Q&A: Science adviser to the president of Macedonia

Macedonia, a country of just over 2 million people, held the first round of its presidential elections yesterday (13 April) with the next round scheduled for later this month. The small, landlocked nation in South-East Europe has some 1,000 full time scientists, mainly in the public sector, and invests less than 0.3% of its GDP in research and development.

Its national research system is “centralised and underfunded” and private research sector is “still rather weak thus rendering research in the country dependent on EU and other international funds” according to ERAWATCH, the European Commission’s Platform on Research and Innovation policies and systems.

With presidential elections underway, SciDev.Net spoke to Bratislav Stanković, science and technology adviser to the president of Macedonia about the challenges the nation faces in improving its science base and harnessing the power of science to improve its economy.

“Inertia and administrative obstacles” plague progress in science, Stanković says, and when it comes to the political perception of science and its contribution to economic growth and development “science remains an ugly duckling”.

“My task has been to identify strengths and weaknesses and to suggest some policy interventions; the rest is up to others who make the decisions,” he says.

Does the very fact that such a small country has a science adviser signal the recognition of the importance of science?

Perhaps, yes. But I serve the president of the country, the main decisions are made by the government, so there is duality there. The president can contribute with suggestions and I help him make informed decisions but ultimately it’s the prime minister and the government that divide the budget. To my knowledge, they don’t have a science adviser.

Do you believe that Macedonia can benefit from science?

Oh yes, and if I didn’t I wouldn’t be doing this. I try to articulate the correlation between research and development and innovation on one side and the economic growth of the country, on the other, and I also try to propose mechanisms for linking them. We just published a book,Technology Transfer in Macedonia: Recommendations for Successful Public Policies, which is also about innovation and the brain drain and what to do about it.

Macedonia sits among several other small nations in the Balkans, many of which used to be part of Yugoslavia. How important is regional cooperation in science there?

There is a dire need for regional cooperation and integration. I started my own non-profit regional foundation for supporting innovation entrepreneurship in the Balkans, Balkan Unlimited. So we can apply and get the FP7 (EU’s Framework Programme 7) and IPA (EU’s Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance) grants. We have won 3 out of 4 grants we applied for and we created the first regional accelerator for innovative start-ups for the Western Balkans, based in Macedonia.

The funding to sustain this initiative started coming in last year; we just received a second grant, a three-year FP7 grant, and there has been a lot of interest — in the last three years we held several innovation events that would attract between 500 and 700 participants. These are matchmaking events for innovative start-ups and venture capitalists; the innovators are regional, the venture capitalists are pan-European. This illustrates the importance of regional collaboration.

There are advantages to being from more developed nations, such as Croatia or Slovenia, and collaborating with ‘deeper Western Balkans’. One of the projects from my non-profit foundation created a consortium and we realised that we cannot be the lead partners for the project because we did not have the track record to show to the European Commission. And so we approached Slovenian partners and said: ‘we can write this, and you can finesse it and you can become the leaders on the project’. It’s similar with the others; we know how to do it and we do a lot of the groundwork and we then get partnered with someone who has a bit of a track record and who will be perceived by the donors, by the European Commission, as someone who can lead the project. And so, I think our Croatian and Slovenian partners have benefited from this collaboration.

You returned from the United States to Macedonia. How important is diaspora for kick-starting science and innovations back home?

At an ad hoc level it’s important. Despite what is being lauded in the media, little is done in Macedonia to attract the diaspora. That will change hopefully. But there’s little intervention in that regard. There’s a dichotomy between the strategy and the action plan. Last year someone prepared a strategy to stop brain drain from Macedonia, and I sat on the committee that reviewed it: it’s a good strategy, but it’s good for Israel or South Korea [not for a poor country like Macedonia] — where’s the money to support the strategy? They drew a blank — they don’t have the money.

Is lack of money the main constraint?

The funding is direly missing. We will not be able to attract the diaspora if we don’t provide good, solid, economic conditions. They will not come back. I’ve done research and published a couple of papers on this, but it’s been seen in South Korea and Taiwan that graduate students who go to America would not even think of going back until they saw the conditions in their home countries improved. Once things improved, that was a trigger for these young folks to start coming back and doing brain circulation.

What are your top three pieces of advice to the president of Macedonia?

First, infrastructure for science needs to be built. There is not a single science and technology park in a real sense — there are a couple of caricatured places at some universities that have declared they have science and technology parks but they are too small. The actual buildings, the labs — they are missing.

And it’s not just the money that will go into the building; you have to have wet labs and to sustain activities. You have to build the buildings and have the money to sustain them. Apparently the ministry of science in the last two or three years invested a bit of money into improving labs, so some universities have received equipment. A lot of that equipment is still sitting unpacked in boxes because they don’t have the operational funds. I can compare this to my experience as a chief scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison a decade ago; we had a group of 15 people and two million dollars annual budget to buy consumables and chemicals and reagents and this and that — what we needed to function. So you need to build the things and you need to allocate funds to support them.

The second advice is to really do the ‘triple helix’ innovations: to start involving the SMEs (small and medium enterprises). There is very little R&D in the business sector in Macedonia — that has to improve.

And advice number three is: involve diaspora, because the exodus of people with tertiary education is staggering. Macedonia is ranked by the World Bank 135th out of 142 countries for brain drain. People leave in droves, they don’t think of coming back: they sever the ties, there’s no remittances. It’s not like in the past when people left and were sending money back. It’s real detachment.

Could part of the solution be sharing regional-level infrastructure?

Could be. In Macedonia, there are conditions to build two regional centres of excellence, one for seismic engineering and the other for genetic engineering, associated with the Academy of Science and Arts. Build it and they will come. Build the conditions and try to attract the best regional researchers.

This article first appeared at SciDev.Net

Mićo Tatalović

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