-offs) is the exclusive competence of the regions and communities. Wallonia, Brussels Capital and Flanders established over recent years specific funding programmes to support spin-offs.

Funding trends

Funding flows:

All Belgian authorities are committed to the 3% target, both at the federal level and the regional or community levels. Equally agreed upon is the target to finance 1% of this R&D from public sources; i.e. government and higher education. These objectives have been repeated in the July 2014 Regional Government Agreements and in the October 2014 Federal Government Agreement. The upward trend of R&D in Belgium for the period 2011-2012 is largely explained by the R&D performed by firms, which account for 69% of spending in Belgium (2012).

Project vs. institutional allocation of public funding:

The share of competitive funding (both competitively allocated institutional funding and project-funding) has increased significantly over the past 10-20 years in Belgium as compared to (non-competitive) ‘block funding’. However, this shift occurred mainly towards competitively allocated institutional funding, and much less towards project-funding. The rationale behind this shift was the wish to increase competition in the Belgian research fabrics while guaranteeing minimum budgets for small institutions and predictable budgets for everyone.

R&I Funding:

Policy tools and funding instruments for innovation tend to cover a larger part of the innovation trajectory in Belgium than before, with an increasing focus over the past 5 years on the downstream part of the cycle. The idea is to go beyond prototyping and to support the further nurturing and upscaling of new technologies or applications. The rationale for public intervention here is that there remains a market failure: the distance-to-market is smaller, but in most cases, investment size is much bigger. Besides, efforts have been made to expand and open the venture capital market as supplementary access to finance. Finally, the larger recourse to fiscal incentives has not occurred at the expense of direct or indirect funding support for innovation, on the contrary.

Smart Specialisation

Belgium focuses on key enabling technologies as well as on specific sectors. Flanders increased its focus on the set-up of cluster initiatives and Strategic Research Centres. Wallonia puts a stronger focus on environmental issues. Brussels Capital region has launched in 2010 its first ICT strategic platform followed by the strategic platforms in Health. In 2014, a new strategic platform related to information security was set up.

Knowledge markets

According to international standards IPR protection in Belgium corresponds to the highest quality standards possible, thanks to both the institutional set up (national patent office) and the presence of specialized companies for IPR support.

Evaluations, consultations, foresight exercises

Evaluation of research and innovation policy is not entirely systematic practice but all the authorities seek to evaluate specific measures or initiatives or organisations on a periodic basis. This includes the establishment of dedicated units in the various ministries in charge.

Knowledge transfer and open innovation

Besides unavoidable differences between the regions, the Belgian ‘knowledge transfer eco-system’ is composed of a very dense and diverse population of intermediary agents. This eco-system is supplemented by specific KT-programmes for human resources mobility, university-industry collaborative RDI, spin-off creation etc. in the various public actors. Over recent years, two main trends are noticeable however: on the one hand, a trend towards further densification and professionalization of the variety of services offered, on the other hand, the willingness to support more technology ‘deployment’ than technology ‘transfer’.

Performance of the National Research and Innovation system

Belgium is ranked seventh in the EU-28 by the 2014 Innovation Union Scoreboard and is amongst the group of “innovation followers” (third after Luxembourg and The Netherlands). Belgium scores well in terms of tertiary educated population, scientific output, public-private co-publications and private R&D, but its output position in terms of patent performance, patent revenues and knowledge-intensive service exports is more mitigated.

Structural challenges of the national R&I system

The main challenges are the following:

Increasing co-ordination and synergies with the governance system

The multi-level governance of the Belgian system creates specific challenges such as a risk of sub-optimal scale of public-private investments that may create disincentives for co-operation between the main research performers and businesses at an inter-regional level.

Addressing the expected shortage of human resources in S&T

While Belgium’s labour force skills are reasonably strong, the demand for engineers exceeds the number of graduates in certain areas. The shortage of human resources in S&T, partly due to the low levels of new doctorate graduates and the weak inflow of foreign doctorate students (despite a high level of tertiary educated population), is one of Belgium’s key challenges.

Matching knowledge production with the economic fabric

Despite the high research outputs in quantitative and qualitative sense and relatively high investments in research centres and R&D measures, the take up by Belgian companies appears to be sub-optimal. Belgian STI activities are well-integrated internationally, but attracting foreign investment in R&D and innovation remains a high priority in the country.

Meeting structural challenges

While the Belgian research and innovation performance could be higher, in overall terms the country is firmly located in the top half of the ‘league table’. Equally, despite concerns expressed in various reviews about ‘co-ordination and synergies’ due to the multi-level governance context, there are clear signs that the Belgian authorities have understood the need to optimise the public support provided via various governments and their agencies and to seek, where relevant, enhanced synergies.

Innovation framework for SMEs

Since Belgium is a federal state, the regional administrations of the Brussels Capital Region, Flanders and Wallonia are responsible for most of the competences involved. The three administrative bodies actively promote SME-friendly policies at all levels. Federal and regional SME envoys help implement the SBA.

Flanders and Wallonia have put regional entrepreneurship/SME strategies in place, implemented in collaboration with local stakeholders. The European Commission has recognised the Walloon SBA strategy as an example of good practice for its unique regional design. The Flanders Region has been awarded the European Entrepreneurial Region Award by the Committee of the Regions for her innovative actions in the field of promoting entrepreneurship.

Venture capital markets

Several agencies and measures have been implemented to support financing innovation, venture capital, guarantees, loans and shaping demand for innovative products and services. Efforts have been made and existing programmes prolonged to expand and open the venture capital market as supplementary access to finance. Nowadays and according to Eurostat data, Belgium has one of the highest venture capital intensities in the EU.

Innovative public procurement

Although the Belgian authorities have sought to use investment in space research (through the European Space Agency) as a form of pre-competitive public procurement, the use of public procurement to stimulate research and innovation is not yet widespread.

The country in the European R&I landscape

Belgium’s R&D intensity has been increasing over the past years from 1.97% in 2009 to 2.28% in 2013 (provisional – 2.24% in 2012), which is above the EU-28 average of 2.01% (2012). This demonstrates, given the modest but positive GDP growth in real terms in 2009-2012, a strong commitment to R&D support and investment in the country.

Main features of the R&I system

Belgium is unique amongst the EU Member States in that it is the only country where, since the early 1990s, most of the research policies (instruments and budgets) have been devolved across several defederalised governments, each enjoying complete autonomy of decision-making power in these matters. The regions have authority on research policy for economic development purposes. The communities (Wallonia-Brussels Federation, Flemish Community and German-speaking Community) are responsible for education and fundamental research at universities and higher education establishments.

Structure of the national research and innovation system and its governance

The Ministerial cabinets, more or less in consultation with the administrations, are responsible for policy making. Science policy councils at Federal level and in the three regions advise their respective governments on science policy strategies and on funding mechanisms (design and evaluation). Cooperation between the various governments takes place in the Inter-Ministerial Conference for Science Policy and in the two permanent sub-committees CIS (International Co-operation) and CFS (Federal co-operation).

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