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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 42 - August 2004   
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SLOVENIA
Title  Small country, high standards

'Our only raw material is our grey matter.' This popular saying in Slovenia sums up the importance awarded to science and technology by this densely forested land of 2 million people, nestling between the Alps and the Adriatic. Following our reports from Hungary and the Czech Republic,(1) RTD info takes the measure of research activity in a small country determined to take its place in the knowledge society – and for which international competition holds no fears. 

Ljubljana University's main building – 'Under Tito, Ljubljana University had as many links with the University of Graz, in Austria, or with Trieste, in Italy, as with institutions in Zagreb or Belgrade.' © Kodia Photo & Graphis/Marko Feist
Ljubljana University's main building – 'Under Tito, Ljubljana University had as many links with the University of Graz, in Austria, or with Trieste, in Italy, as with institutions in Zagreb or Belgrade.'
© Kodia Photo & Graphis/Marko Feist
For centuries, science for Slovenians meant exile. Scientists left to study or work in Vienna (capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire of which Slovenia was a part), Berlin, or other European centres. In the 15th century, a Slovenian, Bernard Preger, was Dean of Vienna University. 

This scientific diaspora ended in 1919 with the founding of Ljubljana University and the opportunity for many intellectuals who originated from the region to return home. At the time, Slovenia was just a province in the new Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, the new university had high ambitions, seeking to cover all fields of knowledge so that young people could receive a high-level education without having to go abroad. 

The multidisciplinary equation
This approach continued throughout the socialist era of the former Yugoslavia and is more important than ever in the now independent Slovenia. With just 80 000 students, however, it is not easy to maintain this high level of education (and thus research activity) in all disciplines, from geochemistry to anthropology.

The danger of spreading its strengths too thinly is very real in an environment where private institutions, including research institutes, also offer courses. In 1975, a second university opened in Maribor and today there is talk of founding a third, in Koper, which would adopt a more generalist approach. Matjaz Omladic, vice-rector of Ljubljana University, does not seem too keen on the idea: 'They tell us we need more competition, but it is a question of being able to compete with the Americans, not with colleagues in the building across the street.' 

The Tromostovje – or the Three Bridges – spanning the River Ljubljanica in the Slovenian capital. In a country where 'life is good', the brain drain is not a major problem. © Kodia Photo & Graphis/Matjaž Prešeren
The Tromostovje – or the Three Bridges – spanning the River Ljubljanica in the Slovenian capital. In a country where 'life is good', the brain drain is not a major problem.
© Kodia Photo & Graphis/Matjaž Prešeren
Slovenia also has 18 national research institutes. Although some have a staff of hundreds, the smallest of them operates with just a handful of specialists. The inescapable reality is that science is expensive. Even if researchers here earn a third of the average salary of that of their EU colleagues, the laboratory equipment needed to attain and maintain an international level is becoming more expensive all the time.  

Change without chaos
Despite the difficulties, Slovenian scientists do not feel so hard done by and in this country where 'life is good' the brain drain has never been a major problem. Independence and the transition to the market economy did not usher in the years of chaos and exile witnessed in the majority of the former communist countries.

Launched in 1985, an ambitious programme to encourage research ('2000 researchers for the year 2000') made it possible to train about 250 new researchers every year throughout these years of change. Today, Slovenia allocates 1.57% of its GDP to R&D, a figure close to the Union average. 

The private sector already funds 53% of the national research effort – another impressive figure – but to achieve the European target of 3% of GDP for research by 2010, companies will have to step up their research efforts still further.

Restructuring impacts on the private sector
The Slovenian economy is only now coming out of a difficult period of restructuring. Since the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, just ten years ago, the jewels of Slovenian industry have   all been taken over by foreign groups. The tyre producer Sava, for example, is now owned by Goodyear, Lek pharmaceuticals is part of the Swiss Novartis group, and for decades the country's leading industrialist has been the French motor manufacturer Renault. All these companies have their own research laboratories, usually located in the country of origin, and it seems very difficult to persuade them to also support 'local' scientists. To achieve integration of this kind takes a lot of time and effort on the part of the Slovenian laboratories. 

Meanwhile, the many SMEs are left fighting for survival with very limited research funds. 'In many sectors, our scientific set up is more developed than our industrial one, which inevitably poses problems of strategy,' explains Tamara Lah, director of the National Institute of Biology. 

