Parliamentary approval is needed for the change, but it is hoped the move will help get projects from research to market - and give a much needed boost to the country’s start-up scene
Slovenia’s plans to create a new single agency that brings research and innovation activities together has been welcomed by the scientific community, but there are warnings the real challenge is in the implementation stage.
The government tabled an amendment to the Act on Scientific Research and Innovation Activity in January setting out plans for the agency, called ARIS. The structure, designed to encompass basic research activities as well as projects on technologies further along the development pathway, will replace the existing research agency, ARRS.
Now, the government is aiming to fast-track the bill through parliament and have a first round of calls under the new agency by autumn. ARIS is the brainchild of Slovenia’s science minister Igor Papič, who came up with the idea following discussions with members of the research and academic community.
“We don't have a good transfer of knowledge from academia to the practical world,” he told Science|Business. “I'm not here talking only about the industry, but more generally about broader society.”
The new agency will better address the flow as research progresses up the scale towards a final, marketable product.
“The basic idea is that researchers will be able to continue with their work and if they finish their project within the scientific pillar of the agency, they could continue it in the innovation pillar, with only a small re-evaluation of the project,” he said.
To help achieve this, the public R&D budget will increase. It was raised from around €308 million to €370 million between 2022 and 2023, and is set to rise further to €440 million next year.
“In two years, we have already seen an increase of 40%,” Papič said. It is part of the government’s plan over the next five years to raise public R&D expenditure to at least 1% of the country’s GDP, whereas currently hovers around the 0.6% mark.
Implementation is key
Many in Slovenia’s scientific community have welcomed the initial proposal for a new agency, but they say that getting the implementation right is key.
Gregor Anderluh, director of the National Institute of Chemistry and current president of Kosris, a network of public research institutes, said plans for the agency are a step in the right direction.
“The minister for science came up with this idea to bring the innovation part to the agency as a separate pillar and this was supported by all main stakeholders in Slovenia,” he said. “We don’t object to this, but what is crucial is how this is done.”
Anderluh wants RDI actors in Slovenia to be more involved in the process of shaping this new agency.
One of the main reasons for creating ARIS is Slovenia’s poor showing in terms of turning research into marketable products. Recent data on the success of Horizon Europe’s €7 billion start-up funding scheme, the EIC Accelerator, shows Slovenia to be the fourth-worst performer in the EU for securing funds, with Croatia, Slovakia and Greece the bottom three.
Slovenia won just €2.45 million in grants out of the total €447 million handed out during the first two years of the programme.
Gregor Majdič, rector of the University of Ljubljana, said this factor makes the creation of the new agency vital.
“Although the financing of projects at higher technology readiness levels (TRLs) is a problem in many EU countries, in Slovenia, this is even more pronounced with a lack of proper venture capital funds, [or] support from government and banks,” he said.
However, there could still be hurdles in the path from research to product, said Jana Kolar, chair of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures and former board member of ARRS.
“The overall plan for the new agency is good as it brings research and innovation closer. The catch is in the implementation, and some things are still rather vague at the moment,” she said.
She highlighted the fact that some projects working at higher TRLs are still to be funded by the Ministry of the Economy, Tourism and Sport, rather than the recently re-organised Ministry of Education, Science, and Sport, as a potential source of bottlenecks.
Anderluh also said that the country needs to work on creating better links between ministries, which he hopes will happen soon, since it has been acknowledged as a target area in the country’s post-Covid Recovery and Resilience Plan.
The innovation and technology sector has been neglected in the country for years, he said, adding that the new agency is a step towards resolving that.
“We are now establishing everything again from scratch, so of course there will be hiccups. Solving them is not only up to the science minister, but the government as a whole. They should all stand behind this new agency,” Anderluh said.
New direction in science and research
The plans for the creation of ARIS are the result of the government’s new scientific research and innovation activities act, which came into force in January last year. This makes several notable changes to the research ecosystem in the country, including providing more money for the R&I sector in academia, which Majdič said was much needed, as well as giving more financial autonomy to research institutes.
Previously, research money was directed towards specific programmes, but that money is now being channelled through the institutes, which gives them greater autonomy.
Anderluh said he was happy with the new act and its potential, saying it was “quite a struggle” to persuade politicians to adopt it. And while he thinks it is a fantastic achievement, he said Slovenia’s research ecosystem still faces challenges, chief among them, salaries.
“We are unattractive at the European level for researchers, the low salaries we offer are comparatively awful,” he said. This even extends to the salaries of support or administrative staff, and Anderluh said recruitment is a real struggle.
While the new act makes provisions for higher salaries, this has not yet been implemented because other acts need to be modified. “This is going extremely slowly, we wish it to go faster,” he said.
Anderluh also pinpointed the country’s research-linked infrastructure as an area that needs heavy investment. As one case in point the room he is working in was built just after the second world war. “Many of these buildings are not suitable for modern research. This is not addressed well in any strategic plans, and we would like to see that change,” he said.
Kolar understands that it will take time for the new act to have an impact, but she said a necessary addition is more regular government assessments of research institutes, not only to gauge performance, but also to assess how they are being managed.
Skeletons in the chest
While this new agency represents a fresh start for Slovenia, controversy still hangs over the current ARRS. The former management board made the decision last January to appoint cardiologist Mitja Lainščak as acting director, following the retirement of the former post holder. But this did not go down well with the Slovenian government, which wanted someone appointed with a long-term mandate.
This led to the government sacking four members of the board – including Kolar – to get its way. After a bit of back and forth in which the board members were reinstated, the government moved in May to again remove the members and appointed Lainščak as director with a four-year mandate. Since then, the government has changed.
Kolar and other dismissed board members are now suing the former government, with legal proceedings ongoing. “The main argument from the [former] government is that we were not acting in the best interest of the agency and doing the due diligence of a good governing board, because we proposed to appoint an acting director and not a permanent director. We felt the real reason was politically motivated,” Kolar said.
The creation of ARIS has been seen by some in the political opposition as a way for the government to sweep this messy affair under the rug, but Papič rejected this notion, saying there is no link and the creation of the new agency pre-dates the dispute and comes from plans set out in the science act, which was approved before the end of 2021.
Kolar says the creation of ARIS will not affect the court proceedings and she is suing the government for what she perceives as unfair dismissal, and not in order to get her board position back. She also says that she has a positive working relationship with Lainščak, who did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this article.
“It's in both our interests to do what is good for the country,” Kolar said, speaking of Lainščak.
“If he invites me to discuss issues relating to the agency and how to develop research in Slovenia, I gladly accept,” she said.
Editor's note: This article was updated 3 March to correct Slovenia's R&D expenditure figures.