Welcome to this Special Issue of EuroScientist on: Looking East!
This issue is dedicated to research and innovation in Eastern Europe. It is useful to clarify, here, the definition of this term for the purpose of this special issue. It is defined in the widest possible geographical sense. It encompasses what are commonly referred to as Central and Eastern European countries, the Balkans and the Baltic States as well as the Russian Federation and it former satellite countries. In other words, countries located East of an imaginary line going from Berlin to Rome, all the way to the Urals, who distinguish themselves by their broad diversity and cultural variations, but are located in the same broad geographical region.
In this issue we explore the skills gap of these counties, due to sustained brain drain. An entire generation has left these countries, while only a small proportion has been attracted back. By contrast, we also give examples of sectors, such as clinical trials and IT, where Eastern Europe has proven attractive to the private sector for its highly skilled work force.
In parallel, we take a look at the challenges facing scientists who are currently training in these countries. This shows the need for higher recognition to the status of PhD and for better mentoring during doctoral training.
Other contributions focus on the role of research policy in ensuring that good practice becomes more widespread within the region.
Finally, we dedicate a couple of articles on a case study of Poland . These show of how several public and private initiatives are helping shape up the research and innovation landscape there.
We hope this special issue will give you a better idea about what is happening in Eastern Europe. We welcome your feedback. Feel free to comment using the dialogue box at the end of each article, or to send us a letter to the editor at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you enjoy this issue, don’t forget to share it widely with your contacts. You can also view here a print edition of the “Looking East” issue.
Thanks for your support.
The EuroScientist team
Tackling the skills gap
By Sabine Louët, EuroScientist editor.
By Constanze Böttcher, science journalist, Oldenburg, Germany.
By Slobodan Radičev, Eurodoc president, and PhD candidate, Novi Sad.
Revamping research policy
By Mićo Tatalović, science journalist and Environment news editor at New Scientist, London, UK.
By István Palugyai,, science editor at Népszabadság, Budapest, Hungary.
The East, as land of opportunities
By Anthony King, science journalist, Dublin, Ireland.
By Emanuele Musa, co-founder of social innovation platform, Babele, Bucharest, Romania.
Case study: Poland
By Sabine Louët, EuroScientist editor.
By Daria Tataj, CEO Tataj Innovation, Warsaw, Poland.
Innovation: collaboration creed rather than mobility mantra
When it comes to mobility, Central and Eastern European scientists are among the champions. This has often resulted in an entire generational gap in their country’s scientific community. Now, some of the brainiest Eastern European scientists are doing research in the most dynamic research hubs in Western Europe, the US and Asia. And their home countries are left to pick up the pieces.
Central and Eastern European countries attempting to create new research hubs in Eastern Europe—de facto competing with the more established hubs—could find it extremely difficult. Stepping up to the plate may require a level of support that few countries can afford today. And brain drain reversal programme often demonstrate success commensurate with the amount of resources devoted to these schemes.
So what now? Should research and innovation be the prerogative of countries which have been able to attract international talents before others? Or is there another way?
Policy makers in Europe need to recognise that the mobility mantra comes with its own intrinsic limitations. Some in less research-intensive countries have already come to realise that attempting to reverse the brain drain is not a solution for them. Instead, reliance on increased research collaborations across Europe could become their new creed.
To recognise their contribution, it may be necessary to establish different ways of measuring success in research and innovation than merely focusing on country-centred metrics. It would make sense to account of the fact that research is organised through networks and increasingly communicated in the virtual world. And not just centred on a single location. Thus, it could be useful when evaluating research and innovation successes to focus more systematically on performance indicators providing recognition for highly networked scientists who may otherwise not be located in the most research-intensive hubs.
This may involve giving more weight to the level of international collaborations of these scientists’ institution and researchers’ own ability to foster connections. In doing so, we could provide policy makers with a more relevant measure of researchers’ contribution to a particular discipline, instead of giving undue importance to their location.
Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Chínmay
Sabine Louët, editor EuroScientist
What does it take for brain drain reversal initiatives to be effective?
After the fall of the iron curtain 25 years ago, many scientists left Eastern Europe. The exodus peaked early in the 1990s. Yet, new emigration flows stemmed from the 2004 EU enlargement to ten countries including the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Further emigration arose as Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007. In addition, the financial crisis in 2008 triggered new population movements.
As a result, a number of Central and Eastern European countries face a current lack of scientific work force. This does not bode well for government attempting to follow the EU policy centred on creating a knowledge-based economy. In this context, many countries therefore try to bring scientists back through various returnee schemes. The trouble is that there is not one-size-fits-all when it comes to attempting to reverse the brain drain.
The long return path
So what makes scientists turn to their home country? “It is often a personal decision, partly based on family reasons or even home sickness,” says Zaiga Krisjane, professor of human geography at the University of Latvia, in Riga. Indeed, “the paths differ individually,” agrees Caroline Hornstein-Tomic, senior researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences Ivo Pilar in Zagreb, Croatia. But “each migration is also about where people are well and where they are better off,” she says.
In the EU member countries, such as Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic, “there is already a lot mobility,” says Hornstein-Tomic. Still, several policies are in place to bring scientists back. Government motivation to do so, is clear. “Highly skilled returnees have better networks. They bring knowledge, methods and possibly management skills,” says Gábor Lados, junior lecturer at the department of economic and social geography at the University of Szeged, in Hungary.
