The WBC-INCO.NET, a project funded under the seventh EU research Framework Programme, has come a long way since it started in 2008.
The list of achievements, deliverables and specific outcomes alone could easily take up the space of this article: during the last seven years of the projects workshops, studies, and numerous networking events took place all aiming at strengthening the research and innovation capacity in the Western Balkan region.
But perhaps its main impact, as identified by people who know the project, is taking science policy players from countries with an uneasy recent history and struggling research sectors inherent to transitional economies and political systems, sitting back together at the same table along with representatives of European Commission (EC), the and European Union (EU) member states and regional stakeholders, to exchange experiences and engage in common research projects.
This particular impact was also reflected in the project’s final conference that took place in Vienna, Austria (27-28 March), where the WBC-INCO.NET was coordinated by the Centre for Social Innovation and managed first by Elke Dall and then by Ines Marinkovic.
Apart from concrete outcomes and serious results, the project has also created an amicable community of experts ready to approach future challenges together, in a dialogue with European and global partners.
“Our biggest achievement: we have created a very nice family,” Tania Friederichs, policy officer at the EC Directorate-General for Research & Innovation told at the conference. “And we have to put this into historical perspective, then this is more than symbolic.”
Klaus Schuch, strategic research manager at the Centre for Social Innovation, Austria, said WBC-INCO.NET “really achieved a great regional ownership, impact and produced useful results”.
And Ammar Miraščija, head of the Department for Science in the Ministry of Civil Affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH) said: “We created a platform so that the region can speak with one voice, and maintain a political dialogue with the European Commission”.
“This single voice”, he added, is “important as we all share the same problems”.
At the conference, people from countries that were in some cases enemies until recently, and some that still don’t fully recognise each other as nations or cooperate politically, were mingling happily and working together toward a common goal: creating scientific excellence and more globally integrated research in the region that could also provide one of the pillars for the growth of innovative, adaptive and successful economies and societies there.
And that final goal is so desperately needed to ensure people have a future in their own countries – something many still lack, and scientists are no exception as is seen from high brain drain rates. For example, estimates of Kosovo’s diaspora put it at 800,000 – with some 11.5% of the most recent migrants having tertiary education, the conference heard from Dukagjin Pupovci, director of Kosova Education Center.
Vienna is a living testament to this huge emigration from the Balkans – it would have been difficult not to notice that the service industry employees speak Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian en masse, including waiters at the conference venue.
Indeed, one of the more dramatic presentations at the conference, by Slavo Radošević, professor at the School of Slavonic & East European Studies of University College London, United Kingdom, suggested that the way forward is for the region to make its scientific workforce and skills available to service the needs of large companies in advanced EU states, for mutual benefit. But more on that later.
The idea for a WBC-INCO.NET grew out of several other initiatives that preceded it and sustained effort as part of the EC’s new engagement with the region in 1998, following the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia and Albania’s slow opening up to the world post-communism. The year saw the region become eligible for some of the EU’s Research Framework Programme’s (FP5) research funds, but the real impetus for cooperation came from the 2003 Science and Technology Action Plan, endorsed at a European Council meeting in Thessaloniki, Greece, by science ministers.
FP6 continued with dedicated calls following the Thessaloniki agenda, including some aimed at analysing the situation, such as SEE-SCIENCE.EU and capacity building like ERA WESTBALKAN and ERA WESTBALKAN PLUS. The SEE-ERA.NET (2004-2009) was also coordinated by ZSI in Vienna. Finally, an FP7 call for proposals in 2007 included one for an INCO.NET, designed to strengthen regional coordination of science and technology activities specifically in the Western Balkans, and following a successful application, WBC-INCO.NET was kicked-off in February 2008 in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
It enabled the continuation of the coordination activities of SEE-SCIENCE.EU, and in addition it provided technical support for the organisation of the WBC Steering Platform on Research, which was launched in Vienna in 2006 under the Austrian EU presidency and the former EC commissioner for research Janez Potočnik. It was especially this political initiative, which allowed for close and effective cooperation among all stakeholders committed strengthening the research and innovation capacity in and for the Western Balkans.
The grant was extended twice, highlighting the importance of the project in strengthening cooperation with the research entities from the Western Balkan Region. The project comprised 29 partner institutions from 15 countries implementing activities worth some €3 million and covering both research and innovation policy.