Traditional assets
The Slovenian Centre for Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), in Ljubljana, is a department of the National Institute of Chemistry. It was awarded the status of ‘European centre of excellence’ for its work on the physical, chemical and biological properties of matter, especially the spatial structure of proteins. The laboratory has a spectrometer with a power of 600 MHz and will soon be acquiring an 800-MHz device, thus strengthening its position as a major regional centre whose reputation has spread to neighbouring Austria and Italy. Below, Janez Plavec, the centre's director, placing a sample in the spectrometer.
The Slovenian Centre for Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), in Ljubljana, is a department of the National Institute of Chemistry. It was awarded the status of ‘European centre of excellence’ for its work on the physical, chemical and biological properties of matter, especially the spatial structure of proteins. The laboratory has a spectrometer with a power of 600 MHz and will soon be acquiring an 800-MHz device, thus strengthening its position as a major regional centre whose reputation has spread to neighbouring Austria and Italy. Above, Janez Plavec, the centre's director, placing a sample in the spectrometer.
For all its difficulties, however, Slovenia has some solid research assets. First of all, it has a strong tradition of being open to the outside world, one that remained during an era of socialism which was much less hermetic than in the other Eastern bloc countries. 'Even during the 1960s, there were no real obstacles, apart from financial ones, to leaving the country,' remembers Matjaz Omladic. 'We could easily attend congresses if we were prepared to eat sandwiches while our foreign colleagues dined at restaurants.' 

Therefore, many researchers made trips to Western Europe or the United States where they established contacts which usually proved longer lasting than those with the former people's democracies. 'Under Tito, Ljubljana University had as many links with the University of Graz, in Austria, or with Trieste, in Italy, as with institutions in Zagreb or Belgrade,' points out Matjaz Omladic.

Some institutions are traditional bastions of this spirit of openness. 'We have always taken a radical stance with our policy of researcher training, requiring them to at least spend a post-doctorate period abroad,' explains Vito Turk, Director of the Joseph Stefan Institute, Slovenia's leading national research institute which employs 350 scientists. He himself studied in Arizona before teaching in Italy, Germany, Austria, Argentina and Japan. He is a member of several European scientific institutions (in particular the European Federation of Biochemical Companies, where he was general secretary for many years) and is a referee on several renowned international scientific journals. 

Record participation
The results of this outward-looking policy are reflected in the figures. Since gaining independence in 1991, Slovenia has concluded 600 bilateral research projects with countries as diverse as the United States, China, Israel and Turkey. Among the co-operation projects financed by the European Union, Slovenia participates in almost 800,(2) including 244 under the Fifth Framework Programme. 'Our participation is the highest of any of the new members and we are determined to do even better under the current Framework Programme,' stresses Albin Babic who is responsible for international coordination at the Ministry of Education, Science and Sports.  

There is certainly no need to sing the praises of a strong and integrated Europe on the banks of the Ljubljanica. Its size and tradition make Slovenia a committed European, determined to play a full role.  

(1) See RTD info n°41, May 2004.
(2) Until 2001.


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  Electricity in the service of medicine

'It is forbidden to rollerblade in the buildings.' The posters on the walls in the main hall of the very classical Fakulteta za Elektrotehniko at Ljubljana University immediately create the atmosphere of a university which is decidedly in ...
 
  Environment at the forefront

Slovenia has a surprising variety of ecosystems for its surface area. From the Mediterranean seabed off the coast of Koper to the snowbound summit of Mount Triglav (2 864 metres), the territory offers a succession of original and preserved natural environments, ...
 
  Research in figures

  • Number of researchers: 6 562 (2000 figure), or 4.5 researchers per 1 000 employees (EU average: 5.5)
  • Proportion of women researchers: 35.2% (2000)
  • Percentage of GDP allocated to research ...
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      Electricity in the service of medicine

    'It is forbidden to rollerblade in the buildings.' The posters on the walls in the main hall of the very classical Fakulteta za Elektrotehniko at Ljubljana University immediately create the atmosphere of a university which is decidedly in tune with the times. We are at the heart of one of Slovenia's most dynamic research institutions and an active international player. Its participation in 22 projects under the Fifth Framework Programme alone earned it more than 10% of the European research grants allocated to Slovenia. What is its particularity? A long tradition of developing scientific applications for medicine, due in particular to the high standard of the Slovenian health care system. For decades, patients have travelled from many areas of Central Europe to be treated in Ljubljana, especially at its Oncology Institute, founded in 1928, which has an excellent reputation.  

