Revealed: details of the World Bank draft strategy for Western Balkans’ science

Four years in the making, the World Bank-led project responding to the Western Balkans science ministers’ 2009 plea for aid to integrate their countries’ scientific efforts is expected soon to result in concrete new research funds, networks of excellence, technology transfer and research evaluation bodies.

The latest draft of the project’s strategy, dated November 2012 and presented at a UNESCO-sponsored expert meeting in Sarajevo, has “five major lines” which will be discussed with national governments over the next two months, to see whether they are acceptable, said Đuro Kutlača, head of the Science and Technology Policy Research Centre at the Mihajlo Pupin Institute in Belgrade, who presented the strategy.

Two of these proposals are for promoting research excellence, two for boosting innovation – especially in the private sector – and one will be for evaluating research results, something that is largely lacking in the region.

The World Bank has also just released a report (8 November) which describes the concept of this technical assistance project, funded to the tune of €1.5 million by the EU. It says the project would focus on “how to increase the economic impact of R&D in the Western Balkans” and integrate education, research and innovation.

In June 2011, the World Bank signed an agreement with the European Commission to develop a Regional Research and Development (R&D) Strategy in the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia). The agreement was a response to a request made by Western Balkan governments during a ministerial conference in Sarajevo in April 2009. The project is now halfway complete.

WORLD BANK RELEASES THE ‘INCEPTION REPORT’ ON THE STRATEGY

The reasons for assistance are summed up nicely in the WB ‘inception report’, released last month:

“In recent decades, talent migrated [e.g. more than 60 per cent of skilled scientists, researchers, and university personnel have left Bosnia and Herzegovina in the past 10 years], infrastructure deteriorated, R&D expenditures fell, and scientific output declined, threatening the regional science base … little [R&D] is commercialized through licensing, spinoff companies, or contract research, leaving research results idle from an economic standpoint. Innovative startups and business R&D expenditures — the demand side of the innovation process — are scarce.”

The report adds: “There is a general legacy of unfinished reforms in the area of research, development and innovation. This area has suffered from neglect, as policies instead have focused more broadly on post-war and, more recently, post-financial and economic crisis restructuring.”

“Patent applications by Western Balkan scientists are not only notably behind applications in developed economies, but seem also to be stagnating, or even decreasing.”

The report highlights four focus areas for the regional strategy to improve the situation: improving policy-making, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and governance of national innovation systems; strengthening the regional science base; accelerating commercialization and deepening collaboration with the business sector; and facilitating higher levels of business R&D and startups of innovative companies.

It also proposes that the region should specialise in its research, focusing funding on only a few key areas where all countries already share a high level of excellence (e.g. biology and physics) or that are of high economic value (e.g. agriculture and fisheries), and sharing infrastructure.

But a lot work has been done since the start of the project in late 2011, and the regional strategy is slowly taking shape – though it may be another year until it is finalised.

FROM SARAJEVO TO SARAJEVO: CURRENT DRAFT REVEALED

Kutlača presented the key aspects of the strategy draft as it currently stands at the Expert Meeting on Science, Technology and Innovation for South-East Europe (22 November), organised by the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe, Venice [The meeting itself preceded the Ministerial Round Table on Science, Technology & Innovation (23 November) where ministers from the Western Balkans and the rest of the South-East Europe agreed to collaborate further].

The strategy envisions a ‘Research Excellence Fund’ – mainly for international cooperation in research, young researchers’ grants, and training grants.

“One important note is the question of how to integrate diaspora in this, which is huge for this region: how diaspora can support … science technology and innovation,” Kutlača said.

It also proposes creating either a few ‘Centres of Excellence’ in some of the countries in the region, or a ‘Network of Nodes of Excellence’ emanating from all countries – both proposals have a lot of support.

“That’s why this will be a huge job in the near future: not only which alternative to accept – 2, 3, 4 centres of excellence or [many] nodes of excellence,” Kutlača said, but also, crucially, how “to define research fields for this research excellence”.

The strategy also proposes setting up a ‘Technology Transfer Facility’, in order to support the transfer of knowledge and the technologies from national research projects, “to explore them and use them – not to keep them in drawers, in the libraries, but to use them in the market”.

“We should support regional use of technologies and this facility should give technical assistance and funding and monitoring,” Kutlača said.

Then, there is the ‘Regional Innovation Finance Facility’.

“You can translate this into a regional innovation fund,” Kutlača said. “But there is still a big job to do [in order] to develop it, because it is, considering all actions, the most expensive one, therefore there will be much more activity in the near future to define how this line could be developed in reality.”

“Only companies could use money from this innovation fund,” he added.

KEY CHALLENGES: ‘NO CHANGE, PLEASE’ ATTITUDE AND LACK OF EVALUATION

Finally, the strategy calls for an ‘Implementing Body’, which will be used for training and knowledge sharing, but the main purpose will be management of monitoring and evaluation.

Evaluation culture in the region “is missing” and “should be somehow introduced, and this implementing body will do this, together with the partner countries, developing skills and people who will be able to sustain this activity”.

But Kutlača said that apart from the lack of evaluation culture, challenges will also include unwillingness to change in the region.

“We need international support, we are a region with ‘no change, please’ kind of mentality, therefore we need an international society which could help us change this mentality,” he said.

Mićo Tatalović

Science journalist at New Scientist
Mićo Tatalović is environment and life science news editor at New Scientist magazine. He is also the chair of the board of the Association of British Science Writers and is actively involved in promoting science journalism in South-East Europe.
He runs the EuroScientist blog Balkan Science Beat.
Mićo Tatalović

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