09 Jan 2008   |   News

Western Balkans: Surmounting the obstacles – country by country

If the Western Balkans region is to improve the overall position of its science and technology, what are the obstacles to overcome?

If the Western Balkans region is to improve the overall position of its science & technology sector, what are the obstacles to overcome? And how are the countries of the region dealing with them?

Albania inaugurated several new ministries in 2006, as well as creating a new Academy of Science and a National Council for Higher Education and Science. While funds allocated to R&D are still limited, the government increased the budget in 2007 for national programmes and bilateral cooperation by about 35 per cent over that for 2006. The current priority is to create an academic research and education network (AAN) to link to the EU GEANT infrastructure. The Ministry of Education and Science is leading this project, which cofinanced by the EU under the SEEREN2 project (FP6).

Bosnia and Herzegovina at present have no Ministry of Education and Science at state level, nor do they have state funding of R&D or even national legislation on science policy. General funding of R&D stands at an extremely limited 0.05-0.15 per cent of GDP. The Ministry of Civil Affairs holds the present responsibility for education and science, however its decisions are non-binding since the Ministry cannot impose decisions and no funding for the science and technology sector is foreseen. The Ministry has however nominated the sector as a national priority for future funding, and is at present negotiating with the European Commission over how best to fund the sector. The government invited Unesco experts to compile guidelines on science and research policy, and the resulting report supports the idea of establishing a national R&D ministry and other agencies to manage the science & technology sector at national level.

Croatia sees investment in science and technology as a strategic priority, and has set forth its mid-term goals for the sector in October 2006 in the “Science and Technology Policy” report. The sector has also been given a primary focus during Croatia’s accession negotiations, confirming the country’s status for project partnerships in the European Research Area (ERA). Croatian scientists have participated in the EUREKA programme, the COST framework and FP6. Long-term expansion for the sector is seen as dependent on building a broad base of support for the idea of a “society based on learning”, an idea that has broad support from academe and industry, and also from the large number of Croatian scientists based both within the country and abroad.

Macedonia has had very limited funding of scientific research due to the economic conditions of the past few years, a position which has lead to a continuous decline in the number of active researchers in the country. However the Ministry of Education and Science is promoting a more integrated approach to research activities, especially as regards regional and international cooperation, and is stimulating cooperation between universities and the commercial sector. A database containing all patent activities in the country was established in 2005, and in 2006 the Ministry signed an agreement that allows all national universities access to the electronic scientific database Scopus. A new Council for Science and Research was also established in 2005, together with a new system of project evaluation with assigned national coordinators for every scientific discipline. Five potential centres of excellence have been identified, based on research results and international recognition:

  • Institute of Chemistry at the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

  • Research Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology at the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts.

  • Nephrology Clinic at the Faculty of Medicine.

  • Research Centre for Energy, Informatics and Materials Science at the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts.

  • Institute for Earthquake Engineering and Engineering Seismology.

Montenegro passed a new law in 2005 (the Law on Scientific Research Activities) which aims to integrate national research activities into EU Framework research programmes and the ERA, introduce international quality standards and promote sustainable development. The law also regulates fiscal mechanisms intended to encourage investment into science, technology and innovation. 2005 also saw the establishment of the Montenegrin Research and Education Network (MREN), which is a member or TERENA and connected to GEANT. A new national Council for Science & Technology is developing a draft strategy for the sector to cover the next seven years. Government funding of research increased from 0.14 per cent of GDP in 2005 to 0.24 per cent in 2006, with a 60 per cent increase in 2007 over 2006. Several weaknesses in the science and technology sector have been identified: there are almost no links between the research community and the private sector, shortages in lab equipment are holding back participation in competitive research, and lack of mobility for researchers is also limiting cross-border cooperation. Some 80 per cent of the research budget is spent on salaries and project overheads, leaving only 20 per cent for investment, human resource development, lab equipment and international cooperation.

Serbia passed several laws that applied international evaluation criteria to scientific research in 2002 and 2005. These rulings provided the underpinnings for the country’s main reform objectives of focusing on specific research areas of national significance. Public funding of R&D has increased continuously from 0.10 per cent of GDP at the time of the democratic changes in 2000 to 0.40 per cent in 2005. A more target-based funding system is also being attempted, with projects of up to 5 years in basic and applied research being funded in a variety of disciplines. A technological development programme aims to help companies develop or implement new technologies in the areas of energy efficiency, biotechnology and agro-industry, with cofinancing by the company itself a condition of public support. This programme is expected to extend into other scientific areas in the future. The country has a strong track record in research evaluation, involving a process of international peer review especially in the basic sciences. Leading researchers enjoy stable and relatively well-rewarded positions, and in return are expected to work with young researchers and produce world-class results. Identified weaknesses include a severely limited science & technology research infrastructure with little investment in improvement or modernisation. Private investment in the sector is practically non-existent. Finally, obstacles to mobility (e.g. EU visa requirements) seriously limit international cooperation with other scientists. These obstacles have also created a negative perception of the EU and its values among some of the younger generation, a perception that remains.

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