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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 42 - August 2004   
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 TABLE OF CONTENTS
 EDITORIAL
 What on earth …?
 The war on mycotoxins
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 COMMUNICATING SCIENCE
 IN BRIEF
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SLOVAKIA
Title  Combative researchers

‘National research funding is pitiful and we don’t expect much from that quarter.’ This total lack of illusions is often apparent when speaking with Slovakian scientists, although that is not to say they have given up the struggle. For those who refuse exile, inclusion in international teams can be the salvation. Several research centres of the highest quality have succeeded in this objective, thereby putting a brake on the exodus of the country’s best young minds.

Slovakian Prime Minister Mikulá Dzurinda announcing the results of the referendum on Union membership, on 17 May 2003.
Slovakian Prime Minister Mikulá Dzurinda announcing the results of the referendum on Union membership, on 17 May 2003.
‘This car gives you an idea of the research resources available in Slovakia,’ jokes Martin Kedro, director of the Centre for the Promotion of Science and Technology (SARC), as he climbs into his ‘company car’, an ancient Skoda. ‘But I mustn’t complain, I am one of the lucky ones with a decent salary,’ he adds. 

In this country of 5 million inhabitants, where the industrial fabric is still struggling to recover from the upheavals of 1989, the socio-economic problems are acute and research seems to be far from the number one priority. Public funding of research, managed by the Science and Technology Department at the Education Ministry, was just 0.27% of GDP in 2001. 

As to private sector investment in research, the figures are the subject of controversy. Officially it is about 0.38%, which would give Slovakia a respectable ranking compared with the other new Member States. But scientists dispute this figure and believe that private sector research funding is no more than a third of what is claimed. 

Small injections of funds
Nevertheless, 2001 marked a turning point which is seen as positive by researchers. That was the year the Slovakian government decided to set up the Science and Technology Support Agency or APVT. This body issues annual calls for proposals, hires experts (one of whom must be foreign) to assess the responses, then grants funding to the most promising. The budget is limited, however, and the lucky ones are few in number. ‘We do not have the means to satisfy many people and we believe it is better to give sufficient to the best rather than to spread these limited resources too thinly,’ explains the agency’s director, Stanislav Hlavac.

Building on this initial initiative, in 2002 the public authorities agreed ten three-year R&D programmes, setting a number of priorities such as the information society, quality of life, energy production, etc. However, the injection of funds in these fields is essentially limited to permitting an improvement to the structures and conditions of scientific research. As a rule, the funding agreed by the national budget is scarcely enough to cover salaries and building maintenance. ‘We have to look outside the country for the money needed to really start to engage in research activity,’ explains Fedor Gömöry, of the Elektonicky Ústav (ELÚ – Institute of Electrical Engineering) in Bratislava (see box).

This opening up to the outside world is clearly a significant positive change compared to the past. But it is inevitably the source of frustration also. ‘Before 1989, we had the means to acquire foreign equipment but were not allowed to. Now we have the access but not the money to buy it,’ Vladimir Strbak, president of the Bratislava Institute of Experimental Endocrinology, remarks ironically. Nevertheless, with the help of international funds, this European centre of excellence is preparing to install one of the world’s few positron cameras (PET scan) developed for the study of small animal models. 

Breaking out of the mould
The Savba, or Institute of Experimental Endocrinology. Thanks to international funding, this centre of excellence is to acquire a rare and valuable object: a positron camera for the study of small animal models.
The Savba, or Institute of Experimental Endocrinology. Thanks to international funding, this centre of excellence is to acquire a rare and valuable object: a positron camera for the study of small animal models.
Structurally, Slovakian research continues to be marked by the constraints of its communist past within the former Czechoslovakia. After the collapse of the former regime, there followed the split into two separate states in 1993. In the research field, however, the federal dimension was already very much a working reality and the separation did not cause any real problems in institutional terms. 

