Welkom in België – Bienvenue en Belgique

Career strategies for young European scientists
by Ralf Schreck, Labtimes 05/2010

Belgian waffles, one delicious reason to choose Belgium as a place of research

Belgium might often be overlooked due to its big neighbour the Netherlands but make no mistake there’s some first-class research done in Belgium, too. With some new funding opportunities being introduced in the near future, the strive for scientific excellence is set to continue.

Belgium does not spring immediately to the mind of a young scientist looking for a new institute to hit the up escalator. The best French-fried potatoes, all sorts of beers and delicious chocolate may charm the tourist but make no difference to the research professional. Why does science in Belgium often take place largely unnoticed by the broader scientific community? Here, Lab Times will tell you what you are likely to miss, if you give Belgium a wide berth.


With close to 11 million citizens, Belgium has one of the largest population densities in Europe. Its capital, Brussels, is home to major international organisations including the European Union and NATO. The Belgian revolution in 1830 led to the secession from the Netherlands. When King Leopold I was proclaimed King, Belgium became a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary democracy. Nowadays, the political system is highly decentralised and consists of the Federal State and two autonomous sub-national entities: communities and regions. State, communities and regions all have their own government, parliament and administration.

There are three regions: the Flemish Region (Flanders) in the north with 55%, the Walloon Region (Wallonia) in the south with 35% and the Brussels Capital Region with 10% of all citizens. The three communities are the Dutch-speaking Flemish Community, the French-speaking French Community and the German-speaking Community, a minority accounting for less than one percent of the population. Although Brussels is part of Flanders, about three- quarters of its people speak French. The borders of communities, regions and language areas do not match. This, as well as additional disparities and preconceptions at the social, cultural and economic level, have provoked a long-lasting and ongoing conflict between Flemings and Walloons. After the Flemish Nationalist party N-VA won the snap elections for the state parliament earlier this year, it has become even more likely that Belgium may not make it to its 200th anniversary as a united state.

Since the Middle Ages, the territory of today’s Belgium has been one of the richest regions in the world. It was the first continental European country in the early 1800s to go through an industrial revolution. In particular, coal-mining and iron-making in Wallonia around Liège and Charleroi served as a basis for the industrial development, which made Belgium to the world’s fourth economic player before World War I. About 40 years ago, traditional industries, such as the steel and coal industry, started to lose importance and Flanders became the leading commercial force in Belgium. Nowadays, Flanders has to hand over a couple of billion euros to Wallonia each year as intrastate financial compensation.

The economy

Belgium’s economy is primarily service-oriented. The import of raw and export of processed materials and goods also have a high share. The ports of Antwerp and Bruges-Zeebrugge are major international hubs in cargo business. Antwerp is the world diamond capital and diamonds account for 10% of Belgian exports. Interestingly, Belgium is also the second-largest exporter of pharmaceuticals worldwide and many leading companies, including Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline and Johnson & Johnson, have set up production plants in Belgium. Among the shadows of the giants, close to 200 smaller and medium-sized biotech, agrotech and biopharmaceutical companies try to survive and prevail. Major success stories are CropDesign and Devgen in Ghent, which develop methods to enhance crop yield, Leuven-based TiGenix, which specialises on cell-based therapies, including the repair of cartilage defects and Galapagos in Mechelen with one of the world’s largest small-molecule programmes for bone and joint diseases. According to a report entitled “Key Data on Science, Technology and Innovation Belgium 2010”, which was published by the Belgian Science Policy Office, Belgium spent 1.9% of its gross domestic product on research and development (R&D) in 2007. This is slightly above the average in the EU but far from the Barcelona target figure of three percent. R&D is performed to a large extent in business enterprises (70%). The higher education sector accounts for 21% and the governmental sector for the rest. The latest ERAWATCH Country Report Belgium pinpointed barriers that hinder further investments in R&D by the private and public sector. For example, only a few large companies invest in R&D and about 60% of these investments are under foreign control. Among the top five R&D investors are three pharmaceutical companies: Janssen Pharmaceutica as part of Johnson and Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals and UCB Pharma. Furthermore, high taxes and labour costs discourage new investors, and low salaries and few preeminent research institutions seem to deter not only scientists from abroad: the third largest public debt in Europe after Greece and Italy will also have a definite effect on public research spending in the future.

