Balkan Countries Pin Hopes on More Science

The breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s created a situation in which research was a luxury for many of its former republics struggling to make it as independent countries. But Balkan countries are betting more and more that science can help them rescue ailing economies.

Montenegro's new prime minister, for example, just created the country's first dedicated science ministry. Similarly, Serbia and the neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina have each launched plans for huge increases in research spending in the decade to come, relying heavily on investments from industry. ScienceInsider reviews the latest situation in each country.

Serbia: Plans to Boost Science Draw Skepticism

Last month, Serbia announced a major new drive to support science and increase funding for research from its current 0.3% of GDP to 2% within a decade. Indeed, science and technology are a major component of "Serbia 2020," a development road map launched by Serbia's Prime Minister Mirko Cvetković and science minister Božidar Đelić on 24 December. Yet analysts within Serbia question the road map's likelihood of success and note that the plan calls for half of the new money to come from the private sector, which currently offers negligible contributions to research funding.

The Serbia 2020 road map comes on the heels of a recent 5-year science development strategy and Serbia's topping of Thomson Reuters's bimonthly Rising Stars, a list of countries with the highest rise in total number of citations throughout 2010, in fields including chemistry, mathematics, and space science. When the science strategy was launched last year, the president, Boris Tadić, told Vecernji List daily, "The strategy on science-technology development is a proof that Serbia has got, for the first time in recent history, a clearly defined development strategy." Seven priority areas identified in the science strategy are biomedicine, environmental protection and climate change, energy, agriculture, food science and ICTs; most of the planned new funding will go to these focus areas.

Still, the Serbia 2020 road map identifies low levels of investment in research, education, and technology as "a major problem" of the country. In terms of science and education funding (education grabs just 4.5% of GDP), Serbia is lagging behind other European countries, including regional neighbors, which, apart from Albania, all invest more in science, many over 1% of GDP. Currently, over 90% of the investment in science goes to salaries, leaving little left for infrastructure, equipment, and other research needs.

To combat the situation, the Serbia 2020 plan says increased investment and reforms are a must. At approximately €135 million, Serbia's science budget for 2011 will already represent an increase to 0.5% of GDP, and an additional, nonbudgetary €400 million Euros-half of it coming from a loan from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and earmarked for improving the infrastructure-will also be available between 2011 and 2015, with up to €100 million going toward research equipment.

Science minister Đelić has said that with 4000 new researchers applying for project funding in 2011, and the increase in funding, Serbia could boost its 8000-strong science community by 50% in a single year. He also noted that approximately 1700 of the funding applications came from young researchers and that the country will increasingly fund "brain gain" programs in its quest to attract the science diaspora back to the country. (He said 19,000 university graduates have left the country in the past 2 decades.) Approximately 1000 apartments will be provided to young researchers who return to Serbia after specializing abroad. The aim is also to bring back at least 400 experienced researchers over the next 5 years. The Serbia 2020 plan also proposes creating a database of Serbian scientists working abroad, and it stipulates that they will now take part in the Ministry of Science's projects.

Serbia 2020 further calls for creating better public-private research links through various tax and other incentives, which could provide scientists and engineers with career opportunities in private companies as well-something that is currently chronically lacking in Serbia. According to UNESCO Science Report 2010, only 1.4% of Serbian researchers work in the private sector. The war-torn 1990s produced stagnation in the R&D sector and a brain drain. Conditions have slowly been improving, but the downsized business sector remains in crisis, according to the report.

Yet Serbia 2020 strategy has come under wide-scale criticism from the economic and political analysts in the Serbian media, who call it yet another wish list. They say it relies on a range of institutional reforms and economic growth projections that are highly unrealistic. A version of the road map is expected to be accepted by the end of first quarter in 2011.

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Can a New Science Strategy Fix an 'Alarming Situation'?

Bosnia and Herzegovina is also still seeking to recover from the ethnic conflicts that devastated the region until 1995 and left a nation split into one region governed by the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBH) and another overseen by Republika Srpska. Neither entity has so far been able to place much emphasis on science: FBH devotes about 0.05% of its GDP to research funding, while Republika Srpska provides an estimated 0.07%.

There are signs that is changing. Last year, Bosnia and Herzegovina took several steps to prioritize research, establishing a countrywide Council on Science and publishing a science development plan for 2010 to 2015.

That plan noted that FBH was providing only enough funds to continue research inherited from Yugoslavia, without any clear science strategy or concepts for development. In response, FBH announced last month the formation of a team to develop its first science strategy. If implementation begins in 2012 as planned, science funding in FBH's part of the country would increase next year to 1% of GDP and to 2% of GDP by 2016. At the country's current GDP, this would result in US$109 million in science funding for 2012 and US$225 million by 2016.

Of the new funds, almost 50% would go to natural and technical sciences, with about 30% to medical and biomedical sciences and 20% to social sciences and the humanities research. Resurrecting research in the country's private sector, renewing the infrastructure of research institutions, and training a new generation of scientists are the main aims of the strategy.

Success hinges on an improved economy. One-third of the science funding in the new strategy is expected to come from the private sector, which was largely destroyed during the war and currently contributes less than 10% of the country's already limited research money.

Much of the new FBH science strategy emerged from a meeting last September organized by the Academy of Sciences and Arts of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Those at the meeting lamented the precipitous drop from the prewar investment of 1.5% of GDP in 1990 and urged the government to aim for the E.U. level of 2% within 4 years. A report out last week on " The State of Science in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina" echoed those concerns, saying that there was no real appreciation at the country level of the importance in investing in science. This has led to an "alarming situation" that requires an urgent policy update and more money, the report concluded.

Those at the September meeting said that new funds and a new science law that would transparently place the money with research institutes based on their results were needed. Participants also urged that Bosnia and Herzegovina collect better data on its research efforts, as current legislation does not require monitoring of even the number of research institutes, let alone the output of the country's scientists.

The new science strategy from FBH notes that investing in science has not been defined as a national development goal and that the Dayton peace agreement, which stipulates the responsibilities of various governing entities in the country, never mentions science and research. As a result, government officials on all levels have ignored the issue. The science strategy acknowledges that 2 decades of neglect have left Bosnia and Herzegovina's research sector in disrepair, in terms of both people and infrastructure, and it says improvements in higher education quality are a necessary first step to improve the country's science and economy at large. One of the document's key recommendations is to mandate that new Ph.D.s collaborate with another institute abroad.

University professors in Bosnia and Herzegovina spend only 3% of their work time doing science due to lack of funds, the new science strategy notes. Lack of dedicated research funding also prevents Bosnian scientists from applying to European research projects and collaborations.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has just 24 self-declared research institutes, and some lack anyone with a Ph.D. Most of the country's research journals do not appear in international indexes. BIH also trails other former Yugoslav republics in the per capita number of research articles published.

Mico Tatalovic is a deputy news editor at SciDev.Net.

Posted in Europe