Heribert Buchbauer, head of the Department for International Research Co-operation at the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science, Research and Economy told the conference that WBC-INCO.NET “was a highly successful project, carrying out a number of important activities”. This included the support to the Steering Platform, which he said was still important for exchanges between
Western Balkan countries and the EU, as well as a website and newsletter that are a very important source of information, used daily by many scientists.
“Now we have a solid ground for regional cooperation – a lot of partnerships have been established – and we can take the next step,” he said.
How did countries benefit?
Kosovo’s ministry wasn’t officially part of the project but was represented through the Kosovo Education Center, and Kosovo participated through its civil society and researchers. “The participation was to some extent useful, because we could exchange practices with the region, we could see what the others were doing, what we were doing, and we learnt from each other,” said Bujar Gallopeni, head of the Kosova Center for International Cooperation in Higher Education, Science and Technology Development at the science ministry.
Also, Kosovo benefited from a study supported by WBC-INCO.NET that surveyed and analysed the state of its research, pointing to gaps and necessary policy actions, he said. “We also profited from being in different networks, through the platform, which makes our research community visible in the region.”
The project has helped increase awareness and knowledge among researchers and small and medium enterprises in FYR of Macedonia, especially in helping to prepare them for Horizon 2020 applications, said Bratislav Stanković, science and technology advisor to the president.
But science remains an “ugly duckling” within the highest political levels, he added.
Albania, too, was helped by WBC-INCO.NET, said Arbjan Mazniku, the country’s deputy minister of education and sports. It found support both at researcher and policy level, with several papers on how to improve the R&D system in the country: “It helped figure out solutions to problems”.
Radošević said: “Without it, the situation would have been much worse. It brought research and technology development policy to another level, and that’s very good,” he added. “The issue is now whether you can go to the next step: looking more at the region as it is, because you have here an expertise and network that understands the region better than somebody sitting in Brussels. This is where the network shouldn’t be passive but should also start to come up with its own initiative which has not come from the EU.”
But he is less optimistic that a sufficient critical mass of policymakers exists already that can carry forward the ideas and projects without further support from Brussels.
The final conference: synthesis, consolidation and some surprises
More than 250 people from almost 30 countries, including several EU and all WB countries, registered for the final conference, and close to 200 attended. It was mostly a friendly and insightful meeting with a packed schedule and time helpfully allotted for one-to-one networking meetings where participants sought to partner up on a variety of projects they were working on, with examples ranging from individual research and outreach projects to regional social media or news for scientists.
The meeting was permeated by messages about the importance of supporting high-quality research to boost innovation and the economy. It was also characterised by calls that the public and private sector support for research and development (R&D) in the region remains extremely low: figures of much less than 0.5% of GDP investment in science kept reappearing on slides of different presentations.
The meeting’s flow and consensus were broken twice by dramatic departures from widely accepted ideas and assumptions we hold about the way science oils the wheels of the economy.
The first came from Slavo Radošević, who did not mince words when describing the region’s failures: funding for R&D is “marginal” and „insignificant”, he said.
And while Croatia and Serbia stand out as superpowers in the region when it comes to science funding and the number of papers published, this is “miniscule” when viewed globally. Also, while Western Balkan countries have some science and some production capability, they don’t have much technological capability to bring the research efforts to the market.
He sees the lack of market demand for R&D in the region as a key consideration and urges a rethink of the linear approach to supporting R&D. “The crucial constraint is the demand for R&D – who will need it? Who is that firm or investor who will say ‘great, exactly what I needed’?”
Instead of relying on basic research to produce innovations that will help their economy grow, countries should revisit this paradigm. To unleash growth, they need to look at their relative strengths and weaknesses and their potential role in the EU supply chains. Lower labour costs and proximity to the major markets of Western Europe mean that the region should focus on improving the quality of its production capability, instead of just focusing on basic R&D.
The countries should find their “leading dragon” in Western Europe, whose companies may benefit from offshoring to the region, benefiting both economies, as has been seen with the example of Germany and central European economies.
To do this, more support should be given to the weakest agents in the innovation system: local businesses in R&D and engineering and software, and universities should be modernized to become more relevant to the economy.
Also, exclusive support only for the best science and scientists may not work for the region, he said, because it may lead to one or a handful of disciplines monopolizing science. Instead, science must also have local relevance to the economy and society; it cannot be funded based on a single criterion.
He described the current trend of taking R&D systems with links to industry and completely reorienting them to pursue global excellence as “damaging”.
