Western Balkans’ integration in European research area: challenges and solutions

Western Balkan countries still lag far behind EU countries when it comes to funding science and producing high-quality research and innovations. This is not changing despite these countries’ aspirations and expectations, as well as the publication of many strategic documents to align their policies with the Europe 2020 strategy. This two-part series on Balkan’s science first appeared in the Euroscientist.

Balkan R&D is largely anaemic, with an exception

On 1st of July Croatia will become the second ever former-Yugoslav state to enter the EU since the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1990. Many scientists see the EU’s orderly research system as a panacea for Croatia’s ailing one. The entry offers “exciting new opportunities” such as stronger integration into the European Research Area (ERA), according to Croatia’ science ministry.

In December last year, Montenegro came a step closer to joining the EU by concluding the first accession negotiating chapter – the one on science and research. Its science minister, Sanja Vlahović, is proud of that achievement. Her ministry, only formed in 2010, allowed the country to strengthen its institutional framework for better placement of Montenegro within the ERA as one of the priorities for the country’s science.

Serbia’s scientists, too, see themselves at the forefront of their country’s integration with Europe, proud of their participation in the likes of CERN.

And even Kosovo, the newest of the Western Balkan states – still unrecognised by Serbia, from which it claimed independence in 2008 – is counting on EU help with its science. “Kosovo is at the very beginning of the process of integration in European research processes,” says Murteza Osdautaj, Director of Kosovo’s Department for Science and Technology, in Priština, Kosovo. “Because of that, help from EU and other donors is necessary for us. This help must be especially concentrated in fulfilling the goals of the National Science Program, in developing human resources and establishing and empowering the governmental bodies and research institutions of Kosovo,” he adds.

Meager R&D support

There are many good intentions towards further developing research activities throughout the region. However, these intentions have not translated into concrete high level support. The trouble is that all Western Balkan countries lag far behind the 3% target of R&D investment. They find little success when applying for competitive EU funds which prioritises excellence.

Looking at the numbers, EU countries’ average science funding as percentage of GDP is 2%, with a target of 3% to be reached by 2020. By contrast, Croatia invests some 0.75% of GDP in science – though this has stagnated in real terms for the past 6 years; Montenegro increased investment from 0.13% in 2010 to around 0.41% in 2012; Serbia invests around 0.77%; Macedonia around 0.19%; and in Bosnia and Herzegovina statistics are so bad investment cannot even be measured, but estimates put it at only 0.07% of GDP.

What’s more, Kosovo’s new science law, adopted in March, mandates the government to put 0.7% of its budget towards science. “The old law didn’t determine the precise amount that our state must dedicate to research and development,” says Kosovo’s Osdautaj. “Until 2010 there was no budget for research at all.”

The exception

And all these countries lag far behind Slovenia, which led the state exodus from Yugoslavia, leaving in 1991 almost unscathed by the war that ensued. It entered the EU in 2004. Slovenia invests 2.47% of GDP in science and also puts the other Western Balkan countries to shame when it comes to innovation capacity and number of patents filed.

In 2012, Slovenian scientists worked on 117 EU-funded research projects worth over 44 million Euros, according to statistics compiled by the European Research Ranking website. By comparison, scientists from similarly sized Macedonia worked on ten projects worth around 1.6 million Euros. Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina each worked on just three projects worth well under a million Euros.

Each Balkan country is facing many individual challenges in science. Yet the key underlying challenges seem to be shared, and stem from their socialist past, followed by years of war and neglect and international isolation of the science sector.

Tentative solutions to Balkans’ science anaemia

The socialist legacy of equality in Balkan science is proving to be a tough burden to shake. Funding allocation is different from Western Europe where only a minority of research projects receives State funding. By contrast, in countries like Croatia or Serbia practically all projects get funding even though research grants allocation is supposed to be a competitive process.

Considering the low levels of science funding in Balkan States, this means an average project receives funding of just 6,500 Euros per year. Something even Croatia’s ministry of science admits is not conducive to high-quality research.

Academic bottleneck

The risk of spreading available funds thinly is not the only issue. A lax legislation that allows, or even requires, scientists to get a promotion every five years or so, has created systems packed with permanent professors. They were often not required to publish much to get to where they are, critics of the system say, and have the luxury of a full time position without much review of their research success.

