Croatia’s science one year into its EU membership: Q&A with EC’s Tania Friederichs


Today marks the first anniversary of Croatia becoming the 28th member state of the European Union (EU) on 1 July 2013. Despite progress in science and a good performance in drawing on EU framework programme (FP7) grants, Croatia's research policy and funding landscape leaves much to be desired. The reforms have been slow to kick in and funding has been stagnating.

I recently spoke about the challenges to Croatia's science with Tania Friederichs, policy officer for research and innovation relations with the Western Balkans and Turkey at the European Commission's Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, in Brussels. Here's what she had to say.

Time to act

"For all Western Balkan Countries the low level of investment in research is a real problem.

What is worse, since the nineties the overall national funding has seriously decreased and, following the global economic crisis in 2008 it further decreased.

Because the Western Balkans have traditionally (prior to 1991) put research and science high on the political agenda and thus also the funding, they still all have a good research potential and high-skilled and committed scientists. But it is time to act if they don't want to lose that potential."

Croatia's stagnating investment in R&D

"This is certainly the case for Croatia which had reached about 1% of its GDP invested in research by 2008 but due to an overall slowdown of the national economy during the last four years, which was additionally affected by the global financial and economic crisis in 2008, it decreased further to 0.75%.

Moreover, since then the level of investment in R&D has stagnated at 0.75% - despite Croatia's own targets to reach 1% by 2010 and in the context of Europe 2020 it even set to reach 1.4% by 2020 - and stagnation is in fact further decrease.

Since 2000, Croatia has restructured its science (and education) system with the objectives of turning the country into a knowledge-based society and by doing so, prepare for EU membership when it will have to operate in a much more competitive environment."

Slow to implement reforms

"Although Croatia has reformed its scientific landscape, it has not done enough and moreover it is very slow in adopting reforms and to implement them. As a result, Croatia lags really behind many EU research and innovation targets and objectives.

With respect to the level of investment in research, for example, Croatia's R&D intensity of 0.75% in 2012 is well below the EU average of 2.06%.

In addition the share coming from private business expenditure is also very low: only 0.33% of the 0.75% comes from private sector. Again much lower than what most EU Member states have."

Smart specialization strategy needed to use EU's structural funds

"Whatever Horizon 2020 can offer as opportunities or the Pre-Accession Instrument or in the case of Croatia, the structural funds, a political commitment and administrative capacity of the beneficiary countries is required to absorb the funding and deploy it in an efficient way.

In the case of Croatia, the use of the structural funds for research and innovation capacity is moreover subject to the design of a 'smart specialization strategy' which identifies areas and sectors in which funding will bring about economic effects. Croatia has still not fully designed this strategy."

Competitive funding lacking

"Irespective of the level of national funding, it is also important that the research money is allocated in a competitive way. This is another important ERA [European Research Area] principle. Although Croatia has undertaken some reform on this (most funding is allocated through the National Science Foundation on a competitive basis), further efforts are required.

For this Croatia announced to amend the law on Education, Science and Technological development as well as designing a strategy on Science and Technological development which are still not in place.

Another area in which Croatia is lagging behind is the valorisation of research into new products and services. Too little public-sector research (by universities) is being commercialised. There is no cooperation between public and private sector and also research institutes and universities do not cooperate well together.

The means and support to promote transfer of technology and encourage SMEs [small and medium enterprises] to engage in research and innovation are totally insufficient. A strategy on innovation has been announced in 2013 but still not adopted."

Ageing scientific force plagued by brain drain

"Another problem in Croatia relates to the human capital: Croatia is still suffering from brain drain which affects the country's pool of resources. Due to lack of attractive conditions in Croatia, many good scientists do go abroad and risk not coming back to the country because the right framework conditions are missing or the prospect thereof.

Croatia also has an ageing problem in its scientific community, just like Serbia does. In addition, many research institutes who have experience in international cooperation often say that they would prefer to have fewer scientists but good ones. The lack of flexible labour law prevents this."

Visionary politicians needed

"It remains to be seen if Croatia will reach the 1,4% of GDP in R&D by 2020 and even that may not be enough if Croatia is to meet the EU targets and engage in the reforms necessary to become a well-functioning modern state.

Above all, political commitment is of paramount importance and possibly this is the biggest problem in Croatia: research is not high enough on the political agenda given all the other ongoing reforms going on and budgetary constraints.

After all this is what is at stake: investment in research is long term, and for this, visionary politicians are needed or an overarching political instance that is really convinced in this paradigm that investing in research and innovation is important for the future and will bring about economic results."

 

 


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