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Eastern Europe: Beyond the bloc

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From the 1950s, science has been a priority in the Soviet-controlled Eastern bloc. Space science and nuclear physics, in particular, received generous support, and achievements such as the Soviet space missions served as proof of the alleged superiority of the communist system. Then in the late 1980s, collapse of communist regimes and their replacement by democracy and market economies led to a dramatic drop in science expenditure across the region.

Reliable data for the early 1990s — the period of worst hardship — are unavailable because national statistical services were not yet up and running or had no reported science figures. Between 2003 and 2004 the European Commission included the ten countries in central and eastern Europe that have since joined the European Union (see map) in its regular reports on science and technology indicators. Figures from the 2008–09 report show that research intensity — the percentage of gross domestic product spent on research and development (R&D) — is below the European average of around 1.8% in all ten countries (see graphs).

Click to enlarge. Credit: INTERNATIONAL MONETARY FUND 2007

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But there are strong differences within the region. Although the Czech government has in recent years invested substantially in science, the research bases of countries such as Bulgaria and Romania are still underdeveloped. Notable improvements, mainly driven by the business sector, have been made in Estonia and Hungary — although the recent economic crisis has hit Hungary harder than it has hit others, threatening the upward trend. Poland, the largest country in the region, has in recent years fallen further behind in reaching EU and national goals for R&D intensity, as have Slovakia and Bulgaria.

There is a general lack of highly qualified scientists and technical workers, whose share of the overall workforce ranges between 9.8% in Romania and 16.8% in Estonia.

The region also still fails to attract much foreign scientific talent. Only 1% or so of participants in the EU's Marie Curie Actions programme — which promotes and facilitates the mobility of young scientists in Europe — choose a university, research institute or industry lab in the new member states as their host institution, possibly due to the resources and reputations of other member states.

Credit: SOURCE: EUROPEAN COMMISSION DIRECTORATE-GENERAL FOR RESEARCH
Credit: INTERNATIONAL MONETARY FUND 2007
Credit: EUROPEAN COMMISSION DIRECTORATE-GENERAL FOR RESEARCH
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Schiermeier, Q. Eastern Europe: Beyond the bloc. Nature 461, 590–591 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/461590a

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