A new government in Serbia faces old problems in science

The new Serbian coalition government set up last week after more than a month of negotiations promised to boost support for science, linking it with industry needs and funding, as well as increasing funding for scientific infrastructure.

Serbia’s scientific system has changed little since the communist regime, and is in need of an overhaul to reward excellence and increase funding, the country’s scientists say.

But some doubt whether this government will reform its troubled science sector, since the last round of government-funded five-year research projects started just last year.

And the announcement last week that science will remain within the much bigger education ministry, rather than being a separate ministry, may signal that the new government will not prioritise science. The science ministry was merged with the education ministry last year, a move which Serbia’s scientists opposed.

“The real problem started even before the closing of the ministry, when the number of researchers funded through a new five-year cycle of government funding was increased by almost 50% (to some 12,000 researchers) in 2011 while the budget only went up by around 20%,” says Milovan Šuvakov, a researcher at Belgrade’s Institute of Physics, who has led a campaign to re-establish a dedicated ministry.

This led to funds for some 800 government-funded research projects, which cover both salaries and research costs, being around 30% less per person than they were in the previous round of funding, he said.

But as the salaries did not go down, all of the burden fell on the material costs of research, reducing project funding, Šuvakov says.

Some 90% of projects were approved for funding. As there was permission to switch projects, most, if not all, individuals received funding for at least one project, in the tradition of communist-era equal sharing of funds.

Similarly, everyone who applied for a piece of the €50 million pie from the European Investment Bank’s loan for large equipment in 2011 has received some funding, with little correlation between project quality and the amount of money it got, which was a “missed opportunity” to back the few elite projects Serbia has, Šuvakov says.

“It is clear that if money is distributed with no concern for quality and productivity, this does not stimulate those [researchers] that are good,” Šuvakov says. “This is not done anywhere else, bar a few countries in East Europe.”

The question of quality is also at stake in the fact that there is a single research budget for all sciences, including social sciences and humanities, which “have much lower criteria” for accessing funds in Serbia, according to Šuvakov.

“We all share the same piece of the pie [the country’s research budget], but the criteria are not the same for who gets how much.”

One key improvement since communist times has been that salaries are awarded based on results: the number of publications and their impact factor over a 3-year period, which means an excellent postdoc could be earning more than their boss.

“This stimulates productivity, but there is nothing similar for project funding, which is the most important issue,” Šuvakov says, adding that despite the scheme’s success there is “a huge resistance to it”.

Although Serbia has had a “good” science strategy from 2010, there is little political will and no dedicated agency, such as a national science foundation, to use it to develop a meritocratic research system.

And with the ministry now merged into a larger one, the need for a science funding agency is even more obvious – yet, Šuvakov says, “I don’t see political will to go in that direction”.

He sees some hope in EU projects conducted within Serbia which may help demonstrate that funding meritocratic projects works and produces quality results, and that this could lead to eventual reforms.

But Ljubiša Rakić, vice president of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts says that to really tap into the EU’s project funds, Serbia needs to build up “a critical mass” of expertise in certain fields and link up with researchers from similar institutes in other small countries in the region to become more compatible and competitive.

“There are too many projects funded with a small amount of resources. A great number of those projects lack the critical mass to achieve quality results in solving the scientific tasks they set out to do.”

Current investment in science in Serbia stands at around 0.3% of GDP.

“There aren’t many other sources of funding – people say industry should fund research, but industry is not even capable of paying their taxes regularly, let alone funding research.”

An additional problem is lack of tax incentives for would-be industry science funders, he says. However, the coalition government has now promised tax incentives to domestic and foreign companies that invest in R&D.

This year the academy started an annual award to reward scientific excellence, with a value of €10,000, which is “a lot of money” in Serbia, but in the long run Serbia needs a national science foundation, Rakić says.

Mićo Tatalović

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