Fair average

The question arises as to how Belgium performs in comparison to other countries? As a smaller country, it has problems demonstrating its excellence in absolute terms, which may be one reason for the low international visibility. However, it does not need to hide, if performance indicators per capita are considered. For example, in the last EU Framework programme, it was 3rd in allocated funds and 4th in the number of participants, both per capita. According to the SCImago Journal & Country Rankings Belgium, it is 20th in the number of documents and 14th in the number of citations of papers published between 1996 and 2008. An analysis by Thomson Reuters on the impact of publications between 2004 and 2008 revealed that Belgium is doing particularly well in Agricultural Sciences, Clinical Medicine, Geosciences and Environment/Ecology. In two recent worldwide rankings of universities, only two Belgian universities popped up. In the THE-QS ranking, K.U.Leuven made it into the top 100 in the overall ranking as well as in the category Life Sciences/Biomedicine. In the Academic Ranking of World Universities 2009, which uses a different ranking method, the Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL) was among the 100 leading universities in the categories Life Sciences and Medicine.

In more global rankings, Belgium often ends up mid-range. In the 2009 Human Development Index, which takes into account life expectancy, educational measures and purchasing power, it was ranked 17th, defeating for example the UK or Germany. Belgium was also 25th out of 58 analysed countries in the last IMD World Competitiveness ranking. It was rated high in international trade and investments, education and basic infrastructure and low in fiscal policy, public finance and the labour market. A 2010 report entitled “Wat beweegt Kennismigranten”, published by SEO Economic Research from Amsterdam on behalf of the Dutch government, analysed the behaviour of highly skilled immigrants. A competitive strength index was developed, based on four major categories: work and career, knowledge infrastructure, living environment and admission policy. Eleven countries were analysed, one evaluation being to rate the attractiveness of a given country for scientists from abroad. The United States, Switzerland and the Netherlands were in the lead, whereas France and Belgium were the least attractive destinations.

Belgium’s research funding system is quite complex and the high level of decentralisation leads to a large number of governmental and non-governmental bodies at all levels. The Federal Government takes care of research in areas of national interest, of research performed at federal institutions and of national networks for fundamental research. The communities are in charge of higher education as well as basic and applied research performed in the higher education sector. Finally, the regions focus on economically oriented research and technology innovation. The Inter-Ministerial Conference on Science Policy has the almost unsolvable task of coordinating all these activities. In 2009, public R&D funding contributions were 35% by the Federal Government, 41% by the Flemish Government, 23% by the Walloon Region and French Community and one percent by the Brussels-Capital region.

State Affairs

Federal authorities oversee a €600 million R&D budget. Major budget items are the participation in international programmes, namely in space, climate and polar research, and the financing of federal research institutions, such as the Scientific Institute of Public Health or the Veterinary and Agrochemical Research Centre. Forty-four inter-university attraction poles (IUAP) foster five-year thematic networks of excellence among universities from different communities. You will find details on all activities funded by the Federal Office in the database FEDRA, where you can search for programmes, institutions, scientists or research topics.

Notable is that more than quarter of a billion euros is spent on space research per year, primarily on European Space Agency programmes. Last year, the Princess Elisabeth Station, Belgium’s Antarctic research hub, was opened and will also receive federal financial support in future. Tax credits have become an increasingly important measure to stir public and private R&D activities. Targeted are companies as well as higher education institutions and individual scientists. For example, a company does not pay 100% of its taxes but is allowed to retain a certain percentage, if the money is used for research activities or for new scientific staff. It is estimated that the Belgian State waived tax revenues close to €470 million last year.

Might temporarily help against work-related frustration (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Pascua Theus)

Social security

Fourteen federal public services (FPS) have their own research budgets. The central FPS is the Belgian Federal Science Policy Office (BELSPO) with 3,000 employees. BELSPO is in charge of two major postdoc fellowship programmes. The fellowship programme for non-EU scientists has been in place since 1991. The list of eligible countries now includes Vietnam, China and India. A monthly tax-free allowance of €1,950, €900 travel allowance, personal liability insurance and social security contributions are paid for a six to twelve-month visit to a Belgian research team. Starting this year, the stay may be extended to 18 months. There is no thematic focus. In 2010, 29 out of 80 applications were successful in the first round. But application numbers and approvals vary each year. Applications have to be sent to BELSPO via your Belgian group leader.