For example, the Czech government is spending about €19 million on a programme called Návrat, which means ‘return’ in Czech. It has been running since 2012 and is due to continue until 2019. It provides grants to attract excellent expatriate scientists back to the country. Such programme was deemed necessary even though the country has been increasing funding for research since its 2004 accession to the EU. It therefore offers domestic career opportunities for scientists. This was highlighted in a 2013 report studying trends and policies related to return migrations, in the context of the Re-Turn project partly supported by the EU’s regional development fund.
Balancing skills flows
By contrast, Poland and Hungary have now become so-called emigration-immigration countries, according to the Re-Turn report. These countries have set up concrete measures to ensure funding for returning researchers.
For example, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences spent about €9 million between 2009 and 2013 on the Momentum programme. By providing grants to Hungarian and international scientists, this programme aims at reversing the emigration of young scientists and to attract talented researchers back to Hungary. The programme is still ongoing. So far, 97 returnees have found support. “This is just a small amount,” Lados says. But “the programme allows returnees to group and bring in their skills. Those skills in turn are beneficial for Hungary,” he notes.
Other successful examples are the Welcome and Homing Plus programmes from the private funding body, the Foundation for Polish Science. It is worth noting that both programmes have been co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund. With a budget of almost €8 million, Homing Plus provided research subsidies and stipends to encourage young Polish and international scientists to continue their research in Poland. 117 young researchers have so far benefitted from the programme; the vast majority of them being returnees.
But not all brain reversing programmes are aimed at scientists. For example, the Slovak programme Slovensko Calling that has been running since 2009 has targeted high-skilled professionals in general. It provided information and services for potential and actual returnees. This programme has been particularly successful due to its good communication strategy, Lados says.
Combined support to tackle emigration
So what does it take for such programme to be successful? A clear communication strategy, cooperation with other projects or other initiatives supporting returnees and a clearly defined target group are essential for effective brain gain programmes, Lados points out. Moreover, “the amount of money spent for a programme and the number of returnees is clearly linked,” Lados and colleagues state in the Re-Turn project report. An example for a successful international programme is the EU-funded People programme, under the EU Marie Curie Actions, the report authors note.
It appears essential to adapt government response, as reasons for emigrating vary from one country to another. Among the Baltic countries, Latvia, for example, has particularly suffered from emigration due to the financial crisis. Graduates and researchers have emigrated at a significant rate. What is more, the country is unable to attract non-nationals, according to the 2014 progress report of the European Innovation Union (IU). “Science is still under crisis funding,” notes Krisjane. Only last year, the Ministry of Economics set up a re-migration plan targeted at skilled professionals, emigrant families with children, and young people studying abroad. “At least the government has demonstrated interest in this issue,” Krisjane comments. “I hope that the situation will improve in the future”, she adds.
Combining grants for targeted populations of scientists is also a strategy adopted by Latvia’s neighbour, the Russian Federation. In particular, the 2020 Strategy offers grants, such as the mega-grant programme, to encourage the return of leading Russian scientists whereas the so-called presidential grants target young scientists. “These grants provide new possibilities, particularly for young researchers,” says Dmitry Poletaev, director of the Migration Research Centre of the Russian Academy of Science, in Moscow. The trouble is that there is little transparency in grant giving procedures, Poletaev notes. Established scientists often control the grants, which hampers young scientists in pursuing their careers, he says. Above all, “the system is often very bureaucratic,” he adds.
Since the Russian Federation has also suffered from severe brain drain in several waves since the Perestroika in the mid-eighties, it is no mean task to reverse it. Figures from a report prepared by the Russian Ministry of Economic Development (MED) and other groups show that between 1989 and 2004, about 25,000 Russian scientists left their home. As elsewhere in Europe, the demographic change towards an ageing population adds to the problem. These factors, once combined, mean that there is now a skills gap that is difficult to close, the Russian MED reports notes.
Returns subject to degree of attractiveness
If some brain drain reversal strategies have brought some successes, there are, however, additional problems. For example, low salaries are amongst the reasons that countries such as Bulgaria still lose more scientists than they gain, according to the EU’s Innovation Union progress report. In Romania, poor financing of the research and innovation sector has had the same effect, the report says. But while political goals exist to make the country attractive for excellent and experienced scientists, projects to bring back and integrate Romanian researchers working abroad were discontinued. “I am not aware of a governmental programme to specifically attract returning scientists,” says Victor Zamfir, professor of nuclear physics at the National Institute for Physics and Nuclear Engineering in Bucharest, Romania.
Zamfir acknowledges that salaries for Romanian scientists are still about two to four times less than in countries such as Germany. Zamfir himself left Romania in February 1990 and returned 14 years later. He now heads the Extreme Light Infrastructure – Nuclear Physics, financed by the Romanian government and the European Regional Development Fund. This new infrastructure will boost the country’s research focus on physical research, Zamfir hopes. Offering salaries as in other parts of the world will make the infrastructure attractive for excellent scientists from around the world, he says. Of 60 newly appointed scientists, about the half are returnees; one third is from abroad.
Low salaries and a lack of infrastructure are also the major obstacles for South-Eastern European countries to successfully attract highly skilled returnees, says Daniel Göler, professor for geographical research on migration and transition at the University of Bamberg, Germany. “The region lacks strategies on how to offer people job perspectives and how to bridge the gap between the higher education sector and industry,” points out Hornstein-Tomic. In fact, emigration rates of highly skilled people from the Western Balkan and countries of the Eastern partnership, such as the Republic of Moldova or Georgia, are estimated to be high.
