Scientists in the two newest EU members may have more reason to cheer their accession than the farmers and labourers who were expected to benefit most.
When Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union on 1 January, most talk was of how it could benefit the countries’ farmers, labourers and factory workers. But scientists, it turns out, may have the most cause for celebration.
Since the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the two countries have scraped along near the bottom of the European rankings for R&D spending – with 0.5 per cent of gross domestic product for Bulgaria, and 0.4 per cent for Romania (compared with 1.8 per cent for the EU overall, and 2.6 per cent for the US.) The predictable result: relatively few patents, little high-tech industry, and a near-starved academic community. But EU accession will give the two countries greater access to EU R&D programmes, including the just-begun, seven-year Framework Programme 7. It also puts pressure on the country’s leaders to focus more attention on R&D.
EU Research and Science Commissioner Janez Potočnik said as much in pre-accession speeches last year in Sofia and Bulgaria: It’s time to change. Bulgaria, he said in Sofia, “has to make fundamental choices” about how much it spends on R&D, and how it spends it. So far, the two governments have responded with new plans for change – but the task is huge.
Herewith, a quick guide to the state of R&D investment in the two new EU members.
Since its transition to a market economy began in 1989, the Bulgarian funding system for research has undergone considerable change. In the period between 1989 and 1986, R&D expenditure dropped from 2.7 per cent of GDP to barely 0.2 per cent. In 2002, it spent only €81 million nationwide – about as much as just the Prague area of the Czech Republic spent in one quarter, according to Eurostat. Since 2004, spending has risen slightly, to 0.5 per cent of GDP.
Improvement in this sector has been almost exclusively initiated by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. No national strategy to underpin science and research development was implemented until 2005. A series of obstacles to Bulgarian science and innovation remain: slow privatization, an outdated legal framework, an oversized yet underfunded public research sector, and a “brain drain” of young scientists.
At present, as Commissioner Potočnik pointed out, Bulgarian industry doesn’t spend enough on R&D – meaning research is primarily dependent on scant government funding. The vast majority of private industries are small or medium-sized, and though their weight in the system has increased in the past 2 to 3 years, Bulgarian private R&D expenditures remain among the lowest in Europe.
And the university research is fragmented; the country has 43 universities in a population of less than eight million. It suffers a “brain drain” of young science graduates due to the lack of links between research and industry. Results in school maths and science examinations are typically low, and little information is provided to students about the possible career outcomes of furthering their science studies. The Bulgarian national strategy aims to correct this by networking research, industry, and education, creating a stronger dynamic between them and improving performance from each.
Bucharest’s spending on R&D reached 0.4 per cent of GDP in 2006, and is expected to hit 0.6 per cent by the end of 2007. The Romanian economy relies heavily on low-cost labour and low value-added exports, and much of the existing technology sector depends on outsourcing by foreign companies, rather than on Romanian enterprise. In line with commitments made to the EU, and fuelled by a willingness to catch up with the other countries, the government is seeking to put in place mechanisms and infrastructure to spur the growth of innovation and research.
In 2004, Romania launched a programme which saw the funding of over 2000 projects in four major areas: complex R&D projects, human resources, participation in European and international projects, and research infrastructure. One bright spot is the information technology sector, as the country has one of the world’s fastest-growing – albeit small – IT markets. Other strengths lie in nanotechnology, material science and aerospace.
Despite these growing fields, the Romanian research sector has not reached critical mass for it to support itself in all areas. Some have suggested that the “brain drain” problem could be better tackled by promoting “brain circulation”. This would allow researchers to alternate between work in the Romanian science and innovation sector and collaboration with other European scientists on community projects.