Slovakia sets out strategy to turn around stagnating R&D system

10 May 2023 | News

The country is looking to boost its research, development and innovation landscape with a massive increase in the budget and new focus after decades of stasis

Slovakia is looking to put a series of failed past attempts to rejuvenate its stagnating research and innovation landscape behind it with a new strategy that is being backed with unprecedented levels of public financing.

The national strategy for research, development and innovation 2030, approved at the end of March, will see public R&I spending increase by an average rate of 14% per year until 2030, reaching around €1 billion by the end of the decade.

Along with private investment in research, the goal is to get the country’s R&D intensity – the total R&D expenditure as a percentage of a country’s gross domestic product – up to the EU average of 2%. Currently, R&D intensity hovers around 0.9%, one of the lowest in the EU.

“This might not seem ambitious, but from the baseline we’re at it would be quite an achievement. It would be one of the fastest increases of any country,” said Michaela Kršková, recently appointed as the government's first chief innovation officer.

Previous attempts to upgrade the system, such as the Minerva 2.0 strategy of 2011, which set out 26 measures to reform institutional and legal frameworks, increase the talent pool and provide sustained funding, have come and gone with limited impact.

The timing for this latest attempt looks curious, given the country is currently being led by a caretaker government after the collapse of former prime minister Eduard Heger’s centre-right coalition in December. But the catalyst for the reform comes from further afield, in the form of the EU’s COVID-19 Recovery and Resilience fund (RRF).

The Slovak government has earmarked €572 million from RRF for RDI reform. But it is not just the money that should make the difference this time –– it is also the manner in which RRF is set up, with countries required to meet certain milestones before any money is handed out.

“The RRF has been a stimulus for the reforms,” said Iva Kleinová, a colleague of Kršková’s in the newly formed Slovak Research and Innovation Authority. “Without the RRF, this wouldn’t have happened, just like with a lot of reforms going in Slovakia at the moment.”

Ivory tower

The overhauling of the country’s RDI landscape is already underway, with the upgrading last year of the Academy of Sciences – described by Kršková as an “ivory tower-like institution that hasn’t changed much since the 1980s.”

Now, individual institutions within the academy have greater autonomy to cooperate with the private sector, giving them the opportunity to create spin-offs around products they develop.

The next big change has seen the Science, Technology and Innovation Council completely overhauled and turned into an expert body, consisting of four government ministers, plus the prime minister who sits at the top, as well as 10 independent experts who were chosen with the help of a panel of international experts.

This Council has been given greater competencies to oversee RDI policy changes. In addition, a secretariat for the Council, the Slovak Research and Innovation Authority headed up by Kršková and Kleinová was created. This body will act as the implementing arm of the Council.

The new national strategy for RDI, approved at the end of March, includes a plan with 91 measures that have deadlines, key performance indicators and an attached budget.

Overall, the strategy will see more money going into an improved system. There will be more invested in retaining talent and attracting researchers from abroad – be it Slovak diaspora or foreigners. The final plank will be to select new RDI focus areas, something that is still undergoing consultation.

Heading next door

The strategy was drawn up in response to the long list of problems that have plagued the country’s RDI landscape for decades.

These include a lack of investment, a huge brain drain – the best and brightest often head next door to Czechia where the language is similar and the opportunities more developed - fragmented national funding sources and a lack of support for those applying for grants and few opportunities for young researchers or entrepreneurs.

Kršková is not shy in pointing out the country’s weaknesses and she is not alone. A 2021 report by the OECD calls out the excessive administrative requirements that grant applicants face. “Applying for a grant is just a nightmare,” Kršková said.

She and Kleinová are hoping to model the country’s future funding system on the EU’s Horizon Europe programme, which generally offers easier application processes than national funding programmes. They understand any national programme will always face slightly more administrative steps, but are hoping to at least get closer to the simplicity of Horizon Europe.

Another issue the new team has to face is convincing stakeholders in Slovakia that these latest reforms will work.

“The amount of frustration in the ecosystem is huge,” Kršková said. “Even our reforms are being viewed with tons of suspicion because people have seen this again and again over the years. There is a lot of suspicion, mistrust with actors in the ecosystem that are supposed to be cooperating.”

To earn that trust, the Research and Innovation Authority is trying to build bridges with the country’s main RDI stakeholders. When drafting the new national strategy, they carried out interviews with over 80 people, including researchers, scientists, entrepreneurs and big businesses. It led them to scrapping much of the first draft and starting again. “It made it better, I feel,” Kleinová said.

The foundation of the new strategy – its motto – is a Slovakia that trusts itself. This means trust in contributing new science to the world, trust between people in the ecosystem and trust in innovation to solve society’s problems.

“We are confident we can address issues coming up in the future,” Kršková said.

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