Engagement with the diaspora
When brain drain reversal programmes are not as well suited for less research-intensive countries, other strategies have also been implemented. They are based on collaborations with each country’s diaspora . Moldova, for example, also tries to encourage scientists to return. Although this is considered to be a less realistic option, “because the country has only little to offer,” Hornstein-Tomic says. Instead, setting up stronger networks with the diaspora is seen as a promising approach. For example, a programme funded by the European Commission aimed to encourage expatriate scientists and young researchers to return for a short period to their home country. The idea was to share expertise and foster cooperation between the diaspora and Moldovan scientists.
Several programmes run by international or bilateral organisations in former Yugoslavian countries, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia or Montenegro, also focus on involving expatriate scientists. Experts consider some of these efforts as good practices because they deal with brain-drain issues in a constructive and systematic way. For example, the Brain Gain Programme set up by the Albanian Government and the UNDP, included efforts to create a policy framework for encouraging return as well as engagement with the Albanian diaspora. Between 2006 and 2013, the project succeeded in bringing 140 highly skilled people back. Still, “the return rate of highly qualified to Albania is alarmingly low,” Göler points out.
In Croatia, the World Bank and the Croatian Ministry of Science, Sport and Education have been funding the Unity Through Knowledge Fund since 2007. The aim is to connect Croatian researchers to the diaspora to foster the country’s development towards a knowledge-based society. “This programme was positively evaluated since it provided participating scientists with valuable experiences through networking,” says Hornstein-Tomic. For example, scientists and institutes have achieved a higher success rate in EU-FP7 funding calls. The fund is due to continue until 2017.
However, the return part of the Croatian programme has been dropped. “The success rate was low. Those, who returned via the fund would have returned anyway,” says Hornstein-Tomic. “But they received some institutional help, at least,” she adds. Croatia may now benefit from a programme called Newfelpro, co-funded by the European Commission’s Marie Curie People programme. It encourages and supports mobility of Croatian and foreign researchers, including the return of expatriates. Participating in such a programme “is a big step forward for the Croatian society to increase internationalisation and competitiveness,” concludes Hornstein-Tomic .
Not a simple task
All experts agree that the general political framework and stability in science policy and funding are major prerequisites for a country to be attractive for scientists. Moreover, a policy has to be in place that encourages young scientists and offers them perspectives in the labour market, Zamfir stresses. Particularly in South-Eastern Europe brain gain policies should be linked to labour market strategies, Hornstein-Tomic contends. However, the question of retaining and regaining talents is not confined to Central and Eastern Europe but should be dealt with across Europe, she believes: “In the end, it is the same problem everywhere.”
Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Mário Tomé
Constanze is a freelance science journalist based in Oldenburg, Germany.
PhDs seeking more than just student status
The position of doctoral candidates in Europe has rarely been more difficult than it is today; this is especially true for scientists working in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). The past five years have seen many huge changes that have affected the context in which doctoral training is taking place. The first is the inclusion of doctoral training in the Bologna process as a third education cycle. The second is the announcement that the European Commission is aiming to train at least one million more researchers by 2020. The last, but perhaps, the most difficult aspect, is the financial crisis of the past few years; the worst to strike Europe in past 50 years.
To get a clearer picture of the situation of doctoral training in CEE countries, we need to go back in history. Most of these were Communist countries. Under such regime, the research sector was mainly driven by the defence industry. These countries only started transitioning towards a free market economy 15 to 20 years ago. And some of them are still undergoing this transition process.
Since this transition was painful for the most of their citizens, many governments prioritised social benefits instead of investment in science. As a result, today, these countries of are on the bottom of the list of European countries in terms of research spending as a proportion of GDP. As a result, research institutions are in a very difficult situation, and that is directly reflected in the status of doctoral candidates.
In the most of CEE countries doctoral candidates have a ‘student’ status. This status is very often used as an excuse not to recognise doctoral candidates as first stage researchers or early-stage researchers, which are terms broadly used throughout Europe. As a result, they are not being paid for their work. And they are being denied various social rights. As long as this student status in maintained, we cannot expect that the attractiveness of a research career will improve.
Not being recognised for who they are, doctoral candidates from the CEE strongly support the European Charter for Researchers when it states that: “Member States should…endeavour to ensure that researchers are treated as professionals and as an integral part of the institutions in which they work.”
In addition to the need to change the status of doctoral candidates, doctoral training also requires some attention. The current system in most higher education institutions in the region prepares doctoral candidates to stay and work in academia. With the rapidly increasing number of doctoral programs, it is obvious that most of the current PhDs will not have a place to stay at university or some scientific institute.
Unfortunately most of them are not prepared for such transition. For example, a study by the Serbian associations of PhD candidates shows that about 80% of all doctoral candidates still expect to stay at university or at a scientific institute after defending their PhD thesis. It is echoed by other similar studies in the region. Doctoral candidates in the region desperately need to be offered the training that will provide them with the skills needed to work in a non-academic environment.
One of the best ways for improvement of doctoral training is adoption of innovative doctoral training principles. In addition, there is also a need to improve, or to develop, training for supervisors responsible for doctoral training.
Clearly, issues pertaining to the status of doctoral candidates and the quality of the doctoral training have still to be resolved. They are not the only ones. Poor research infrastructure, low in- and cross-border cooperation and knowledge sharing, have also to be addressed through serious reforms. Until such changes, CEE countries will remain at the bottom of the list of European countries by research spending, and at the top position on the brain drain list, losing the most valuable capital they have.
Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by the U.S. Army RDECOM
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Hanna Sörensson
Mico is a science journalist and editor based in London, UK.
Russian science oscillating between progress and backlash
Last year, Russia’s president Putin took away all the assets of the Russian Academy of Science (RAS). Putin has also created a sort of Mega-Academy, merging the academies of Sciences, Agricultural Sciences and Medical Sciences. However, its control was not bestowed upon the forward thinking chairman of the RAS, Vladimir Fortov. Instead, it was attributed to one of Putin’s finance manager, creating fierce controversy in the country and abroad.
These events have come to disrupt parallel attempts to put Russian science back on the world map. For example, through initiatives such as the creation of a Russian Silicon Valley and the support of a mega-grant programme to reverse the brain drain. Meanwhile, some initiatives in key areas of research such as nuclear physics and space engineering are forging ahead, despite some the difficulties associated with the new science deal in Russia.
Changes on the Russian science scene
To understand the current context of Russian science, it is worth looking back in time. When Stalin was in power, someone returning from the USA at the time, showed him a picture of the skyscrapers in Chicago. Stalin liked them so much that he pointed at the pictures, saying: “I want some of these in Moscow!” Whether this urban legend is true or not, what are known as the “Seven Sisters”—the seven characteristic soviet skyscrapers on the Moscow skyline, one of which is the Lomonosov Moscow State University—are no longer the only features giving some American flavour to the city.
Indeed, Moscow has undergone a lot of changes since my last visit about 24 years ago. The buildings from the 1950s—nowadays considered as ‘noble buildings’—have been cleaned up and their ornaments are now lit. Combined together the type of colours, the sizes, the expensive cars and the dense traffic found on campus, they all give somewhat of an America flavour to the place. Next to the old communist block of flats, giant buildings of a minimum of 20 floors are emerging at an unbelievable pace. Malls and advertisements are now everywhere too.
Three years ago emerged at the same rapid pace what is dubbed the Russian Silicon Valley, on the outskirts of Moscow. The promoters of this project dreamed of having high-tech start-up companies, an English university and research institutes in collaboration with MIT in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. This project is located in the town of Skolkovo, south of Moscow. It was intended to present the country’s innovation renaissance as the ‘spiritual child’ of former president Dmitry Medvedev.
However, out of all the 400-hectare of futuristic buildings, only a few have been built. President Putin seems to be less interested about the plan than his predecessor. And there are more and more controversial news regarding of the project recently. An inspection showed that the project was affected by corruption. And even the chairman of the Scientific Council of the Ministry of Culture, Aleksei Hohlov, described the situation of the project as extremely chaotic.
And this is not the only opaque issue in the backyard of Russian science. There is a consensus among people I met during my visit at the Lomonosov Moscow State University and at various research institutes that an entire generation of scientists is missing to have sustainable supply of researchers in carry Russian science forward. Between the time of the Perestroika and the end of the 1990’s, many Russian scientists and engineers went to the West. Nowadays, North-American and Western-European institutes are full of these talented Russian researchers in their forties and fifties; they are typically experts in mathematics, particle physics or space engineering.
However, in the last decade, a strong recovery has started. The best Russian universities are placed around the top 30 in the world. Nevertheless, in technical and scientific areas, they remain placed within the top 100.
Two years ago, Putin has promised, during his election campaign, to deliver universities recognised on the world stage by 2020. However, this requires money. The investment in research and development is at 1.27% of GDP. This compares with an EU average of 2.06% in 2012, and 3% in the more research-intensive EU countries. Today, in the Western model, a significant proportion of this investment comes from industry and not from the government.
Another initiative to re-establish Russian science on the world stage, was the creation of a new program called Mega-grant. It was launched two years ago to reverse the brain drain. Under this program, researchers from all over the world can receive up to $5 million to set up a laboratory and a research team, if they spend at least four months of the year in Russia, for two years. The program has attracted mainly Russian scientists working abroad. But it has also benefited some researchers from Germany, USA, France and Holland.
Controversial RAS reform
Two things have, however, disturbed these positive changes. First, Putin’s regulations that took away all the assets of the Russian Academy of Sciences, founded by Peter the Great, together with all its academic property and research institutes. They were entrusted to a newly created government agency, called the Federal Agency for Scientific Organisations (FASO).
In addition, Putin merged the Academies of Sciences, Agricultural Sciences and Medical Sciences into a Mega-Academy. Despite Putin’s earlier promises, the leadership of this new academy was not attributed to the head of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vladimir Fortov, who was elected last year, but to a financial manager instead. The outcry against this move was massive both at home and abroad. As a result the process was temporarily suspended in December 2013.
This reform was undoubtedly necessary, according to Aleksei Hohlov, who is also an academician and vice-rector of the Lomonosov Moscow State University. He explains the move as an attempt to modernise what had become a stagnant, rigid structure. As a result, all the research institutes are now under direct State control. And the Academy itself has become a public body. At the end of negotiations between the academies and the government, it was agreed that the professional decisions related to science will be made by a scientific council, which has not been set up yet. And because a financial bureaucrat is now in charge, at least payments arrive on time now, noted Hohlov, ironically. But the director of the Vavilov Institute of Genetics, Nick Jankovsky, admitted that since then all developments and major decisions related to research have been suspended or postponed.
Meanwhile, the government has puts so-called managers at the heads of Universities. The trouble, according to Hohlov, is that these people do not really have managerial skills. Rather, they are government bureaucrats. The Moscow and St. Petersburg universities enjoy, of course, a special status. And they have not been hugely affected, Hohlov added, even though no one can foresee the future.
