Tentative solutions to Balkans’ science anaemia

The chronically underfunded Balkan R&D landscape only offers one exception with Slovenia. In the second part of this two-part series of articles on Balkan science, the Euroscientist looks into the root cause preventing greater dynamic in research among this mosaic of very different States. We also find out about recent initiatives that could provide the blueprint for further developing R&D activity in the region.

The socialist legacy of equality in Balkan science is proving to be a tough burden to shake. Funding allocation is different from Western Europe where only a minority of research projects receives State funding. By contrast, in countries like Croatia or Serbia practically all projects get funding even though research grants allocation is supposed to be a competitive process.

Considering the low levels of science funding in Balkan States, this means an average project receives funding of just 6,500 Euros per year. Something even Croatia’s ministry of science admits is not conducive to high-quality research.

Academic bottleneck

The risk of spreading available funds thinly is not the only issue. A lax legislation that allows, or even requires, scientists to get a promotion every five years or so, has created systems packed with permanent professors. They were often not required to publish much to get to where they are, critics of the system say, and have the luxury of a full time position without much review of their research success.

For example, Vlatko Silobrčić, a member of Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts, says that in Croatia, the majority of scientists are scientists by name only. “In principle, only those Croatian scientists who spent a year or more abroad in scientifically advanced countries know the rules of the game and how to function within those rules,” he says.

Boris Lenhard, an associate professor of computational biology at Imperial College London, UK, calls Croatian academic community “dysfunctional” with “a high proportion of unproductive and internationally irrelevant researchers”. “Entire academic disciplines in Croatia have practically no internationally relevant scientific production and, even worse, do not think that it should be required,” he adds.

With the exception of Slovenia, this pattern seems to prevail across the Balkan peninsula. Kosovo’s science law, for example, allows scientists to progress from their first job to a full-time, permanent role by publishing five articles in international journals and organising a single scientific activity, such as a conference.

Besides, the lack of academic opportunities for new entrants appears to be a widespread issue. In Croatia, for example, the science ministry estimates that up to 40% of the 6,000-strong scientific workforce is constituted of researchers holding a top academic rank, blocking the entry of more productive younger scientists.

Science ministers are well aware that this failing system needs to change. They claim to be working on improving the quality of science. Currently there are plenty of strategic documents and legislation in the works aimed at turning things around. The trouble is, many critics say, these initiatives do not get to the root of the problem. There needs to be a radical shift towards meritocracy and independent, international peer review.

Silobrčić says that any strategies end up seeking consensus with a majority of the academic community despite their “not [truly] belonging to the system and holding on to undeserved positions and privileges”. He adds: “No-one has the guts to say: ‘gentlemen, if you want to play on the world stage, you have to accept the existing rules, not invent your own’.”

Quality control

Existing peer review within small countries in the region is not competent and unbiased, experts such as Silobrčić claim. “The main problem is lack of quality control and assurance,” he says. And this opens the door to nepotism and corruption while shutting out meritocracy and excellence.

They see the introduction of independent, international peer review as key, in addition to identifying top performers who could then form a core of excellence and world-class research.

But this means upsetting a large number — if not a majority — of researchers within the system by firing or retiring them, or even assigning them to teaching-only roles. Silobrčić says there is lack of political will and bravery to do so.

Strengthening research competitiveness

A ray of hope in improving the research standards across the Balkans is brought by regional initiatives that could harness the existing competitive strengths of countries. Working on projects at regional level, could make these research consortia a stronger contender for EU research funds. This was a major theme and recommendation that emerged from a meeting of South-East Europe’s science ministers in Sarajevo in November 2012.

That meeting also saw the early presentation of a regional science strategy drafted by the World Bank. It aims to identify common problems and suggest inevitable reforms. According to Montenegro’s science minister, Vlahović, the strategy has already had a positive impact on her country’s efforts to draft its own science policies. “Through linking of the institutions in the region that are top quality in certain fields, the [strategy] will provide support to develop their infrastructure and staff, allowing them to reach competitive advantage on European and world levels,” she says.

Another initiative in the works, the EU’s Danube Region Strategy, comes with a promise of a 10 millions euros competitive research fund. It also offers a range of research collaboration projects that would allow scientists to tap into EU funds and work collaboratively across borders. An interim report published in April found that the strategy was off to a good start, with several research projects launched and work starting on setting up the Danube Research and Innovation Fund.

Croatia supports and often leads such initiatives, says Saša Zelenika, the country’s assistant science minister, who also says Croatia’s entry to the EU would “very significantly contribute” to growth of its industry and technology, which in turn could help drive higher funding for science.

Harsh reality

Yet despite plans and strategies to improve science the reality remains one of economic downturn in the region, with funding cuts to science programmes over the last year. Scientists in Croatia say they saw funds slashed over the past year. The country plans to fund science to the tune of 1.4% of GDP by 2020, a long way away from the EU target of 3-5% of GDP. And in Serbia, the academy of sciences issued a stern warning in May against drastic cuts taking place there and causing a ‘catastrophic situation in science’.

And many of the piecemeal reforms are coming along too slowly, seeking a consensus with the academic community, rather than simply imposing unpopular western standards of meritocracy, critics such as Lenhard and Silobrčić say.

The question remains: will the limited reforms currently underway in this region and modest plans to boost science funding be sufficient to move their science from the sidelines to become an equal player on the EU stage? Or will they, even with improvements, still be lagging behind the rest of Europe, which will have advanced even further?

Featured image credit: Flavijus

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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