“What are you doing? You are basically making your system marginally globally relevant, but completely irrelevant to your local economy – that’s also not good.”
His approach may be considered radical.
“It is radical in the sense that it doesn’t come out of the conventional framework about R&D policy,” he says. “They will not find it in the EU materials”. And in a region that relies so heavily on the EU, “that’s a problem”.
But from a business and technology perspective, the approach is not radical, he adds, and countries should use their low level of development as an advantage by linking technology, industry, and innovation. Foreign direct investment should be linked to innovation, and there has to be better coordination of the economy and science within governments, industrial associations, chambers of commerce, NGOs, etc., he said.
And public policy can help support business development by setting incentives for industries from Western Europe to find collaborators and suppliers in the region. “I’m trying to influence policymakers,” he concluded. “So they don’t go in completely the wrong direction.”
Some of this sentiment was echoed in a presentation by Jadranka Švarc, researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences Ivo Pilar, in Croatia, who said that in the region “R&D and innovation are not vital elements of companies’ business strategies and of economic development in general”.
But not everyone agreed with Radošević’s dismissal of the paradigm that support for R&D leads to development through innovation.
Misleading stats and missing numbers
The second presentation that challenged assumptions was from Djuro Kutlača, head of the Science and Technology Policy Research Centre at the Mihajlo Pupin Institute, in Serbia, who claimed that figures on R&D investment in the region are misleading.
First, he said, the figures commonly used, even by the likes of World Bank, are sometimes not those that are officially available, which in the case of Serbia means it is said to invest 0.3% of its GDP in R&D, when in fact the official figure for the latest available year (2012) stands at 0.96% of GDP.
Another example is the oft-cited 0.01% of GDP invested by BIH, which is in fact 0.27% of GDP, according to recent official data, he said, adding: “And those are minimum figures.”
But the main crux of his argument is that even these official stats are widely underestimated – he puts Serbia’s real investment at 1.4% of GDP and says that for most countries in the region investment is at least 50% higher than current official figures. This means Western Balkan countries already spend between 0.5-1.5% of GDP on R&D and that governments are already making efforts to fund science, despite a difficult economic situation.
The underestimation stems from the fact that national statistical capacities are not good enough to collect data from various ministries that contribute to R&D and are especially poor in the collection of private sector contribution to R&D, he said.
“What is important for innovation activities is actually one sector that is not covered properly by the statistics – this is the business enterprise sector. This sector is really underestimated,” Kutlača said.
Part of the problem is the ‘silo’ mentality of ministries that do not open up and share their data – political will is needed to change that. “There is no official statistic, there is no communication [between the ministries], that’s why there’s no figures.”
Statistical offices are not sufficiently skilled and equipped for data gathering and producing such indicators: “they need support”, Kutlača said.
Fret not, though, because Kutlača came armed with a solution, just waiting for funding. In three years, his project, endorsed by partners including Eurostat, OECD and the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, could fill the gaps and produce “proper figures so that research and innovation could be governed using facts, not feelings”. “If this is supported, only then will decision makers in 2018 both on national level and in Brussels have proper figures to form decisions.”
Not everyone was impressed by the focus on more analysis, though. “You can get better statistics – to what end? Have you helped research in our Balkan countries? I don’t think so,” said Betim Çiço, dean of contemporary sciences and technologies at South East European University in FYR of Macedonia.
These two talks stood out as the most surprising, but there were others that were highly original and insightful.
Indeed, the conference included many other noteworthy presentations and messages, including the need to invest in social sciences, too; barriers and challenges to research; the issues of brain drain and engagement of diaspora; lack of implementation of science strategies; the need to upload and open up data currently sitting in cellars and inaccessible archives; the importance of inclusive, cheap innovations and learning from developing nations; the importance of rule of law and efficient public policies; and the importance of professional research and funding management.
Or as the EC representative of the EC summarized, as pre-accession country, all Western Balkans should concentrate efforts on some key EU framework conditions from the Innovation Union flagship.
What happens next?
Dušan Vujović, independent expert from the USA and a World Bank consultant on the Western Balkans Regional Innovation Strategy said: “Although this is a closing event, what has been done lives on, and can be start of new projects”.
Two of the arguably most important activities: the regular provision of updated information via WBC-INCO.NET website and newsletter and the Steering Platform were seen by all participants as key achievements that should not be lost.
