Street protests yield victory for Serbia’s scientists

Serbia’s scientists have won the first round in their fight to save research in their country, where science funding and policy have been inadequate.

Following a street protest involving over 3,000 scientists in Belgrade on 2 July, the science and education ministry has negotiated a set of terms with the Union of Science to improve the situation, which the country’s science academy recently called ‘catastrophic’.

The agreement includes a reversal of drastic funding cuts and a recommitment to 1% of GDP funding for research by 2015, as well as a new approach to funding science that will be more in line with the way science is funded in more developed nations.

If the ministry fails to honour the agreements and set timelines, scientists have said they will hit the streets once again.

Researchers have struggled recently to get recognition and the necessary means to do their work in Serbia. The science ministry was shut down in 2011 and subsequent protests failed to re-establish it. Following more recent budget cuts, researchers briefly lost access to journals.

The protest on 2 July – called SAVE THE SCIENCE! – was organised as a response to the “lack of adequate, professional and serious treatment of science and scientists in Serbia”, organisers say.

They add that the very survival of science in Serbia is endangered.

“Scientists have not received any funding (“material expenses”) since the beginning of 2013, which has left them without basic means to do their work and to maintain their equipment. Even the promised, but unfulfilled amount would be below the necessary minimum for the sustainability of scientific work in Serbia. With the announced rebalance of the state budget and further reduction of funds allocated to science, the catastrophic situation is deepening,” they say.

They had seven key demands for the government including to return the amount of funding per researcher in 2014 to the 2010’s level (with an intermediate target in 2013 of 50% of 2010’s level), and to increase the budgetary allocation to 1% of the GDP (in accordance with the Strategy of Scientific and Technological Development of the Republic of Serbia).

Another demand was to adopt a law before the end of 2013 that would introduce a new organisational model for the financing of science, according to widely adopted European solutions (i.e. via a science foundation rather than current direct funding from the ministry).

They also asked for a halt to unwarranted delays in the payment of salaries and material expenses and for a collective agreement to regulate the working and legal status of employees in scientific and research organisations, according to the Labour Law to stop discrimination against researchers from scientific institutes as opposed to other public sector employees.

They also called for the resignation of Minister Zarko Obradovic and “others responsible for ignoring and not solving the problems in Serbian science” as well as an urgent meeting with Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic.

On Monday (8 July) the organisers received a reply from the ministry with a commitment to fulfil all the demands apart from the last two: resignations and a meeting with the prime minister.

The 1% of GDP goal by 2015, stopping unwarranted delays to salary payments, and a new funding law, were all agreed to.

The ministry also agreed to increase the amount of funding per researcher for 2013 to the maximum amount available within national budgetary constraints in discussions with the Union of Science; and within 2 weeks to adopt a collective agreement that will regulate the working and legal status of employees in scientific and research organisations.

Given that many scientists have received little or no funding for their research, many may have no alternative but to sit and wait for the outcomes of the agreement.

Mićo Tatalović

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