Croatia’s top scientists demand radical policy changes

A group of prominent scientists working in Croatia have made fresh demands for urgent policy changes to move Croatian science from the “bottom of European” science to a meritocratic and internationally integrated system.

The letter follows a recent backtrack on long-awaited but highly controversial science reforms: the government suddenly pulled a set of proposed changes to science law from parliamentary procedure to make further adjustments. Many saw this as an excuse to water down reforms and maintain the status quo.

The open letter published last week (14 December) on Connect:Portal, an online science forum, is seen by some as offering backing to current reforms that are expected to return to parliamentary discussion soon.

Science minister Željko Jovanović welcomed the letter, saying that the contents are in line with what his ministry is working on, according to Slobodna Dalmacija newspaper.

The group behind the letter blame Croatian science’s poor performance on its lack of harmonisation with the standards of highly developed countries.

“One of the key problems is that real quality control is non-existent, and the way that scientific projects and institutions are evaluated, and new staff are selected and promoted, is also inadequate,” it says. “The bad situation in the academic community can only be improved with radical changes, which must start as soon as possible.”

“We hold that constant evaluation of the quality of our work is necessary, and that we must take the responsibility given to us by our place in society.”

They call for a meritocratic system in line with international standards.

The country’s small scientific community is prone to docility, nepotism, and avoidance of causing offence, they say, so it is necessary to ensure that important decisions are made according to standards usual in highly-developed countries and with the participation of international experts.

The changes will need strong political backing and new legislation, and scientists who are skilled and internationally renowned should be a part of all important bodies within the science and higher education sector, they add.

Subsequently, there needs to be an increase in funding, to mirror more advanced countries (Croatia’s science funding remained level this year, and is still below 1% of GDP).

But additional funding should not go to salaries: instead, it should be invested in quality research, strengthening administration capacity at scientific institutes, boosting international cooperation and building up scientific infrastructure.

The current situation is not sustainable, they say, adding that a more refined proposal outlining necessary policy changes will follow, and will be drawn up in collaboration with a wider academic community and colleagues abroad.

However, many have argued that Croatia already has too many strategies and policy documents, and does far too little to put those into practice. Without political will at the highest levels, the latest initiative is also likely to flop.

Several scientists shared their views with me when the proposed science policy changes were withdrawn in October.

Hrvoje Buljan, associate professor of physics at the University of Zagreb said the proposed changes would have been an improvement but that any reform will unfold slowly since excellent researchers are less successful in uniting for the cause than less excellent ones who “unite over stopping any quality reform suggestions”.

Yet he, like some of his colleagues, remained optimistic that changes were possible.

“Many attempts to improve the system though legislative changes have infamously failed,” Kristian Vlahoviček, professor of bioinformatics at the University of Zagreb, and one of the eleven signatories of the new letter, said.

He added that the current legislation is both too rigid and, in parts, too vague, which leads to “extremely non-rational spending of the tiny science budget, mainly according to the principle ‘everyone gets a little'” without much reward for successful scientists or penalty for the least successful.

He said the academic community itself has adapted to the current situation, and has little will to self-critically evaluate poor science and education outcomes, or the reputation and competitiveness of Croatian institutes and universities at a global level.

“I hope that entry to the EU [expected in July 2013], and with that improved access to European higher education and scientific institutions for our best students and scientists, will serve as an eye-opener and result in changes that would finally prioritise quality.”

But the view from outside Croatia is bleaker.

The solutions that would improve the system, such as international peer review and an international evaluation of institutions, are obvious, said Boris Lenhard, an associate professor of computational biology at Imperial College London, “and most of them have been debated in Croatia for years, with almost no progress to date”.

Yet the system cannot be reformed by small, gradual improvements, and reforms will inevitably upset the “unproductive majority”, he added.

He said the ruling elites often stem from, and are too close to, the academic community they are supposed to overhaul and lack “the courage to implement the reforms properly”.

Mićo Tatalović

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