The newsletter will likely continue in some forms, and the Steering Platform on Research will in principle be taken forward by the Regional Cooperation Council in the context of the implementation of the SEE 2020 strategy. Other opportunities to continue to work together at regional level will be under the recently adopted Western Balkans Regional Innovation Strategy in which actions to foster research and innovation at regional level have been identified.
There are thus some possibilities to continue to cooperate at regional level but it remains to be seen how the efforts to be undertaken at national line will be addressed so as to ensure that they are fully in line with what the EU expects from all Western Balkan’s in view of their accession.
While largely welcome, the implementation of the agreed strategy is leaving some with concerns – how will it interact with strategies at a national level and what it will do to ease the wide gap between capacity and development levels in the region?
On ensuring good coordination of actions, Kosovo’s Gallopeni says that it seemed a bit foggy. “The Regional Strategy has been discussed for many years but we are still not clear on the instruments and funding to implement it. How much specific countries will be profiting from this strategy, and how it will focus on the particular needs of the countries – perhaps it does this on the regional level but it should also address the particular needs of the countries to see where they are and how they could be in the same line of regional development.”
Meanwhile, other avenues for similar regional cooperation and integration into ERA are emerging, such as the EU Strategy for the Adriatic and Ionian Region or the Danube Region Strategy. Most notable, the Danube-INCO.NET, led by the same team at ZSI in Vienna, will include many of the West Balkan countries in its activities. It will incorporate information from the WBC-INCO.NET website and continue part of its newsletter and also share information that will be relevant to many in the region.
“Regional initiatives are good for the region,” says Radošević. “As the region itself is losing attractiveness, it’s not in a priority in the EU, but hopefully these regional initiatives can compensate partly for that and they have an opportunity of directly leveraging the region with more developed countries.”
German or Austrian priorities for the Danube region may not coincide with the priorities for Serbia, for example, he said.
“There is always a danger of picking somebody else’s agenda rather than coming with your own agenda. So it’s this capacity to know what your agenda is: that’s not trivial, that’s one of the crucial problems, the core of semi-development.” To be able set such an agenda there is a need for inclusive strategies and their implementation, he said.
But representatives of some countries, such as FYR of Macedonia, fall outside the geographical Danube region and don’t really see themselves in that project.
“They shouldn’t feel sorry or bad that they’re not in this Danube-INCO.NET,” said Tania Friederichs, adding that “a separate platform to continue to meet for the policy on research and innovation with the Balkans had demonstrated its usefulness and it is our task to look for similar opportunities adjusted to the current level of development”.
“I would be very much in favour of continuing to meet in a regional context,” she says. “I would hope that we could have another forum, maybe with another focus; the focus in the beginning was more just research policy – what is it, where does it fit in the preparation for the EU – now maybe we know the bottlenecks, the weaknesses, and maybe we can do something focusing more on the real reforms that are necessary in research and innovation policy to facilitate integration into the European Research Area and in turn the European Union.”
“We have created a really good dynamic, a family spirit, the fact that they speak to each other, that they work with each other, that they learn from each other, even if there is competition among them,” concludes Friederichs.
In the meantime the calls for Horizon 2020, the main research funding programme of the EU, have started. Paraskevi Afentaki, programme manager at the General Secretariat for Research and Technology in Greece speaking on behalf of the Greek EU Council Presidency said that “the integration of Western Balkan Countries into the European Research Area remains one of our main priorities” within the larger Horizon 2020 context.
How well this will progress, though, remains to be seen. Kutlača, for example, says the benchmark for Horizon 2020 is much higher and it will be extremely difficult to compete for its grants.
This was echoed by other speakers, who highlighted the need for better national funding of science and increased capacity and networking on a national and regional level in order to be able to plug in to Horizon 2020, which will be different, and in some ways more demanding than FP7.
Švarc asked a provocative question: “Do we really believe that countries which invest between 0.15% and 0.77% of GDP can compete on an equal footing with the EU member states?”
Perhaps the most fitting message of conclusion came from Peter Polajnar, from the EC’s Directorate-General for Enlargement who said that within 15 years the situation in the region could be the same as in the EU, “but without significant [policy] changes this is not achievable”.
Indeed, science is often seen as the first step to cooperation with the EU, and is often among the first negotiating chapters to be closed in the accession talks, and as such can lead towards better cooperation in other fields, too, and lead to integration of WBC into the EU – a goal they all share.