The Romanian government is launching a campaign to make science and technology development a key to prosperity and peace in the strife-torn Western Balkans.
The programme, which kicks off 17 January at a Brussels conference, aims at attracting European Union and private investment to the region’s universities and technology industries.
“We live in a beautiful region with great potential,” says Anton Anton, President of the Romanian National Authority for Scientific Research. “And as we have benefited greatly from the EU pre-accession and training programmes, we feel it is our turn to help our neighbours. Because building peace in the region depends to a great extent on mutual cooperation, for a shared quality of life.”
Romania, like current EU president Slovenia, is a neighbour to the troubled countries in the Western Balkans: Albania, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The state of technology development in the region – after nearly 20 years of conflict – is poor. For instance, in the period from 2004 to 2006, these countries were spending between 0.05 per cent (Bosnia) and 1.24 per cent (Croatia) of their gross domestic product on R&D, according to a report published by an EU-funded R&D-coordination programme, the Southeast European ERA.NET. By comparison, the EU average R&D intensity in 2006 was 1.86 per cent of GDP, according to the European Commission.
Mutual cooperation the way forward
Romanian officials see modernisation of the region’s scientific research and technology sector as the key to building modern high-tech industries and creating long-term employment.
For the science and technology sector, what should be the priorities? “At the moment, there is no free movement of researchers,” says Anton. “This should be first on the list of priorities. Because for Romanians the moment that we could travel as full EU research partners to meet with our colleagues abroad, to cooperate with them, that was the moment that research took off.”
As full EU members, Romanian scientists now enjoy full access to EU Framework research programmes such as FP7, while some Western Balkan countries have only limited access. “Access for Romanian scientists back in the days of FP5 and FP6 was also limited,” he says. “With such limited access you need a helping hand, and that is what Romania is trying to do.”
Attract young researchers into science and technology
The second priority, Anton feels, is to create networks that encourage young researchers. “Not just in pure science, but also in research development and innovation. Young people in these fields should work together from the very beginnings of their working lives. They are the leaders of the future, and through cooperation they will influence others.”
Strengthening the local and regional research base in the Western Balkans should be a related priority, he believes. If younger people are to be attracted into scientific and technological research, they need to have access to research environments of a significant size, and within an area where distances between centres are not too great.
When it comes down to agreeing priorities with his Western Balkan colleagues, he believes a certain amount of compromise will be necessary. A possible way forward, he says, is a project to construct a kind of database of assets, then to get the key people round a table to work out in which areas to cooperate, and decide which areas should be strengthened to become the lead centres for the region.
“This is going to be up for discussion,” he says, “but I think we need a sort of regional ESFRI , to develop maybe a local or medium-size infrastructure, a sort of satellite infrastructure that is strong enough to link to the larger ones.”
Organisational innovation also required
Anton believes that a certain amount of organisational innovation will also be necessary. “Take the position of research manager in SMEs. It is a new kind of managerial role, one that is not yet recognised in the Western Balkans. Yet it is one that should be helped to appear.”
“We cannot impose new organisational roles,” Anton continues, “but we can make them possible by helping SMEs to specialise in science management and consulting. The moment that we have good science managers – that is the moment that we can improve our position in competitive research.”