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.
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.
|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
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.'
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.
|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
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.
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.'
|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.|
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.
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.