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Serbia is rethinking science — but the reforms could cost hundreds of jobs

A government plan to overhaul research funding has drawn mixed reactions in a country that last awarded grants almost 10 years ago.

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Serbian members of parliament attend the National Assembly in Belgrade

Serbian members of parliament attend the National Assembly in Belgrade.Credit: Andrej Isakovic/AFP/Getty

Serbia is making sweeping reforms to its ailing science system as part of its efforts to join the European Union — but some scientists say the changes could do more harm than good.

The government says that it is keen to revitalize and invest more in its cash-starved research system, which has an annual budget of about €100 million (US$115 million) and last put out a grant call nearly a decade ago.

But some scientists say that the reforms, although badly needed, will lead to hundreds of university researchers losing their jobs. They also fear that the government will not keep its promises and will instead cut salaries and extend political control over research.

“The laws sound very good on paper,” says Milan Ćirković, a researcher at the Astronomical Observatory of Belgrade. “But the true test will come in practice.”

The aim of the changes is to improve the quality and relevance of research, and to lay the groundwork for setting up elite institutions in Serbia, says Vladimir Popović, the country’s state secretary for science. “In some fields, we need only a small additional push to reach the top,” he says. For example, Serbian institutes excel in physics, food science, mining and metallurgical engineering, he says.

Popović is part of a coalition government elected in 2016 and led by the populist Serbian Progressive Party, which is pushing for Serbia to join the EU. He says that the changes are supported by the EU and that the government will boost funding for research, backed by sources including the World Bank and an EU funding mechanism for countries hoping to join the bloc (see ‘Serbia’s European Union aspirations’).

In 2019, the research budget will increase by up to 30% and monthly salaries will rise by 9%, up from the current average of €1,200, says Popović. “We will disburse as many funds as the community can absorb.”

Ten-year wait

As part of the reforms, Serbia’s parliament passed legislation on 7 December to set up a national science fund that will oversee the awarding of much-needed research grants. The science ministry has until now been in charge of grants, but made its last call for proposals in 2010. The government cancelled the next round, in 2016, because researchers protested about the small budget available — although why the call hasn’t been issued since isn’t clear (the ministry did not respond to Nature’s question on this point).

Researchers have continued to receive yearly payments for their old projects, which has kept the system ticking over — but the lack of fresh funding has led to stagnation, they say.

“A lot of things have changed in science. There are even new fields that did not exist in 2010,” says Milovan Šuvakov, a researcher at the nation’s Institute of Physics in Belgrade, who was an assistant minister of higher education from 2014 to 2016.

The government’s intention is to separate grant funds from salary money: until now, researchers’ wages have been paid out of their grants. That means the ministry had to effectively fund all grant applications to avoid mass unemployment in research centres and even a shutdown of some institutes, says Slobodan Bubnjević, science writer and head of communications at the Institute of Physics.

“The former institutional financing did not take into account competitiveness and did not reward the best researchers,” says Bubnjević. So, he adds, the changes could improve research quality, because they will remove the pressure to fund all proposals.

Scientists are now eagerly awaiting a grant call that should be made possible under the new fund and another related law proposed by the science ministry, expected in mid-to-late 2019.

But Ćirković and Šuvakov are concerned that the government will still have control over the fund and will be able to appoint loyalists to the board, which could erode independence and expertise.

Popović disagrees. “Decoupling policymaking from project financing accomplishes quite the opposite — less political control and more independence and expertise,” he says.

Job losses

Another of the proposed changes is raising fears about job losses, and about possible divisions in the scientific community, because only those researchers who work at institutes, rather than at universities, will automatically receive salaries.

Around one-third of Serbia’s 12,000 or so researchers work at institutes, rather than university faculties. But under the new laws, researchers who don’t will be expected to find a job at one. Alternatively, they will have to give up research and become teaching assistants at universities, unless they already hold a university teaching position which will pay their salaries.

Researchers say this will mainly affect young scientists who haven’t yet had the time or experience to get a university teaching post.

An online petition to change this proposal has been signed by more than 1,000 people so far.

Evolutionary biologist Biljana Stojković is among those who think that such changes will do more harm than good. “As far as I know, this will be a unique situation in the whole world — universities without science,” says Stojković, who works at the University of Belgrade.

Government austerity measures have led to a hiring freeze in the public sector, she says, which means that those researchers who will have to look for new jobs are unlikely to find them. “At least 1,500 young scientists will lose their positions,” says Stojković.

Popović says that researchers will not lose their jobs as a result of the reforms. “Serbia has roughly half the number of researchers per capita as compared to [countries in] the EU,” he says. “The country is making all possible efforts to keep all existing researchers and attract researchers from abroad, particularly from the diaspora.”

Trust and freedom

Popović adds that the laws have also been designed to allow a wider set of stakeholders to invest in science: the government’s long-term goal is for the private sector to provide two-thirds of overall research funding.

But Ivan Belča, a physicist at the University of Belgrade, says that given Serbia’s weak economy, it is unlikely that the private sector will be able to increase investment in the near future.

And few trust the government’s promises of putting in more public money — something that Popović says his ministry is “painfully aware of”.

“Losing trust was a 20-year-long process, during which time many governments changed,” says Popović. “It is our intention to regain the trust by establishing new institutions and legislation.”

Nature 565, 275-276 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07872-2
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