Indeed, the planned developments of the Lomonosov Moscow State University have not been stopped. Every year, hundreds of thousands of square meters of new buildings are emerging within a two-hundred-acres area. For example, the development of a new supercomputer, called the Lomonosov machine, which will be seventeen times more powerful than existing ones, is going ahead. It will become the most powerful supercomputer in Eastern Europe.
In addition, a new satellite, developed at the University and named after Lomonosov, who is a Great Russian chemist, will be launched in 2018 from the new spaceport located in the Amur-region, called the Eastern Cosmodrome. This new location is designed to reduce the dependency of Russia on the spaceport of Baikonur, located in Kazakhstan, which has become too costly to Russia.
International cooperation overshadowed
Russian science, which is hungry for international—and particularly Western collaborations—is also threatened by the Ukrainian conflict. After the annexation of Crimea, the terrorism- and disaster-relief cooperation within NATO was stopped. This programmed aimed, among others, at developing technical detection of hidden bombs placed in major transport nodes.
Meanwhile, NASA has suspended all relations with the Russian Space Agency, the Roskosmos, except concerning the work on the International Space Station. This is mainly because there are Russian cosmonauts on the ISS. And the Soyuz spacecraft is used for replacing ISS crews. In response to the action of NASA, the Russian government threatened to withdraw its crew from the ISS from May 2020. But, during my visit, they just confirmed a $8.2 (€6.5) billion contribution to further the development of the ISS.
As for other scientific collaborations, it is business as usual. Lomonosov Moscow State (LMS) University recently organised both a nanotechnology and a space conference. In the first one, the American delegation was the second-largest, says Viktor Szadovnichi, rector of the LMS University. Meanwhile, Lev Zeleny, director of the Space Research Institute of the RAS, also reported that he recently met the deputy head of NASA and they discussed further joint programs.
Moreover, the Russian space program is now concentrating on the moon. The Space Research Institute’s current work is focusing on lunar polar region to perform frozen water mapping. Its scientists are intending to send a moon-walker to gather soil samples. By 2020, they are planning to bring these samples back with another spacecraft. And ten years later, they aim to bring people to the moon. They are working together with the European Space Agency on this project. And there is no break in their relationship at the moment.
Politics-free scientific collaboration
Another place of interest in Russian research is the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, in Dubna, a town on the Volga river. Located about a hundred twenty kilometres from Moscow, the institute was established in 1956 and has 18 member states and six associate members. It was once the Eastern competitor of the European particle physics laboratory, CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. Its director, Victor Matveev, received the good news in September 2014, that his institute has just been granted the long-awaited observer status from CERN.
Scientists at the Dubna Institute are ageing. Young people are all going to Moscow. Yet, the science centre, which is also controlled by people around their seventies, is preparing for the future. Thanks to a large international collaboration and half-a-billion dollars (€400K), funded mostly by the Russian government, they are planning to build in a high-energy heavy-ion accelerator. The team is planning to complete its superconducting ring in two years. And they hope to have the linear particle accelerator and a detector along with the entire unit up and running by 2019. This centre is hosting Europe’s largest helium-liquefier with more than a thousand litres per hour capacity and they also plan to double its performance.
This research institute is an example of a tension-free and political-free cooperation. There, researchers from Azerbaijan and Armenia work together. It also employs Georgian scientists, even though Russia does not currently have diplomatic relations with their country. This year, the membership fee was waived for Ukraine as well, in order to ease the situation Ukrainian physicists working in Dubna. Despite of such move, the conflict with Ukraine continues to divide people in Russia, even in scientific circle.
When it comes to science, Russia is far from being a sleeping giant. The country definitely has an active research scene, even thought it has several thorns on its side. These include the strengthening State control, the missing generation of researchers and, more recently, its exposure to weakening international relations due to geopolitical issues. Hopefully, this will not hamper further international collaboration as Russian science needs partners and the World also needs the Russian grey matter.
István is the science editor of the Hungarian daily broadsheet Népszabadság Rt and a member of the Editorial Board of EuroScientist and a member of the board of EuroScience.
This article is adapted from an original article published on the 11th October 2014 in Népszabadság Rt, and has been translated from Hungarian by Kitti Martina.
Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Anya Andreyeva
Clinical trials Eldorado based on quality, not cost
Central and Eastern Europe is proving very attractive to pharma and biotech companies for clinical trials. Highly motivated patients, well-qualified investigators, speed of trials and quality of data as well as lower costs are frequently listed attractions. All together, the population of Central and Eastern Europe represents greater number of people than that of either the United States or the five largest Western European markets combined. Besides, the region also offers a convenient location—at the heart of Europe—for drug and device industries to carry out clinical trials. This article explores in many details the reasons that make the life science industry come back over and over again to these territories. As they have gained their reputation through a combination of rigour, high education levels and historic legacy.
Unique healthcare setup
Experts believe what makes the country attractive are manifold. One key aspect is the ability to access suitable pool of patients. “It is about patient availability. There are patients willing to participate and they are adequately treated so the data collected will be valid,” explains Wojciech Przybys in Poland. He is head of clinical site monitoring for Central and Eastern Europe with Quintiles, an international clinical research organisation (CRO). There is also a high engagement by patients, he adds: “They trust doctors and so protocol compliance is very high.”
