R&D in the East: Enthusiasm goes a long way in Slovenia

16 Mar 2017 | News

Hour-for-hour, they are paid 4 – 5 time less than counterparts in western Europe. But scientists in Slovenia are determined to make up for a lack of government funding and the structural disadvantages facing the country’s research and innovation system

The research and innovation gap between new member states and the rest of the EU may not be getting any narrower, but Slovenia is channelling the enthusiasm and dedication of researchers to achieve excellence. 

In the early 1990s scientists began to worry about the “mass departure of intellectuals” who were fleeing central and eastern Europe in search of better work conditions. A quarter of a century later, most countries in the region are still facing this problem, despite having joined the EU and gained access to its research framework programmes.

Attempts to lure back researchers are not very successful because central and eastern European countries, “cannot provide the same standards,” says Ivan Svetlik, rector of the University of Ljubljana.

The strength of Slovenia’s universities is also constrained by low government spending on R&D. The budget has seen a “substantial drop” in the past five years, according to Urban Krajcar, director general of the science directorate at the Slovenian ministry for education, science and sport.

At 2.3 per cent of GDP, gross domestic expenditure on R&D in Slovenia is relatively high, but most of the money comes from the private sector, while the government contributes only 0.3 per cent of GDP.

In addition, there is little investment in the commercialisation of research, says Boštjan Šinkovec, advisor for science and research at the Slovenian Business and Research Association in Brussels. Slovenia does not allocate “enough resources to finance experimental development, where the innovation really becomes ready for the market and where the risk is rather high,” he said.

Only 25 per cent of research funding in Slovenia goes to such projects, much less than the 62 per cent OECD average.

But all things are relative, and judging by the country’s success rate in FP7 projects, Slovenia has a relatively strong research and innovation sector, Šinkovec noted.

Slovenia fares better than most Central and Eastern European states because well before the disintegration of Yugoslavia, it had forged close ties to Western Europe. “I agree that the output indicators are quite good compared to EU13,” says Svetlik. Historically, Slovenia was “better linked with western universities than other new member states.”

Enthusiasm trumps meagre research payslips

To make up for the lack of national funding, universities and research institutes are doing a lot of heavy lifting to win EU-funded grants. “We have to compensate,” says Svetlik.

The University of Ljubljana supports research groups showing promising results, but researchers are constantly under pressure to hunt for grants. “If they want to publish they have to get funding, this is what is expected of them,” Svetlik says.

Slovenia’s universities also have an international perspective and encourage committed young researchers to collaborate with western universities and research institutes. “There is no limitation to experimentation,” says Andreja Kutnar, a Horizon 2020 grantee at the University of Primorska.   

Kutnar won a €15 million grant for InnoRenew, a project that aims to develop new technologies needed for the efficient use of renewable materials. Within the scope of the project she has laid the foundation of a research and innovation centre in the field of renewable materials, for which she was offered another €30 million from the Slovenian government.

This would not have happened without her enthusiasm. After completing a PhD in the US at Oregon State University, Kutnar went back to Slovenia hoping to help change the research and innovation landscape. “You have to have the willingness to do more than you are supposed to,” she says.

At Primorska University, she was able to build her own team of international researchers, three of whom she recruited from the US. Kutnar also established a cross disciplinary laboratory to advance scientific excellence in renewable materials, and convinced 68 universities, small companies and research centres from 22 countries to join her effort.

Despite low salaries, “Slovenia is a great country to build a career in research,” Kutnar says.

But while EU project-based grants are very important, universities and research centres need to be able to rely on the long-term support of the government, says Svetlik.  “You cannot compensate for low R&D public spending with EU money.”

Hour for hour, researchers in Slovenia are paid 4 to 5 times less than in more advanced countries in the EU, Svetlik estimates. This is due in part to a rigid salary system and strong labour unions which pressure the government to agree to unitary pay schemes across all publicly funded sectors. “There’s no freedom to offer higher salaries [in universities],” Svetlik says.

The European Commission has recently updated legal provisions for Horizon 2020 to increase the wages of EU-funded researchers in poorer member states, after politicians argued the current remuneration structure fuels an east-to-west brain drain.

Horizon 2020 grantees in low-income countries are now eligible for €8,000 of extra remuneration. That will ease some of the problems but national governments must come up with ways to incentivise researchers, even though they “are afraid of breaking the salary system apart,” Krajcar says.

R&I strategy hits major obstacles

In 2011, the Slovenian government published a national strategy to boost research and innovation, setting out priorities for investments in research equipment, infrastructure programmes and new buildings. But despite the initial enthusiasm, a lack of finance and legislative rigidity has slowed down the implementation.

In the past eight years, Slovenia had six different science ministers. There’s no wonder the strategy hit some “major obstacles,” says Krajcar. Soon after adoption of the strategy, R&D public funding was cut due to waning political support.

The frailty of Slovenian lobby in Brussels is also a concern for Svetlik. The Slovenian Business and Research Association’s Brussels office has “only few people who cannot do all the work,” he says.

Nonetheless, Slovenia aims to catch up on that front too, and government officials are getting more involved with the policy making process in Brussels. As one sign of this, the Slovenian ministry of education, science and sport was among the first to publish a policy paper with recommendations for the next Framework Programme.

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