Report: Belarus science funding goals ‘remain elusive’

The Belarus government’s plans to boost science funding “remain elusive”, while basic research and the number of scientists are being eroded by the financial crisis, according to a recent recent report by the Belarusian Institute of System Analysis and Information Support of Scientific and Technical Sphere. 

The country’s science could benefit from more international cooperation, from which much of the research funds come, but policies to boost such collaboration with key regional partners, such as the European Union, Commonwealth of Independent States and the community of European-Asian Economic Cooperation are still lacking, the report says.

The government’s plans to increase funding for research and development (R&D) to 1.2-1.4% GDP by 2010 were not achieved, says the report published in April 2014 on the IncrEAST website (Information Exchange in Science, Technology and Innovation between the European Research Area and Eastern Europe/ Central Asia/ South Caucasus).

And the targets contained within the Programme of Social and Economic Development of the Republic of Belarus for 2011-2015 to raise spending on R&D to 2.5-2.9% GDP “remain elusive”.

Instead, funding in 2012 was 330 million Euro, or 0.67% of GDP, the lowest since 2009, according to longer-term data available from UNESCO. And this was expected to dip further to 161.4 million Euro in 2014, according to a budget document cited in the report.

Basic research has suffered especially.

“Since 2005, the share of basic research funding in the total R&D expenditures has decreased from 20.4% to 14.4%,” the report says. “In contrast, the share of applied research funding has grown.”

The report also warns that policies focused on commercialisation may put research excellence at risk.

“Due to limited internal funding and lack of investments, Belarus R&D actors and the system as a whole are excessively oriented towards the commercialisation of R&D results, to the point that it possibly sometimes undermines scientific excellence,” it says.

Drop in scientists and centralised research

The financial crisis has lead to a decrease in the number of researchers, too.

Despite growth in the number of R&D personnel and researchers between 2005 and 2009, “the financial and economic crisis has dropped back these indicators to the level of the year 2005”, it says.

Research remains highly centralised, and in the current economic climate there is little incentive to change this.

“Distribution of R&D staff within the country is irregular,” the report says. “The majority of researchers – 76% – is still concentrated in the capital, followed by Minsk region and Gomel region. Re-allocation of research personnel is costly and strongly depends on availability of research infrastructure and overall economic situation, which in the last years was not conducive for re-allocation programs.

Science for industry, but not in industry

“The structure of the Belarusian R&D system by discipline is strongly dominated by technical sciences,” it says, adding that this is an asset to exploit.

Despite numerous efforts undertaken by the government to promote other disciplines such as life sciences and biotechnologies which are increasingly important on a global scale, they are “relatively poorly represented so far”, it adds.

The government’s attempts to re-organize and improve science and technology have resulted in a significant increase of the total number of R&D organizations, especially in the business enterprise sector, it says. The number grew from 322 in 2005 to 530 in 2012.

“Despite this positive trend, business enterprise sector has not become the major R&D performer so far, in contrast to what is typical in market economies,” it says.

Despite the R&D system in principle being largely oriented towards enterprises, the report says, “it could be characterised as a system of R&D for,but not in the industry”.

International cooperation

Only 3.6% of R&D funding in 2012 went to international cooperation, and there is no specific national policy document on international collaboration in the sectors, according to the report.

“Such investments pay off: if in previous years foreign sources accounted, on average, for 5-7% of the annual total expenditure on research and development, in 2010, their share amounted to 14%. Even if 2012 showed more moderate result of 9.5%, this is evidence of the overall effectiveness of the policy of expanding the international cooperation and promoting the commercialisation of research results.”

“More than 1000 international research projects are implemented in Belarus every year. In the past seven years their number grew by 2.5 times,” it says. “Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Poland, Lithuania and France are the top S&T partners of Belarus.”

But there is a lack of legal basis for EU-Belarus cooperation, hampering any increase in Belarus’ participation in the European Union’s framework programme research.

“This situation results in lack of specific EC actions focused on Belarus,” the report says. “Another problem is caused by absence of the national programs to support international mobility of researchers and, therefore, the lack of a ‘critical mass of mobility’ in Belarusian research community.

Similarly, the report says that cooperation with the rest of the countries in the Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia bloc has shifted to towards being bi-lateral because of the lack of regional-level policies on, or funding for, science cooperation.

Despite historical ties dating back to the Soviet Union, and attempts to boost cooperation in R&D in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) member-states and the community of European-Asian Economic Cooperation (EurAsEC), there is still little concrete outcome, it says.

“Unfortunately, neither CIS nor EurAsEC have elaborated sustainable mechanisms and financial instruments to support the initiatives in R&D so far,” it says.

Mićo Tatalović

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