The Slovak region had had its own Academy of Sciences since 1953, its 60 institutes covering every discipline and with a monopoly on fundamental research. As elsewhere, the shock of the transition was considerable for this structure. ‘Some researchers had not published for ten years. The money arrived without anybody asking for results. The staff was reduced from 6 500 to 3 500,’ remembers the academy’s current vice-president, Dedor Campion. This new slim-line academy now employs just 15% of the country’s researchers. What it has lost in size it has gained in quality, however, and it currently provides 40% of Slovakia’s participation in the EU’s Fifth Framework Programme. For the university, previously confined to a teaching role only, the challenge was and remains that of making the successful transition to a Western model and developing its own research capacities. In addition to the lack of funds, another major obstacle is the way it is spread over 26 sites. With the exception of the famous institutions – Comenius University and the Bratislava University of Technology, and the Technical Universities of Kosice and Svolen – very few are large enough to be genuine centres of excellence.

As to technological and applied research, this was previously confined to specialised institutes overseen by the various ministries. Most of these simply disappeared in 1989 and the few survivors were privatised. Investors are hardly stampeding to their doors and these new companies have to be self-financing. Unsurprisingly, research is becoming less important than providing various services, a reality which is viewed with concern by scientists.

Research within companies is rare. Many of the former large and obsolete corporations went under, while ‘the SMEs are fighting for survival and do not invest in high technology, which posed a problem for us when it came to participating in the Fifth Framework Programme’, stresses Fedor Campion. Although foreign firms have since set up large production units in Slovakia (such as Peugeot, the Korean group Kia and US Steel), attracted by a cheap and highly skilled workforce, their laboratories and engineering remain in the home country.    

Stopping the brain drain
Given such a context, Slovakia has not been spared a ‘brain drain’ which takes a number of forms. Many postdocs who study abroad choose not to return, or if they do they forsake research. ‘Insufficient funding, inadequate equipment, and monthly salaries of between €200 and €300… it is easy to understand how people give up and look for better-paid careers,’ remarks Valentin Both, a biologist at the Academy of Sciences.

Nevertheless, some young researchers struggle on and a number of centres of a very high standard are now emerging. These sites of excellence benefit from the aura of the leading researchers they attract, and manage to acquire the necessary equipment and to operate with the help of international financing and co-operation.

European programmes – and external co-operation in general – are therefore a source of salvation for Slovakian researchers. ‘Since 1998, full participation in the Union’s Fifth Framework Programme has become an increasingly strategic source of financing,’ stresses Gömöry. But what is seen as the complex mechanics of joining teams to respond to calls for proposals is not without its pitfalls. The SARC, based at the Education Ministry and headed by Martin Kedro, plays a key role in this respect. With its few resources, this centre seeks to serve as an information and logistics platform to assist research teams present their applications.   


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  High-tech menagerie

There is a surprising collection of thousands of rabbits and an impressive range of cages laid out precisely in accordance with very distinctive races. No, this is not a stock-rearing farm, but an animal house at the Institute for Research on Animal ...
 
  ‘Did you say brain drain?’

‘I am going to show you the very opposite, come and see…’ The energetic Fedor Gömöry, assistant director at The Institute of Electrical Engineering (ELU) in Bratislava and head of the Department of Superconductor Physics, ...
 
  VUJE Trnava, a key nuclear player  

In the 1970s, the Slovakian nuclear research centre of Trnava was at the forefront of   developments in this important energy sector in the former Czechoslovakia. After 1989, and followed by the split into two states, it continued its activities ...
 

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      High-tech menagerie

    There is a surprising collection of thousands of rabbits and an impressive range of cages laid out precisely in accordance with very distinctive races. No, this is not a stock-rearing farm, but an animal house at the Institute for Research on Animal Production (VUZV) in Nitra, one of Slovakia’s leading agricultural towns. ‘Its role is to supply, under good conditions, the veterinary and pharmaceutical laboratories with the animal models necessary for their work,” explains Jan Rafay, head of the small animals department.

    Founded in 1947, the VUZV – in its day a key body in zootechnics within the former Comecon – is one of the few institutes of applied research to remain under the state supervision of the Agriculture Ministry after 1989. In addition to rabbits, the centre also rears other production animals, from cattle to bees, and including fish and red deer, the latter found in abundance on the slopes of the Tatras Mountains where it is hunted as game.