    Development of electronic circuits for electroporation applications (introduction of DNA into cells using pulses of electricity applied to their membrane). In the lower inset, a protein rendered fluorescent after electroporation.
    Development of electronic circuits for electroporation applications (introduction of DNA into cells using pulses of electricity applied to their membrane). In the lower inset, a protein rendered fluorescent after electroporation.


    Damijan Miklavcic, 40, Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Electrotechnical Engineering, heads the biocybernetics laboratory. His team is working on the fascinating phenomenon of electroporation, a physiological property of cell membranes. When these are subjected to pulses of electricity of a precisely determined intensity their permeability increases, enabling the absorption of molecules which are normally unable to cross the cell protection barrier. This bio-electrical technology, most notably developed under the European Esope project, is already being used on patients to increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy. Electroporation could also make it possible to introduce DNA sequences into carefully targeted cells. That is the objective of Cliniporator, another research project supported by the Union in which the faculty is playing a major role. This research work seems to hold the promise of very interesting applications in gene therapy. 



    Bullet To find out more

      Environment at the forefront

    Slovenia has a surprising variety of ecosystems for its surface area. From the Mediterranean seabed off the coast of Koper to the snowbound summit of Mount Triglav (2 864 metres), the territory offers a succession of original and preserved natural environments, including mixed forests, alluvial plains, dry prairies and mountain lakes. Preserving this rich environment is a national concern and many of Slovenia's inhabitants enjoy leisure activities made possible by this natural heritage. Such awareness also has implications for research. A number of institutions (university laboratories, forest or agronomical centres, etc.) devote significant resources to   issues of ecological protection and sustainable development. 

    Located in green surroundings just outside Ljubljana, the National Institute of Biology (NIB)(1) plays a major role in this field. At its marine research section in Piran, a number of interdisciplinary research projects are being carried out into ecosystems and fishery resources, in co-operation with international institutions. The researchers are particularly interested in the planktonic dynamic, especially the disastrous proliferation of algae which regularly pollutes the Adriatic and its link with human activities (farming, household waste, aquaculture, etc.)

    The Black Lake (50 km long), surrounded by the forests of the Pohorje Massif.   © Kodia Photo & Graphis/ Jože Hanc
    The Black Lake (50 km long), surrounded by the forests of the Pohorje Massif.
    © Kodia Photo & Graphis/ Jože Hanc


    The NIB also has a department devoted to research on freshwater terrestrial ecosystems which contributes to several European environmental monitoring projects – such as the Emerge project on high-altitude lakes. Another section is specialised in ecotoxicology and is carrying out fascinating research on toxins generated by the cyanobacteria present in fresh water. These microsystins are proteins which the NIB has shown to be toxic not just to the liver but also to the brain, encouraging the appearance of tumours following prolonged exposure, through drinking water for example.  

    The Institute of Biology is also interested in plant physiology, especially growth factors, GMOs and the infection of plants by viruses. One laboratory is concentrating on the neurobiology of invertebrates, while the physiology of insects, especially their communication systems, is being studied by a number of partnerships, including one with the French National Institute of Agronomical Research, Gottingen University, Riverside University in California, and Queensland University in Australia. 

    (1) The NIB is the third largest national institute, after the Josef Stefan Institute and the Institute of Chemistry.



    Bullet To find out more

      Research in figures

    • Number of researchers: 6 562 (2000 figure), or 4.5 researchers per 1 000 employees (EU average: 5.5)
    • Proportion of women researchers: 35.2% (2000)
    • Percentage of GDP allocated to research (1999): 1.57% (EU average: 1.86%)
    • Annual average increase in R&D expenditure (1995-99): 6.5% (EU average: 3.3%)
    • Scientific publications per million inhabitants: 516 (EU average: 613)
    Although it is below the European average on certain criteria, Slovenia is often ahead of much larger countries which have been EU members for a long time.

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