Return Grants are aimed at the integration of primary postdocs, who have spent at least two years abroad. Scientists must be either a Belgian citizen or have studied or worked for at least three years in the higher education sector or in research and development in Belgium, before going abroad. According to Bernard Delhausse from BELSPO, EC co-funding will, in future, enable the programme to be extended and fund up to eleven instead of eight return grants. Grants cover a 24-month period and provide a monthly allowance (€1,900 tax-free for postdocs and €6,250 before deductions for a researcher with ten years experience), a travel allowance of €1,250 and a yearly bench fee of €12,500. There is no thematic focus and candidates have to apply with a research project to be performed at a university or research institution. The next deadline for both fellowships is in October 2010.


The Flemish R&D system is governed by EWI, the Department of Economy, Science and Innovation. At the level below, the two major Flemish agencies are the Agency for Innovation by Science and Technology (IWT) and the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO-Vlaanderen). IWT is in charge of innovation support and industrial R&D. A budget of €330 million funds not only company projects, research centres and organisations but also provides for individuals. A tenth of the annual budget is for IWT Postgraduate Strategic Research Grants (SB). PhD students are supported by a supervisor at a Flemish university. They apply with a project, which should at least claim to be highly innovative and to have an economic impact. The programme is open to EU and Swiss nationals and covers two two-year terms. Requirements include a university degree with at least “cum laude”. Applications have to be defended in front of an expert jury. In 2008, 377 out of 573 applicants received funding. A premium is also paid, if the PhD student defends his/her thesis up to six months after the grant has ended. For the first term, applicants may apply between early August and mid-September. SB grants are not to be confused with the Baekeland programme for PhD students wishing to pursue their degree in close cooperation with a company. Moreover, a smaller fellowship programme for postdocs helps to prepare a spin-off or transfer results from a research institute to a company. In 2008, 23 of 41 applicants were accepted and received funding for two years, which might be extended to a third year.

With a €200 million budget, the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) is funding basic research as well as research activities at Flemish universities. Main lines of support are research projects and individual fellowships. As part of FWO’s international strategy, there are many bilateral agreements with other countries that allow not only smaller cooperation projects and site visits but also the funding of full projects, including associated personnel. Odysseus is the Flemish Brain Gain Programme offering start-up funding for five years and a permanent position at a Flemish university. Universities pre-select promising candidates in two categories. Internationally outstanding scientists already heading a successful group abroad may receive up to €1.5 million a year. Postdocs with at least three years of postdoctoral experience and the potential to become an international leading scientist may get up to €200,000 per year. Applications are subjected to international peer review. The next deadline is December 1, 2010.

Also Belgian scientists can literarily tilt at windmills (Photo: photocase.com/ardi)

Applications for support

In 2009, more than 800 PhD students and 700 postdocs received support from the FWO. Applicants for one of the 200 new PhD student fellowships must be either Belgian or from a member state of the EU or the European Economic Area. They receive a salary as research assistant for two years. A two-year extension is possible. In addition, an annual bench fee of €3,720 is provided. Applications have to be made during January of each year and, in the last call, every fifth application was successful. Scientists with less than three years postdoctoral experience may apply for a three-year postdoc fellowship. The fellowship may be renewed twice. A PhD assistant salary is supplied as well as an annual bench fee of €4,000. Finally, the Visiting Postdoc programme allows research stays from three to twelve months. Applications have to be made together with group leaders of FWO-funded projects. Success rates are above 40%.

Apart from the universities, the leading Flemish research and innovation actors are six strategic research centres. For example, the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) is active in life sciences and biotechnology, and the novel Center for Medical Innovation focuses on translational medicine. The Flemish Government is funding these centres with up to €45 million a year within the frame of multi-annual agreements. VIB is a virtual research institute with 1,200 employees. It was founded in 1995 and is headquartered in Ghent. Basic research in various areas of life sciences is performed by 72 groups organised in departments and located at four university campuses in Flanders and Brussels. With a fifth of group leaders and more than 40% of PhD students and postdocs hailing from abroad, VIB is quite international. VIB hosts a small and highly competitive International PhD programme. Last year, it received 141 applications for the four open spots. In the Flemish PhD programme, the roughly 400 students are primarily funded through the university, IWT, FWO or international fellowships. If you are interested in working in a well-funded life science lab in Flanders, VIB is definitely a good starting point for your search.