    Following radical restructuring and the departure of more than half its workforce (now standing at 260), the VUZV effected a vital conversion when it added high-tech biological research to its traditional zootechnics pursuits. The change proved a success and it has been recognised as a European centre of excellence since 2002. The institute is currently participating in about a dozen international projects, including three under the Fifth Framework Programme. With congresses, scientific publications and the Agrofilm festival – organised with the support of the FAO – this biological zoo, which trains 15 PhDs a year, is a place of intense and fascinating activity. 

    Peter Chrenek, a young researcher who spent a number of years in France at the INRA’s Laboratory of Development Biology (Jouy-en-Josas), certainly finds it stimulating. In the admittedly rather rustic surroundings, he has set up the latest equipment in molecular genetics. ‘I am pleased I came back here. I am currently working on transgenic rabbits with the human factor VIII gene, a protein involved in coagulation which could be used in the treatment of haemophilia.’ 



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      ‘Did you say brain drain?’

    ‘I am going to show you the very opposite, come and see…’ The energetic Fedor Gömöry, assistant director at The Institute of Electrical Engineering (ELU) in Bratislava and head of the Department of Superconductor Physics, opens one of the doors at his centre to reveal young researchers at work – Slovakian and foreign. His laboratory, with a solid reputation in its high-tech specialisation, is largely staffed by fundamental researchers, but considerable energy is also devoted to applications, in particular in connection with a new material: magnesium boride.(1)

    ‘I admit that the early 1990s saw a real haemorrhaging of talent. But beginning in 1996, the European Copernicus programme gradually made it possible to strengthen certain avenues of research and to begin to retain our researchers.’ In addition to providing the funds which are so cruelly lacking at national level, Gömöry believes that this vital quest for outside support has proved a powerful stimulus in the drive for excellence. ‘I appreciate the unbiased competition inherent in the European selection method. Slovakia is very small. All those working on the same subject know each other… and are competing for scarce funds. The filtering effect of an independent evaluation is good for human relations between researchers. Looking back, I believe Europe has supported good proposals. As a result, the current teams are grouped around genuine leaders of science and the institute is dynamic. Three new departments have been set up during the past ten years, and three others have closed.’ 

    (1) This research is being carried out within two European projects, in particular.

      VUJE Trnava, a key nuclear player  

    In the 1970s, the Slovakian nuclear research centre of Trnava was at the forefront of   developments in this important energy sector in the former Czechoslovakia. After 1989, and followed by the split into two states, it continued its activities as a privatised company acquired by the workforce, operating under the name of VUJE Trnava Inc.

    With research funding melting away, the new company concluded maintenance and conversion engineering contracts with the country’s existing power stations. ‘With services of this kind now representing 80% of our activities, there are clearly difficulties in retaining our researchers working in high-tech fields. But we manage to remain active in this niche through some national funding but most importantly through participation in external programmes, especially European,’ explains Jan Bahna, coordinator of international projects at VUJE Trnava.

    With modern premises and up-to-date equipment, the VUJE Trnava company is a high-tech strategic gem in present-day Slovakia.
    With modern premises and up-to-date equipment, the VUJE Trnava company is a high-tech strategic gem in present-day Slovakia.
    With modern premises and up-to-date equipment, the company is a gem of high technology. Nuclear power in Slovakia – with six reactors in service, the oldest of which require complex (and controversial) changes to comply with the regulations – is a highly strategic energy sector. The same is true in the neighbouring Czech Republic and other former Eastern bloc countries. The company is active as an expert or design office in all fields related to the industry – security, materials, procedures, equipment, modernisation, shutdown, networks, etc. – and is currently diversifying into other energies (conventional, hydroelectricity and biomass).  

    VUJE Trnava houses an impressive simulator. This precise copy of a nuclear power plant’s control room can produce every possible situation thanks to a computer system using the latest Western software. The installation is an invaluable training platform, used by around 5 000 trainees of all levels every year, including an increasing number from abroad. 



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