Then, there is a socio-cultural legacy in that historically Eastern Europe had a very centralised healthcare. They also have sophisticated treatment centres for specific conditions staffed with the key specialists. “That gives ease of access to specific patients,” adds Przybys. Quintiles set up a Polish office in 1999 in Warsaw. The office now employees 250 people, the vast majority with advanced degrees.
Another oft-repeated advantage by CROs in the region: investigators are well qualified and motivated. Requirements for specialists involved in clinical studies have always been higher here, says Anna Yanaeva of OCT, a CRO headquartered in St Petersburg , Russia, but with offices in Bulgaria, the Baltic states and Belarus. “OCT is not an exception – 90% of our [clinical research associates] are medical doctors, the rest are pharmacists.”
Others concur on the quality of clinicians. “Doctors spend a lot of time working on the trials and the data is very good,” says Juraj Petrinec, who set up CRO Clinitria in Bratislava, Slovakia, which has operated in 10 other countries in the region. The extra money, he says, offers an incentive for the doctors and hospitals, which can use it to fund other activities. He too argues that lower cost is no longer the major pull for clinical trials; he points to the excellent audit results and stringent assessments by the likes of the US drug regulatory agency, the Food and Drug Administration, in the region.
Quality above cost
Countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Ukraine created a solid base for clinical research and a pool of qualified providers, according to Anna Baran, chief medical officer with KCR, a CRO set up in the region back in 1997. Historically, industry looked to the region to save money, she notes. But with increased competition in the market and rising labour costs, the region increasingly stands out for the quality it offers rather than for cut rates. She points out that clinical data is processed mostly by physicians themselves.
“One of the reasons Western sponsors often think of when placing a trial in Eastern Europe is the low costs. This is a cliché,” advises Yanaeva. Average budgets are now the same as in Western Europe, though “short start-up periods can help shorten study timelines and, consequently, cut costs.”
Nonetheless, some experts indicated that average costs are perhaps 15-20% lower. There is no consensus on the matter. Costs in Poland are estimated at 30% less than the cost in the US by Krzysztofa Łuczak-Szymerska, associate director of project management at Cromsource, a CRO that with an office in Warsaw, Poland. The costs are relatively low “due to a high rate of patient recruitment and excellent quality of data, leading to a reduced number of rejected clinical trial recordings and time-efficient proceedings.”
Others believe that Eastern Europe is cheaper because in many parts of North American and Western Europe hospitals levy high indirect costs on pharmaceutical companies for using their facilities. “Eastern Europe is keen to get more involved in studies and willing to do them for less,” says John Warner, professor in paediatrics at Imperial College, London, UK. He believes international agreements and oversights means there is much less chance for any work to be substandard.
Access to care
While patients in Western European countries can have access to good medical care in public hospitals or thanks to their medical insurance, Łuczak-Szymerska says this is not necessarily the case in Poland: “Access to the national health system is limited and medications are expensive. Hence, with the offer of better medical care, free drugs and diagnostics procedures, patient recruitment in clinical trials is very high. This factor is particularly important when treating patients in areas where the availability of effective drugs is limited” – such as in oncology or transplant treatment.
As a result, some also say there are good numbers of treatment-naïve patients, with oncology named as an example. It is a popular area of clinical research in Poland because “it is relatively easy to find here patients in the late stages of the disease,” says Łuczak-Szymerska, which is not true in Western Europe. “Approximately one-third of patients in clinical trials in Poland are oncological cases. This results from the relatively long time patients may have to wait to see a specialist in Poland, meaning participation in clinical trial shortens the waiting time associated with receiving specialist care.”
In fact, Poland stands out as important partly due to sheer size. With a population of around 38 million, it conducts around 20% of all trials and the market is worth around €200 million. It also boasts specialised medical centres in about 9 main cities, which provide access to patients in areas such as oncology, rheumatology, cardiology and paediatrics.
Towards a level playing field
Beside oncology, other CRO representatives believe that, for specialties like cardiology or diabetes, Central and Eastern Europe offers the same infrastructure and trained staff as Western Europe. This is especially true in the larger cities and hospitals, where, often, new equipment is being installed. Besides, Clinitria’s Petrinec says that EU legislation has evened out the landscape as regards to standards. He believes that there is not that much difference between Eastern and Western Europe now.
Others concur that any gap that existed say 20 or 30 years ago between professionals in Eastern and Western Europe has closed significantly. “Certainly in countries like Poland, Czech Republic and the Baltic states, the doctors there have been members of European specialist organisations for many years and there has been quite a sizeable exchange of staff across Europe with those countries,” says Warner.
Still, there are discrepancies between nations. “There is a pool of countries with competitive start-up timelines, such as the Baltic States, which are always critical for start-up companies and biotechs,” comments Baran,“From an enrolment perspective Poland and Ukraine remain very attractive [due to their large populations].”
While big countries have the advantage of large populations, “small countries have the advantage of flexibility and motivation on the side of their investigators,” says Clinitria’s Petrinec. He lists neighbouring Czech Republic as an example of a country where he likes to work. “The regulatory bodies are demanding, but in a good way, and the investigators are really good,” he explains.
However, there are a few remaining challenges.
Łuczak-Szymerska says that a key challenge for the Polish clinical trial market is shortening the time and standardising of administration procedures regarding the signing of clinical trial agreements with the sites, which may vary. Also, Przybys says managers in hospitals in Central and Eastern Europe tend to change more often than other parts of the world, which may lead to a shift in approach at the same hospital. And Petrinec says Clinitria has inherited some work due to the poor performance of newer CROs.
