Croatia’s science minister and his assistant have painted a rather bleak picture of the current state of the country’s science, characterising it as low quality, completely divorced from industry, and plagued by funding difficulties and fragmentation.
The scientific and higher education system is “characterised by challenges and inherited unsatisfactory levels in some key performance indicators” write the minister, Željko Jovanović, and his assistant, Saša Zelenika, in the latest issue of Periodicum Biologorum journal.
They devote most of the paper to revealing current challenges to the performance of Croatian science, which they say is “still showing improvement potential”, before outlining their work to improve the pretty dismal situation.
Funding trends and research patterns are unsustainable and scientific output unsatisfactory, they write.
Only 0.75% of GDP goes to science and the total amount of money going to science has remained the same for the past 6 years, at about 75 million Euros a year. Yet more than 81% of this goes straight to salaries, and this proportion is growing each year, they say.
This compares to the EU’s average of 2% of GDP going to science.
Nevertheless, the minister sees the stagnation in real-term expenditure on science as “encouraging” and the ministry has said elsewhere that the projection is to reach science spending of 1.4% of GDP by 2020 – while the EU, which Croatia will join on the 1st of July, has a goal of 3% of GDP by that date.
Research projects that do get funding – and this is most of them at the current 85% pass rate – get on average only 6,500 Euros a year. And, on average, only 2.5 scientists and 1.2 PhD students work on these projects, producing 0.8 research papers per researcher a year resulting in fragmented research efforts.
And the quality of these papers is “not appropriate”, the minister writes. The proportion of them published in the most cited journals is too small, and they are not cited much themselves, nor are they the product of international collaborations.
Public-private collaboration is also small and, unlike in most EU countries, private sources of funding only contribute a small amount to the total science budget.
Most of the country’s 200,000 students are in social science or humanities, with only 25% in technical sciences and less than 10% in natural science. This, the minister writes, is “completely uncorrelated to the needs of the labour market” and is causing youth unemployment.
Innovation is also pretty poor, with a tiny number of patents filed.
The paper also highlights some positive aspects, such as the growing number of students and higher education institutions. The authors then outline various strategies and legislation they are working on to tackle the challenges.
Commenting on the paper in an accompanying piece in the same journal, academician Vlatko Silobrčić, says that in terms of science funding “the sum in absolute numbers is low (low GDP!), and that “prolonged dramatic increase would be required to catch up with the rest of European countries”.
“The success rate of 85% of the proposed scientific projects would have us believe that Croatian scientists are extremely creative and deserve financing of their proposals above any percentages known in the scientifically developed countries. Needless to say, that is highly unlikely,” he adds.
“Rather, there is a lack of proper criteria for acceptance, as well as improper peer review supposedly involved in the awarding process … It is true that these projects are financed with a minimal sum, but it is also true that even the totally low amount of money given for them is actually a waste of taxpayers’ money.”
The innovation index “remains dangerously low” he adds.
“I say dangerously low because it shows the inability of Croatian R&D to produce innovation, but also the lack of interest of Croatian companies for innovations as part of their competitive potential for a globalized economy,” he says. “This vicious circle is extremely dangerous for the development of the Croatian economy.”
He says these challenges are the result of the system working with incorrect practices for years, which has led to a lack of quality control that would be in accord with international standards.
Rules and regulations to govern science and higher education have been set from within the system to favour the interests of influential power groups and political establishments.
Silobrčić says the moves to improve the situation highlighted by the minister are “steps in the right direction”.
Yet, he says, previous attempts to improve the quality of the system always met with “fierce opposition from those that achieved and maintain their undeserved positions in this segment of Croatian society”, calling for democracy and consensus before any change.
So, he says, the set of appropriate values or the functioning of the system has to be imposed, not negotiated through a democratic procedure.
“We should start by admitting the grave situation in which we find ourselves, through our own fault for a number of decades, and start from scratch to apply proper ways and means to make our system of science and higher education function in line with the most successful ones in Europe and the rest of the world.”
“In time we should try to deal with the remnants of the past by putting the wrong things into the right place, including people who undeservedly occupy places of distinction and power in our system. For this we need the clear political backing of politicians, but only to the extent that they are ready to take the risk of such dramatic changes and their consequences.”