For example, Vlatko Silobrčić, a member of Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts, says that in Croatia, the majority of scientists are scientists by name only. “In principle, only those Croatian scientists who spent a year or more abroad in scientifically advanced countries know the rules of the game and how to function within those rules,” he says.

Boris Lenhard, an associate professor of computational biology at Imperial College London, UK, calls Croatian academic community “dysfunctional” with “a high proportion of unproductive and internationally irrelevant researchers”. “Entire academic disciplines in Croatia have practically no internationally relevant scientific production and, even worse, do not think that it should be required,” he adds.

With the exception of Slovenia, this pattern seems to prevail across the Balkan peninsula. Kosovo’s science law, for example, allows scientists to progress from their first job to a full-time, permanent role by publishing five articles in international journals and organising a single scientific activity, such as a conference.

Besides, the lack of academic opportunities for new entrants appears to be a widespread issue. In Croatia, for example, the science ministry estimates that up to 40% of the 6,000-strong scientific workforce is constituted of researchers holding a top academic rank, blocking the entry of more productive younger scientists.

Science ministers are well aware that this failing system needs to change. They claim to be working on improving the quality of science. Currently there are plenty of strategic documents and legislation in the works aimed at turning things around. The trouble is, many critics say, these initiatives do not get to the root of the problem. There needs to be a radical shift towards meritocracy and independent, international peer review.

Silobrčić says that any strategies end up seeking consensus with a majority of the academic community despite their “not [truly] belonging to the system and holding on to undeserved positions and privileges”. He adds: “No-one has the guts to say: ‘gentlemen, if you want to play on the world stage, you have to accept the existing rules, not invent your own’.”

Quality control

Existing peer review within small countries in the region is not competent and unbiased, experts such as Silobrčić claim. “The main problem is lack of quality control and assurance,” he says. And this opens the door to nepotism and corruption while shutting out meritocracy and excellence.

They see the introduction of independent, international peer review as key, in addition to identifying top performers who could then form a core of excellence and world-class research.

But this means upsetting a large number — if not a majority — of researchers within the system by firing or retiring them, or even assigning them to teaching-only roles. Silobrčić says there is lack of political will and bravery to do so.

Strengthening research competitiveness

A ray of hope in improving the research standards across the Balkans is brought by regional initiatives that could harness the existing competitive strengths of countries. Working on projects at regional level, could make these research consortia a stronger contender for EU research funds. This was a major theme and recommendation that emerged from a meeting of South-East Europe’s science ministers in Sarajevo in November 2012.

That meeting also saw the early presentation of a regional science strategy drafted by the World Bank. It aims to identify common problems and suggest inevitable reforms. According to Montenegro’s science minister, Vlahović, the strategy has already had a positive impact on her country’s efforts to draft its own science policies. “Through linking of the institutions in the region that are top quality in certain fields, the [strategy] will provide support to develop their infrastructure and staff, allowing them to reach competitive advantage on European and world levels,” she says.

Another initiative in the works, the EU’s Danube Region Strategy, comes with a promise of a 10 millions euros competitive research fund. It also offers a range of research collaboration projects that would allow scientists to tap into EU funds and work collaboratively across borders. An interim report published in April found that the strategy was off to a good start, with several research projects launched and work starting on setting up the Danube Research and Innovation Fund.

Croatia supports and often leads such initiatives, says Saša Zelenika, the country’s assistant science minister, who also says Croatia’s entry to the EU would “very significantly contribute” to growth of its industry and technology, which in turn could help drive higher funding for science.

Harsh reality

Yet despite plans and strategies to improve science the reality remains one of economic downturn in the region, with funding cuts to science programmes over the last year. Scientists in Croatia say they saw funds slashed over the past year. The country plans to fund science to the tune of 1.4% of GDP by 2020, a long way away from the EU target of 3-5% of GDP. And in Serbia, the academy of sciences issued a stern warning in May against drastic cuts taking place there and causing a ‘catastrophic situation in science’.

And many of the piecemeal reforms are coming along too slowly, seeking a consensus with the academic community, rather than simply imposing unpopular western standards of meritocracy, critics such as Lenhard and Silobrčić say.

The question remains: will the limited reforms currently underway in this region and modest plans to boost science funding be sufficient to move their science from the sidelines to become an equal player on the EU stage? Or will they, even with improvements, still be lagging behind the rest of Europe, which will have advanced even further?


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