Last year, the French Community and the Walloon Region developed a common strategy called the Marshall-2-Vert: €1.6 billion on top of the regular budget over the next five years to be invested under the premise of sustainability. Development of human capital and scientific research are two out of six priority areas of the strategy. But paper doesn’t blush. In the face of imminent budget cuts, it is highly likely that in the end a much smaller amount will be handed out. One major player in research funding in Wallonia is the Directorate General for Non-Obligatory Education and Scientific Research of the French Community. With a yearly budget of €330 million, it funds the higher education sector as well as non-targeted research through the Fonds National de la Recherche Scientifique (F.R.S.-FNRS).

The FNRS was established in 1928 as a privately funded organisation to promote research all over Belgium. Nowadays, known as F.R.S.-FNRS, its activities are limited to the French-speaking Community. The mission of F.R.S.-FNRS is to facilitate research in all areas based on initiatives from scientists, either as individuals or team members. In addition, four associated Funds have been set up to cover long-term financing of strategic areas, for example, the Fund for Medical Scientific Research or the Fund for Research Training in Industry and Agriculture. In 2009, about 950 projects and 2,500 researchers including 1,300 PhD students and 900 postdocs benefited from the €140 million budget of the F.R.S.-FNRS.

For individual scientists, F.R.S.-FNRS offers a couple of fellowships and the Brain Gain Programme, ULYSSES. Temporary postdoc fellowships are fellowships for up to three years for non-Belgian postdocs with not more than six years of postdoctoral experience. The postdoc has to be invited as part of an F.R.S.-FNRS research programme. ULYSSES targets Belgian as well as foreign researchers working abroad for at least five years, with the capacity to lead an independent research group. After a positive mid-term evaluation, the prospect of a permanent position is held out. A full employment contract and up to €200,000 is provided for personnel, equipment and consumables per year. In the last two calls, eight out of thirteen applications were granted. According to Christel Buelens from F.R.S.-FNRS, the next application deadline is not yet fixed.

The new F.R.S.-FNRS funding strategy PHARE was recently published for the period 2010-2014. It relies on increasing allocations to F.R.S.-FNRS and suggests, inter alia, upscaling its programmes. For example, the overall number of postdocs and contributions to scientists establishing their first research group shall be increased by 25%. In the ULYSSES programme, the maximum contribution is expected to double and participants in the Starting Grant competition of the European Research Council, who received a positive evaluation but no funding due to ERC budget limits, will be supported.

Programmes of Excellence are funded for five years by €5 million a year, half of which is provided by the Walloon region. Funding covers the whole process of innovation from basic research to industrial application. There is one lead-university and several associated teams providing additional skills and expertise. Ongoing programmes include one on inflammatory disorders in neurological diseases (DIANE), one on angiogenesis and cancer treatment (NEOANGIO) and one on diagnostic and thera-peutic targets identified by functional genomics (CIBLES). Five Competitiveness Poles bring together universities, research institutions and companies; furthermore, they promote inter-regio-nal and international networking. BioWin is a biotechnology cluster focusing on health issues, e.g. drug delivery and discovery, biomarkers, novel therapies and medical devices. In addition, the Walloon Government recently launched a new virtual institute in life sciences and biotechnology called Welbio for the Walloon Institute for Life Sciences Lead. It is similar to the Flemish VIB and finances technology platforms and excellence groups with up to €800,000 a year.


The region Brussels-Capital was established in 1989. In the beginning, there was no substantial support for research and innovation in Brussels at the regional level. This changed after the public agency ISRIB-IWOB, the Institute for the Encouragement of Scientific Research and Innovation of Brussels, was launched in 2004 and the Regional Development Plan 2007-2013 was passed. With a current budget of more than €30 million, specific focus is placed on promoting areas such as health, environment, information and communication. Research at universities and colleges benefits from the programmes Prospective Research for Brussels and Brains (Back) to Brussels. The programme Brains (Back) to Brussels (BB2B) started just two years ago and encourages high-level scientists to do academic research in Brussels. BB2B comes in two flavours. In the category “Establishment”, scientists with at least two years of postdoctoral experience abroad are funded. They receive a grant covering initially three years, with one possible extension for another two years. The scientist is paid a salary of up to €50,000 a year for research expenses and €1,500 for travel.

