EXCELLENCE IN CENTRAL EUROPE An impressive restructuring
On 1 May 2004, the European Union welcomed 10 new Member States. For the 150 000 scientists in these countries, this historic occasion did not mark the day everything changed. After several years of 'preparatory co-operation' under the PECO-Copernicus and then the INCO programmes, research became the first EU policy area to open up fully to the candidate countries. As a result, they have been actively participating as full members in European research programmes since 1998. This early integration into the European Research Area (ERA) nevertheless involved a long and difficult period of reorganisation and 'catching up' on the part of scientific structures in these states.
The process was particularly painful for the former communist countries whose artificially developed and protected research structures were shaken to the core by the political and economic upheavals of the 1990s.
When the Communist regimes in Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia collapsed in the autumn of 1989, they left behind shrunken and bureaucratic research systems, but which had, nevertheless, a pool of highly talented and qualified researchers. These cumbersome and costly structures rested on two pillars: the academies of sciences, where most fundamental research was concentrated, and a plethora of state-run institutes of applied research working in the service of industry. University laboratories were often the poor relations.
Science’s labours lost
These structures felt the full brunt of the economic difficulties that accompanied transition. In 1996, the share of gross domestic product (GDP) allocated to research was just 0.67% in Hungary and 1.02% in the Czech Republic, representing a fall of 40% and 50% respectively in the five years since 1991. The consequences in terms of staff cuts were painful. 'For a scientific output which remained constant, the Czech Academy of Sciences reduced its personnel from 14 000 to 6 500,' recalls its Vice-President, physicist Vladimir Nekvasil. 'The job losses were even more dramatic at the institutes of applied research. Some of these were privatised, but many simply disappeared. A lot of their researchers had been employed on tasks which were rendered totally obsolete with the opening up of the borders, such as the copying of high-tech equipment which the Communist regime was unable to import due to a lack of foreign currency.'
'I would never have believed it could be so painful,' admits the physicist Norbert Kroo, Secretary-General of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, as he looks back on the traumas suffered by his country's research system over the past 15 years. 'Some days I really did ask myself whether our laboratory would still be operating the next day.'
Universities and companies take off Slowly, the process of restructuring began to produce results. The enforced trimming of the state system was partially offset by a progressive revitalising of university research. 'One of our aims was to concentrate on our strengths,' stresses the Czech Foundation of Science’s President Joseph Syka, a biologist by training and the key figure in the1990s restructuring . 'Our policy was to promote centres of excellence by developing a system of contractual financing for the best teams.'
The most spectacular change came with the increased strength of private sector research. High-tech multinationals were soon attracted to these regions by the quality of the researchers. The French pharmaceutical group Sanofi-Synthelabo and the Finnish mobile telephone giant Nokia both set up research centres in Hungary, while the German car manufacturer Volkswagen invested in research in the Czech Republic.
By the latter half of the 1990s, research investments were rising again. 'The threshold of 1% of GDP was again crossed in Hungary in 2002,' observes - Hungarian Secretary of State for Research Andràs Siegler. 'Today, companies account for 44% of national research expenditure, compared with 31% at the beginning of the 1990s.' By 2001, the Czech Republic – which now ranks second after Slovenia among the new Member States – was already investing 1.35% of GDP in research, three-fifths of it by the private sector.
R&D in the Czech Republic: Funding sources (Billions of CZK – 100 CZK = €0.33)
Brain drain or brain gain? Hungarian and Czech leaders are fully committed to the objective laid down in the Lisbon strategy of creating a world-class knowledge-based economy in Europe founded on sound research and development. At this point in time, however, the objective of investing 3% of GDP in research by 2010 does not seem feasible – which does not alter the fact that investment in research, in particular by companies, is set to grow substantially.
Somewhat paradoxically, in the wake of the drastic cutting back of research staff, the problem faced today is a serious shortage of trained staff. In relative terms, the two countries now have half as many people employed in R&D as the European average.
Is this due to the exodus of researchers during the difficult 1990s? In part, but it is difficult to gauge the precise extent of this movement since there are no precise statistics on the outflow and inflow of researchers into these two countries.
Hungarian and Czech research officials do not believe that this brain drain is still a significant threat. 'If there is a brain drain, it is more in the direction of management posts in such sectors as insurance or finance which like to recruit people with scientific training. These also offer better-paid careers than in research,' explains Vladimir Nekvasil. 'Our problem is therefore not so much an external brain drain as an internal one.'
'The prospect of accession to the Union and the ability to participate fully in European programmes was a decisive stimulus,' recalls Vladimir Nekvasil, Vice-President of the Czech Academy of Sciences. During the difficult hours of restructuring, Hungarian ...
A rough ride for the social sciences
If there is one field in which the transition was a particularly rough ride, it is the social sciences. First of all, the working conditions of researchers were rendered extremely precarious. Seen as less vital than other scientific sectors, public budgets ...
The European catalyst
'The prospect of accession to the Union and the ability to participate fully in European programmes was a decisive stimulus,' recalls Vladimir Nekvasil, Vice-President of the Czech Academy of Sciences. During the difficult hours of restructuring, Hungarian and Czech researchers appreciated the aid provided by the European Union. The Union initiated a policy of scientific co-operation with the candidate countries back in 1992, under the PECO-Copernicus programme. This was strengthened under the Fourth Framework Programme, or FP4, (1994-1998) and, above all, under FP5 and FP6 which saw 12 states sign association agreements allowing the integration of their researchers on an equal footing with the EU-15’s. Czech and Hungarian researchers participated in 387 and 358 FP5 projects respectively. 'This concrete policy of opening up on the part of the Union was a powerful lever for our integration into the European Research Area,' says an appreciative Norbert Kroo, Secretary-General of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
Another very positive EU initiative was the awarding of the Centre of Excellence label to some 34 institutes selected in the candidate countries, including six in Hungary and three in the Czech Republic. 'This recognition enabled us to welcome more foreign students, especially from the Union countries, and to hold a number of international conferences,' explains Czech biologist Eva Sykova, head of the Institute of Experimental Medicine at the Academy of Sciences in Prague.
A rough ride for the social sciences
If there is one field in which the transition was a particularly rough ride, it is the social sciences. First of all, the working conditions of researchers were rendered extremely precarious. Seen as less vital than other scientific sectors, public budgets for these disciplines were cut dramatically. ' [In Hungary], the brain drain in the social sciences has clearly been considerable,' explains Rudolphe Andorka, a sociologist at the University of Economic Sciences in Budapest. 'Many researchers and academics went into politics and abandoned, at least temporarily, their scientific activity. A great many others chose to go into business, where salaries are four times higher than at research institutes or in higher education. A third group went abroad.'
At the same time, sociology finds itself lacking the resources to track the rapid and radical transformation of the social and political fabric – which requires the gathering of new data and the development of new analytical approaches – of these transition countries. 'We are living in a social laboratory which is particularly rich in subjects for research,' notes Andorka. This has led some sociologists to feel a sense of frustration exacerbated by the interest shown in these phenomena by many Western researchers working in Central and Eastern Europe on international co-operation projects. In a rather provocative article published in the renowned Hungarian journal Replika , sociologists György Csepeli and Antal Örkény, backed up by their US colleague Kim L Scheppele of Pennsylvania University, launched a controversial attack on the 'colonisation' of social research by the West. They condemn the way poorly paid local researchers play 'second fiddle' to foreign researchers, their knowledge of the field being 'exploited' as the results are repatriated to be published to acclaim by Western parent institutions.