Why Slovakia’s science is a failure while Estonia’s flourishes

An opinion article published in The Scientist this week (28 January) sheds some light on a common problem for science in Eastern Europe, especially in smaller countries, many of whose science systems are collapsing under mediocrity and poor funding.

Despite Slovakia having adopted science politics similar to that in successful countries, since the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the EC funds provided a decent investment into science, this experiment appears to have failed, claim the authors – two scientists from Comenius University, in Bratislava.

Why so?

“Our hypothesis is that the country’s small population, combined with cultural stereotypes, constitutes an ideal environment for the propagation of ambitious yet mediocre members of the scientific community, whose opportunistic behavior prohibits the advance of science on a national level,” they write.

“In Slovakia, it seems to take almost no time to corrupt a system that works perfectly fine elsewhere. A scientific oligarchy with close ties to policy makers writes the rules for the transfer of unprecedented amounts of public money into (semi-)private firms purchasing overpriced, duplicated, or even useless equipment.

“All this is done legally, under the supposed supervision of governmental officers. We see this as a large-scale theft of public resources that has minimal or no benefit for improvement of science in Slovakia.”

Chronic underfunding of research is also a problem, they write, with Slovakia only investing some 0.63% of GDP in 2011.

The result of all of this puts Slovakia far behind behind Albania and Mauritius, when it comes to, say, the number of citations per publication. And the country only holds a single European Research Council grant.(Croatia only got its first such grant in 2012.)

They go on to cite Austria and Estonia as two examples of comparable small countries, yet with enviable science record.

So, how did they do it?

“Internationalization of the scientific communities of these countries is the common denominator of their success. Review panels of grant agencies and scientific boards of universities in large part consist of respected foreign scientists. The quality of research is evaluated by international experts, not by the same people who are being evaluated.”

This is a common argument I hear from Croatia’s scientists wishing to boost quality of its research, and may very well apply throughout the region. Let’s hope the political elites who can make this change start listening soon.

Read the full piece at The Scientist website

Mićo Tatalović

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