Yet, CROs in the region argue that it’s the quality on offer that will continue to prove attractive to global firms. Przybys concludes: “Central Europe has 20% to 30% less audit findings than the global average and this has been a consistent performance over the last 15 years.” This shows that clinical expertise found in Central and Eastern Europe is made available to life science companies in a two way process of mutual benefit. “The world is getting smaller, and, as far as medicine is concerned, there has been a valuing of people’s experience and expertise in different environments,” concludes Warner, “It has brought people together.”
Featured image credit: Sanofi Pasteur via Flickr
Anthony is a freelance science journalist based in Dublin, Ireland.
Additional reporting Marcin Krasnodębski.
A crowdsourcing approach to innovation
I truly believe that, if people open up, collaborate and work together, they can achieve greater results than anyone working alone. This is why I have co-created Babele, an online crowdsourcing platform for social business planning. The concept of Babele was the subject of my MBA thesis in 2009 in Brazil. My research aimed at drawing a roadmap on how to harness collective brainpower to innovate in the area of sustainability for the common good. For example, this could be achieved by developing projects aiming to achieve the triple bottom line of economic prosperity, environmental quality and social equity. In a nutshell, the idea is to support projects which meet the needs of present society without compromising resources for future generations.
I met my co-founder, Ruxandra Creosteanu, in 2011. Since we both had a corporate job at the time, me at Procter & Gamble and Ruxandra at Deloitte, we could only work during our free time on the project. It was simply not sufficient to make it advance to a prototype stage. We realised that we had to allocate more resources to the project if we wanted to get it off the ground. And we left our jobs.
By December 2012, we moved to Romania, Ruxandra’s home country. The idea was to decrease our set-up costs and find high-quality web developers. Romania has never been a reference market for open innovation, nor for social entrepreneurship. But it was key in conceiving the first prototype of the platform and launch the alpha version of our site.
The social entrepreneurs we met in the country told us about a cultural resistance to everything labelled as social. Indeed, it had a negative connotation since the fall of the Communist regime. However, things are changing. The new generation is eager to participate to the conception and implementation of common good projects. This trend is further compounded by a higher sensibility to the social and environmental problems that governments appear to be unable to address. The best example is the wide citizen participation to protect the nature reserve of Rosia Montana against plans to create a gold mine there.
Clearly, open innovation, co-creation and crowdsourcing are becoming trendier and trendier. They are often used as synonyms, in different contexts. Therefore, there is a need to define what lies behind these words. Open innovation is based on the assumption that firms can and should use external ideas in their strategy. It is a term defined by Henry Chesbrough, a professor and executive director at the Center for Open Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, USA. Open innovation is often correlated to crowdsourcing of business ideas and co-creation with stakeholders such as customers, suppliers and business partners.
Building on the concept of open innovation, Babele is designed to help social entrepreneurs, who wish to structure their ideas into a viable strategy while getting feedback from the community. Entrepreneurs follow a step-by-step methodology to easily convert their idea into a structured business map. And they receive support from the community of mentors and supporters. The platform is based on a crowdsourcing approach to innovation.
We strongly believe that the future will be collaborative. And we wish to contribute triggering this new era of collaborative culture. We can get people together to promote innovation in a more open and participative way. We are assisting to a worldwide start-up boom, with more ideas and projects being developed by more people than ever before. However, according to Bloomberg, eight out of ten entrepreneurs who start businesses fail within the first 18 months.
We believe that if people could seamlessly connect with the right competences and resources, several entrepreneurs would avoid failing at such an early stage. Innovation has to become collaborative and shared, interactive and peered with a wide international community of experts working together to support the best initiatives.
We have started one year ago. And we already have over 3,200 members, 350 social enterprises from 70 countries on the platform. The vision behind our project goes beyond open business planning. In the long run, Babele will support entrepreneurs throughout the whole project life-cycle, not only in the initial validation phase. We want to introduce a system where social entrepreneurs could easily set milestones for their business and communicate with supporters about their progress so that they can continue the co-creation process in the implementation phase of their start-up.
Our challenge so far, is that we are truly introducing a new concept on the market. And people do not always understand this new paradigm. As in every business, the audience is split between early adopters and all the others who join only when the approach becomes mainstream. In the past year, we have organised lean business workshops in over 14 countries, and we have tested with over 500 entrepreneurs how a collaborative approach on business development can produce greater results than working alone.
Unfortunately, our old economy rooted on rivalry is fuelling a generation of individuals who are terrified about sharing their ideas. Several entrepreneurs get very protective and prefer isolation instead of sharing their ideas and working collaboratively to increase their chances of success. Still, too many people do not understand that an idea is worth nothing but it is its execution that makes the difference.
However we also had some very positive experiences. We met several entrepreneurs who became excited about the opportunity of working together with like-minded people. They have opened their projects to the world and started asking everyone to give them feedback: this was a big thumb up.
We know that we are on the right track with our open innovation platform. There are millions of others that wish to make their part… all they need is the infrastructure to make it happen.
Emanuele Musa, co-founder of Babele, Bucharest, Romania.
Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Emiliano
Creating an inspiring environment for scientists in Poland: Maciej Zylicz podcast interview
Maciej Żylicz is an outstanding Polish molecular biologist with an international career, currently based at the International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw. He is also president of the Foundation for Polish Science, which is a non-profit funding agency, which is the largest source of science funding in Poland outside of the state budget. In an exclusive podcast interview to EuroScientist, he shares his views on the future of Polish science policy.
