Soul-searching at Serbia’s Vinča institute as it looks for new director, vision and reforms

One of Serbia‘s largest and most renowned research bodies, the Vinča Institute of Nuclear Sciences, has re-launched its long-running quest for radical reform in its management and of its purpose in this troubled society.

Since its foundation in 1948 Vinča has been carrying out research on a range of topics from nuclear and atomic physics to environmental protection.

The institute, and one of its now defunct research reactors, was built with Russian assistance during the Cold War: some speculated that it was part of a drive to explore nuclear weapons on behalf of the socialist government of Josip Broz Tito.

Indeed, some of the reactor’s nuclear fuel contained 80% enriched uranium – close to the purity needed for weapons and in sufficient amounts to make around three nuclear bombs – and was subsequently moved, in collaboration with International Atomic Energy Agency, to Russia for reprocessing in 2002 and 2010.

The high-stakes negotiations over the terms of the move are seen by some as a fine example of a diplomacy success story, and were described in some detail by Phillip C. Bleek in the Non Proliferation Review.

With most of the vulnerable nuclear material exported by the end of 2010 and the attention of the international community having moved on, Vinča’s problems shifted from nuclear safety to its new role in 21st century Serbia.

A restless year

2012 was an especially rocky year for Vinča, which employs some 800 people, around half of whom are researchers, in the field of natural sciences.

It had to deal with burst water pipes in its radioactive material storage areas, said to be inadequate; some employees were reportedly exposed to elevated radiation during routine work; its premises were robbed; and finally, Vinča’s director Jovan Nedeljković, a physical chemist, was dismissed in December, after the science ministry approved a decision made by the institute’s management board back in July.

Despite growing research output (measured by the number of papers published and new researchers hired), the institute has not done enough to turn its findings to commercial use, says Dragan Domazet, head of Vinča’s management board and former science minister.

He also claims that since 2009 the institute owes around 139 million Serbian dinars (US$1.6m) in unpaid taxes.

In order to push through genuine reforms, modernise the institute and have it contribute to economic growth, Domazet believes that it needs to hire someone from outside, perhaps someone from abroad, who will have fresh ideas and a willingness to improve the institute’s commercial success.

New director, new direction?

The ideal candidate for new director of Vinča would have “good management abilities, a clear and modern vision for further development of the institute, and a desire to improve the business side of the institute” says Domazet.

“The institute has good researchers, but their projects are mainly funded through the [state] budget, and their results don’t find any application later on; this shows that research at the institute is not sufficiently relevant. It lacks a new vision, mission and new and modern organisation.”

Acting director Bojan Radak, a physical chemist based at Vinča who has been appointed to the interim position until the new director is appointed by the end of 2013, says he will “sort out possible management problems – and prepare the institute for a regular procedure in which a director general will be appointed to the post”.

The management board’s move to recruit a new director to spearhead the long-awaited reforms is the latest in a long history of attempts to reform the Vinča Institute.

But most people Balkan Science Beat contacted are unconvinced that a change of director alone is enough to bring about the reforms the institute it said to be in need of.

And there are several visions for what the institute could and should become.

The major problems for the institute are the absence of a clear concept regarding its development and lack of funding for new research facilities, such as the proposed TESLA Accelerator Installation, said Nebojša Nešković, principal research fellow at Vinča, in a presentation at the International conference on Nuclear Security organized by the World Academy of Art & Science and the European Leadership Network (September 14-16, 2012) in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Decommissioning or refurbishment of its two nuclear reactors, as well as storage of nuclear waste, continue to plague the institute.

To solve some of the problems, the government should found a Vinča Science and Business Park, which would bring together various research bodies and businesses working in the field, he said.

Previous plans to reform the institute also faltered. They date back to when Domazet, now rector of the private Belgrade Metropolitan University, was science minister (2001-2003). His vision would have transformed the current institute, with its many semi-autonomous labs, into just three or four separate entities, that would deal more specifically with market-oriented innovation. Many contested this vision, seeing it as an attempt at commercialisation of the institute: over 100 scientists signed a petition calling for Domazet’s resignation.

Because of an early general election, he was unable to push his plans through the legislative process in time, and subsequent governments failed to implement them.

Top research institute at the mercy of lawmakers

Milovan Šuvakov, theoretical physicist at the Institute for Physics in Belgrade, says Vinča “represents a large portion of physics – especially of experimental kind – in the country”, coming second only to his institute in terms of productivity.

Since Vinča’s current research includes biology and chemistry, it is one of the three most productive research institutes in Serbia, he adds.

Because of its large size and prominence, what happens at Vinča is more visible than what happens at smaller institutes, but many of its problems are shared by other research institutes in Serbia, says Zoran Petrović, professor at Belgrade’s Institute for Physics and member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts.

“Vinča is certainly our largest and best known scientific institute and my own institute was founded mainly by people from Vinča,” says Petrović. “Vinča suffered when it became obvious that its initial goals and conception were not in line with reality of our country and the available finances.”

“Like every scientific institution in Serbia, Vinča has first class scientists that are at a high international level; it has a large group of solid scientists but, like every scientific institute, it has a group of those that do not deserve to be labelled scientists – but in the case of Vinča that group is small.

“Vinča also functions within a system that treats science as the plaything of lawmakers who do not think before writing legislation … In other words, we are but small walnut shells floating on the ocean, not lifeboats for our intellectuals, ideas and the future of the economy. We float but carry little weight.”

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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