In the second BB2B category “Short-term Visit”, formerly called Research in Brussels, support is given to established scientists as well as outstanding postdocs with several high-quality publications. The duration of the research visit may vary between ten and twelve months for the established researcher and three and nine months for the postdoc. A round trip ticket, health insurance and costs associated directly with the research project are paid as well as a monthly salary of €1,950 for the postdoc and €2,500 for the established researcher, after deductions. Applications are done together with established scientists or professors from Brussels. In the very first call, 13 out of 26 applicants were selected.

Belgian communities are in charge of higher education. As PhD student or postdoc not equipped with a fellowship from home or international sources, you may still gain access to the university system. Personal PhD grants are tax-free and are limited to PhD students (up to 48 months) and postdocs in international mobility (up to 36 months). They are available, for example, from F.R.S.-FNRS, FWO or IWT and finance full-time doctoral research with a university assistant salary. The second opportunity is via an employment contract financed by structural university funds, which provide a research assistant post for up to six years. At least 50% of your time has to be spent on doctoral research. Other duties include teaching or assisting your professor. Finally, project fellowships are for postdocs to work on a research project for up to four years. The salary is based on that of a university assistant salary. Salaries for a starting PhD vary from €1,550 to €1,800 after deductions.

Pick your university

Belgium has 13 universities over an area of 200 km in diameter: six in the Flemish-speaking Community and seven within the French-speaking Community, including two in Brussels. Against the trend of decentralisation, universities and higher education institutions in both communities have pooled to share resources and to reach the critical mass. In the Flemish-speaking Community, universities and university colleges established five associations: Leuven, Antwerp, Ghent, Hasselt and Brussels. In the French-speaking Community, universities and Hautes Écoles have formed the three academies: Louvain, Wallonia-Europe and Wallonia Brussels.

The universities in the Flemish Community include the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (K.U.Leuven), the Universiteit Gent (UGent), the Vrije Universiteit Brussels (VUB) and the Universiteit Antwerpen (UA). K.U.Leuven is the largest Belgian university with 40,000 students. It dates back to 1425, which makes it one of the oldest existing Catholic universities. One out of eight students at K.U.Leuven is from abroad. Among the 4,000 PhD students more than a quarter are not Belgian citizens. K.U.Leuven offers 185 Bachelor and Master courses, of which 70 are taught in English. Annually, €300 million are spent on research. And 4,500 articles a year put K.U.Leuven at 6th place in Europe according to the latest Leiden CWTS Ranking. Eighteen Starting Grants and two Advanced Grants of the European Research Council have so far been secured by members of K.U.Leuven. A tenure track system was introduced in 2008. Fellowships, postdoc positions and start-up financing are internal funding measures of the K.U.Leuven Research Fund. If you are interested, the best thing to do is to get some local guidance and help.

Major universities in the French Community are the Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL), the Université Libre de Bruxelles and the Université de Liège. The Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL), with 23,000 enrolled students, is the largest French-speaking university. Half of its 1,500 PhD students are from abroad. The vast majority of Bachelor and Master courses are given in French. With exception of the Medicine Faculty in Brussels, all of the UCL faculties are located on the Louvain-la-Neuve campus. In 2010/2011, the new UCL will be established after merging the four universities previously associated in the Academy Louvain.


Preeminent institutions such as the de Duve Institute in Brussels or the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp and interesting funding programmes such as Methusalem, the Flemish brain-retain programme, funding top research groups with up to €5 million in a five-year period, have not been introduced here due to limited space. Novel initiatives starting in 2010, such as Neuroelectronic Research in Flanders (NERF) and a call to fill 25 novel research professorships for interdisciplinary research in life sciences and biomedical research at the University of Ghent, show the strive for excellence in Belgium.

While highly prestigious projects are pushed with millions, others are threatened by funding cuts. According to a recent report in Flanders Today, more than 740 researchers might face unemployment in Flanders due to FWO budget cuts. Funding programmes, fellowships and positions are open to foreign scientists but not always posted in international journals and mobility portals. Doing research in Belgium provides the unique opportunity to improve your language skills in Belgian-Dutch, French and English. In general, Belgium offers a couple of internationally competitive places as a stepping stone for your career and outs itself as just one of many options for the research talent from abroad.

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