Eastern European countries snub neighbours’ science policy

Looking East of an imaginary line going through Berlin and Rome all the way to the Urals creates a broad outline of what Eastern Europe is, in the widest geographical definition. What is striking about this broad region is the number of similarities between different countries, not least in science. And yet it is equally surprising how little these countries exchange good practice. Specifically, scientists and policymakers will talk for hours about problems in their country. But few will have much awareness of how similar problems have been overcome in neighbouring countries.

This raises the question of whether a platform for exchanging knowledge and learning from others’ successes and failures could help these countries advance their science. “Such a forum among Eastern European countries doesn’t exist,” says Stanislav Sipko, Slovakia’s advisor for science and technology policy, based in Bratislava. He acknowledges that this “would be quite interesting” and “surely beneficial”. His response is typical of the region’s key players in science.

As part of policy debates, scientists and policymakers often look to Western countries for success stories. This leads to the introduction of policies and laws attempting to emulate those success stories when it comes to research and innovation. Unfortunately, success stories from within the region are overlooked or even disregarded. Yet they are arguably more relevant as these countries often have a more similar socio-economic and historical context.

Policy best practice

To exemplify the current perspective on learning from neighbouring countries in the region, it is useful to refer to a recent discussion on a forum called Connect Portal Znanost. Some contributors suggested that Croatian scientists draw on talent from the likes of Kosovo or Macedonia. This was shot down by scientists themselves. They saw nothing relevant to their work in those territories and prefer to collaborate with France or the United Kingdom. To an extent, this reveals a wider scepticism of anything coming out of Eastern Europe, even within the region itself. Partly, it seems to reflect a lack of knowledge regarding the stage science is at in these countries.

For example, science funding and adequate science policies have been neglected by politicians in Latvia, according to Raivis Zalubovskis, a team leader at the Latvian Institute of Organic Synthesis in Riga. He contrasts the situation with that of Sweden. Yet, despite being aware of the fact that research is in better shape in a country such as Estonia, which is of comparable size, he has no contacts there.

Latvia has recently laid off hundreds of researchers, he says. Just across the border, Estonia by contrast suffers from a shortage of scientists, but does not lack financing or materials, he adds. What policies have led to the different situations in these two Baltic countries that are geographically so close? Could the two learn from each other’s examples? And even join forces to benefit both? This is the sort of question that rarely gets asked in the region, which prefers to look further afield for inspiration and leadership.

Communication and exchange of experiences is limited to a few usual suspects in each country, according to Sasa Zelenika, former deputy science minister in Croatia’s current government, located in Zagreb. “Most people simply don’t give a damn even about what happens at a national level, let alone regionally, so long as the things don’t change,” he says. Specifically, he is alluding to a common challenge in Eastern European countries, whereby some academics are in safe public sector jobs and receive decent salaries but are often not expected to deliver much nor be accountable in exchange.

Communist past

The remnants of socialism or communism still plague thinking within the region’s research and university policies. This means that deep reforms are needed to reorient science towards the meritocratic ways of the more successful Western European countries. But “if you want to change anything, you have to compare yourself with those who are better, not those who are the same or worse,” says Zelenika.

And this, perhaps, is why we still see so little focused learning from specific policies across the many countries in Eastern Europe. Certainly, it is a huge region with a large number of very different countries that are often closer to their immediate Western neighbours than they are to the rest of the region.

Nevertheless they are facing similar challenges, such as corruption and cronyism, lack of meritocracy, and remnants–both positive and negative–of their not so distant communist past. This means that their science systems are still in transition. Most also aspire to join the European Union and the European Research Area. While some, such as Slovenia and Lithuania have been the part of the EU since 2004, others such as Kosovo or Moldova are at very early stages of EU accession.

Common challenges

 In most of these countries the remnants of socialism and partly reformed research systems make them similar in some of the challenges they face, so they could perhaps learn from each other, according to Elke Dall, head of research and project management at the Centre for Social Innovation in Vienna, Austria.

“The Balkans had some very common issues that are also shared by Moldova and maybe Turkey, but by moving closer to the EU also Georgia, Armenia, etc.,” says Dall, who helped lead the WBC-Inco.Net initiative to enhance integration of the Western Balkan countries in the European Research Area. This process included exchanging information and best practices on innovation policies.

She highlights existing regional projects that already work to help share policies and bring select countries in the region closer together. For example, another Inco.Net project exists for the so called Eastern Partnership countries (Armenia Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine). In addition, the MIRRIS project aims at encouraging a better exploitation of European research and innovation programmes and participation in the European Research Area of 12 EU member states in East Europe (and in Malta).

“Occasionally I meet people from the Czech Republic or Hungary and they suffer from the same problems in science,” says Maciej Zylicz, president of the executive board of the Foundation for Polish Science, a non-governmental research fund based in Warsaw. “Sometimes they solve them, but we could be much more efficient if we talk to each other and share the experience.”

Perserverance

So it appears that there are still too few exchanges on research policies, or on the factors leading to success and failure, within Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, these could help countries improve their science faster and avoid pitfalls identified by others. But whether there is enough appetite for such a platform from stakeholders within the region and what that might look like are two questions still very much up for discussion.

It is also worth noting that opportunities to exchange good practice go far beyond policy itself. EuroScientist’s contacts from across the region have pointed to a broad variety of success stories in applied research. These range from long-established science-based companies, such as Poland’s Vigo System whose infrared detectors were used for NASA’s Curiosity rover mission to Mars, to Slovakia’s recent flying car, the sexy AeroMobil, or Lithuania’s Brolis Semiconductors, which makes high-tech components for the electronics market. Others include Lithuania’s Rubbee, which can electrify any bicycle, or Poland’s Estimote beacon stickers that allow smartphones to ‘see’ the world around them.

Despite historic and economic challenges, East Europe is home to millions of smart people, with many pockets of excellence and outsanding researchers, as well as examples of amazing innovations ushering in a new era. Perhaps the time has come for Eastern Europe to start believing in itself and its own power to do research and innovate itself into a prosperous 21st century.

Mićo Tatalović

Mićo is a science journalist and editor based in London, UK.

Photo credit: Hanna Sörensson

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