Scientists say they're missing out on Slovakia's economic boom

Photo: European Commission

Slovakia has made dramatic economic progress in recent years. In fact a report from the OECD describes it as "stellar". GDP growth rates have hit 9 percent at times and unemployment has fallen dramatically. But as Ivan Basnak reports from Bratislava not all sectors of Slovak society are seeing the benefits - among them the scientists.

Photo: European Commission
Science and research is a stark example of a sphere of society that has so far failed to benefit from any of the success stories that Slovakia has experienced over the last decade or so. Stanislav Sipko is the chairman of the Slovak Organisation for Research and Development activities. He explains just how bad the situation is.

“In official statistics, including those done by Eurostat, Slovakia finds itself very close to last place, beaten to it only by Romania and Bulgaria. Usually, these statistics look at the ratio between investment in science and GDP, but we also looked at the pay that scientists and researchers receive within Europe, and again Slovakia did very badly. The argument that this is because salaries in all sectors are much lower in Slovakia is not appropriate, because also in terms of the purchasing power parity, Slovak scientists and researchers earn less than 50% of the average income of scientists in the rest of Europe.”

Dr Michal Novak, who is the Director of the Neuroimunological institute at the Slovak Academy of Sciences, says that the current situation is the result of decades of chronic underinvestment, and sees its impacts to be devastating.

"It is no secret that for 40 years there has basically been no funding for the purchase of new equipment. The world has moved forward and it is impossible to compete without new equipment. This means Slovak researchers have to use equipment in institutions abroad. Cooperation with institutes abroad can obviously be a positive thing, but only when it is as equal partners, and not when we have to beg to use measuring equipment."

While the lack of up-to-date equipment is already enough to prevent good research from being carried out, the damage done by underinvestment goes much further. Viera Rosova, who is the Vice President of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, sees the so-called brain drain to be a major consequence of the chronic lack of funding for science and research.

“A major problem linked to funding, are the people. We have a real problem with young researchers, even PhD students who manage to complete their studies here, leaving for abroad, because we simply cannot offer them the salaries which would appropriately reward their work.”

The good news is, as of this year, things seem to be looking up. Dr Rosova explains that the Slovak scientific community is preparing itself for a massive dose of structural funding.

“There are of course several possible sources of funding. One of them is the state budget, but from this year, new forms of structural funding will inject 1.3 billion EUR until 2013. This is to be used mainly for the development of research infrastructure – to bring it on par with research facilities in other West European countries. The scientific community really does how big hopes for structural funding.”

However, some people are keen to point out that structural funding will not fill all the cracks in Slovak science left by long-term underinvestment. Mr Sipko is convinced that while crucial, structural funding in Slovak science is likely to play a role for which it was not intended.

“Science and research funding in Slovakia us full of paradoxes. This can also be witnessed with the new structural funding, which is expected to radically improve the situation of Slovak science. Here, the paradox is that according to relevant EU legislation, structural funding is meant to be additional or “top up” funding, while in Slovakia it looks like it will become the main source of funding. But this type of funding cannot be used for everything. For example it cannot be used to increase salaries.”

Mr Sipko does not see this as a formal or a bureaucratic problem. He insists that if these shortcomings are not addressed, the consequences will reach far beyond problems with salaries.

“If the absence of other sources of funding continues, many of the key problems will not be addressed. This means we could end up with a situation similar to what happened in Greece or Portugal, where they had newly equiped up to date laboratories, but they remained empty.”

One other weapon in the fight against underinvestment could be Public Private Partnerships. However, Mr Sipko, is convinced that at least for the near future, PPP funding is simply not realistic, as Slovak science is in too bad a state to make such schemes work. While PPP would bring an interesting dimension to Slovak science and research, it cannot be denied that structural funding itself will bring enormous changes. Despite his misgivings, Mr Sipko also reflects this optimism.

“I think if Slovakia uses structural funding effectively, and complements it with other mechanisms, then it will be able to attract big private investors in ventures such as research parks.”