Balkan countries’ investment in R&D ‘vastly underestimated’

Most Western Balkan countries may be investing 50% more money into research and development (R&D) than official figures suggest, according to Djuro Kutlača, head of the Science and Technology Policy Research Centre at the Mihajlo Pupin Institute, in Serbia.

Widely used figures on R&D investment in the region may be misleading and a major study is needed to dig out the data on actual spending – a project he hopes to complete within three years, if he gets funding.

At a recent conference on R&D in the region, held in Vienna, Kutlača said, first, that the figures commonly used, even by the likes of World Bank, are sometimes estimated or not the latest officially available. In the case of Serbia it is often said the country’s investment in R&D is 0.3% of its GDP (gross domestic product), when in fact the official figure for the latest available year (2012) stands at 0.96% of GDP, he said.

Another example is the oft-cited 0.01% of GDP invested by BIH, when the country actually invests 0.27% of GDP, according to recent official data, he said: “And those are minimum figures.”

But the crux of his argument is that even 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 good 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.

Kutlača has a potential solution, just waiting for funding. In three years, his project, endorsed, he said, 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 a national level and in Brussels, have proper figures to form decisions,” Kutlača concluded.

Not everyone at the conference 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.

A version of this article was published earlier

Mićo Tatalović

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