Europe has currently an important role in shaping Poland’s scientific attitude, he explains. Specifically, he believes that the ERC has been an example for a newly set up agency, the National Centre for Science.
Another agency devoted to applied science, the National Centre for Research and Development, has been profoundly revamped in line with European evaluation criteria, centred on excellence. “If European institutions promote excellence, this will help us to build a similar attitude in Poland,” he explains, adding: “We need to promote excellent scientists in our system.”
Meanwhile, the Polish government has committed investment in R&D to increase by 10-15% every year, “so we will reach 2% of the GDP by 2020,” he points out.
The problem of brain drain is another issue that has been tackled by Polish institutions. The advisory boards of many of the new institutes created recently to foster excellence will involve many of the Polish scientists working abroad. The Foundation of Polish Science has also set up a program to bring back established scientists and young postdoctoral students to work in Poland. “Right now, there are quite a lot of people of Polish origin who would like to return to Poland to work,” he says, adding: “But we have to create an inspiring environment for this to happen.”
Podcast editing and cover text by Luca Tancredi Barone
Interview by Sabine Louët
Featured image credit: Maciej Żylicz
Poland’s recent past has seen the emergence of an entrepreneurial generation over a period of 25 years of reforms and 10 years in the European Union. Poland is now considered one of the most dynamic economies of the EU. Paradoxically, Poland’s position in innovation rankings does not reflect its recent economic success. Although the government has sustained commitments to invest in public sector research and in higher education, there are still a number of issues to address to create an ecosystem that would further support innovation and start-up creation.
The country has demonstrated resilience to the economic downturn. It has achieved over 20% GDP growth over the period 2008–2013—with a peaked at 4.5% growth in the middle of the recession in 2011, according to Eurostat. The reasons why Poland has been coping well with the financial crisis are multi-fold. They reside in the fundamental health of the economic system and in the synergistic relation between social, political and cultural factors, including its entrepreneurial culture.
In parallel, the country has demonstrated its ability to attract EU funds, with a total of €101.5 billion in structural and framework programme funds allocated to the country between 2007 and 2013—a number forecasted to grow to €105.8 billion between 2014 and 2020. The allocation of these funds was subject to the adoption of new regulations, the improvement of governance, and an increase in transparency and anti-corruption measures, particularly in relation to public procurement. All these systemic changes have created a solid grounding to support the country’s rising innovation scene.
Innovation performance lagging
Even though the country has developed at a fast pace, its innovation rankings have not been comparable. Only this year has some progress been recorded in the assessments of international organisations such as the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, the World Bank Economic Report, as well as the European Innovation Scoreboard. The trouble is that the innovation system remains fragmented. And it requires further investment and institutional changes.
However, there are some encouraging signs. Data from these international organisations shows the growing number of clusters, patents filled, graduates and jobs in science and technology as well as indigenous innovative companies gone global. And it also demonstrates an increasing public and private R&D investment.
Investment in R&D activities has increased most prominently in the public sector. There, the Gross Expenditure on Research and Development (GERD) in the higher education sector increased from €364 million to €1.181 billion, between 2004 and 2012, according to Eurostat data.
Private sector dynamics
Meanwhile, the level of private sector R&D investment in Poland is strong, according to a report by consultancy firm KPMG. The report notes that 57% of medium and large enterprises in the country declare that they invest in R&D. Among them, 70% have in-house research facilities, and 30% commission research and development projects outside. In 98% of the cases, the main source for this R&D investment comes from accumulated capital. Large companies invest between 1% and 5% of their income in this activity, and 48% of firms use public grants.
The innovation gap remains most evident in the small business sector, which faces problems in accessing finance and entrepreneurial know-how. This is reflected in 2010 Eurostat data, which shows that Poland lagged behind European average with only 28% of innovative companies—the lowest score in the Visegrad Group—compared to 53% among EU-27 firms.
Some small and medium-size companies have nevertheless demonstrated great potential. For example, in the 2014 ranking of the fastest growing Central European technology companies, published in a report by consultancy firm Deloitte, almost half, 22 companies, were from Poland.
Qualified work force
What makes Poland attractive to innovation companies, is the availability of university graduates, of scientists and engineers as well as skilled technicians. The country’s expenditure on education has increased by approximately 75% between 2004 and 2013. Eurostat data available for 2013 shows that, while the EU-28 average was 36% graduates in the age group of 25 and 35 years old, Poland scored 42%.
Having a high percentage of university graduates is important , but can only be fully beneficial to the country if these graduates are able to find good employment opportunities. Over the past decade, the number of persons with a tertiary education employed in science and technology in Poland increased by over 1.3 million. In addition, graduates display critical communication skills; the use of English as a second language, is very high and the English Proficiency Index published in 2014, ranked Poland at number 8 among the 60 countries surveyed.
Now that the trend towards innovation in Poland has been initiated, the next stage of development of innovation capacity requires to focus on further increasing investment in R&D–both public and private–building academia-industry partnerships, providing capital to high-growth companies and integrating innovation ecosystems within countries and with most innovative economies worldwide. While all countries of the Visegrad Group progress towards these goals, numerous studies show that the impact of changes is most noticeable in Poland.
Founder and CEO Tataj Innovation, an international innovation policy consultancy, based in Warsaw Poland, former member of the executive committee of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) funding agency, based in Budapest, Hungary
This article is adapted from an original publication called ‘Poland: Emerging Innovation Leader of the Visegrad Group’, CEED Institute, Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 2014.
Featured image credit: Daria Tataj