In recent
years the Western Balkan countries have made some important efforts to overcome
the negative consequences of the economic and political transition and its
impact on the region’s research and innovation sectors: They adopted a variety
of strategies, laws and programs to improve the performance of the sector on
the national level and they improved the regional cooperation in R&D for
example by committing themselves to “Western Balkans Regional
R&D Strategy for Innovation
” and Smart Growth pillar of the “South East European 2020
Strategy” (SEE 2020).

All
countries are also associated to Horizon 2020; the preliminary results show
some first success stories however overall participation rate is quite low.

WBC also
agreed on the establishment of “Western Balkans Research and Innovation Centre”
(WISE) by the end of 2015 aiming at strengthening the regional research,
innovation and technology systems by providing support, advice, information and
recommendations to the states, public and private institutions,
non-governmental organizations and all other relevant stakeholders.

However,
social and political problems are still more pressing in WBC than the low level
of R&D investment (Serbia and Montenegro spend on around 1% of GDP on
R&D, while other countries in the region spend up to 0,3% of GDP) or
support for technology transfer activities.

The
importance of the education, research and innovation for the overall success of
the EU-integration efforts of the Western Balkans was again confirmed during
the 1st Joint Science
Conference
held on July 15-17, 2015 in Halle and Berlin and during the second Summit Meeting on the
Western Balkans
held in Vienna on August 27, 2015 – both events in the
framework of the Western Balkans Process, also known as the ‘Berlin process’.

Furthermore,
the participants of the Vienna Summit clearly recognized that improving the
perspective of young generations is of “paramount importance in ensuring
stability, sustainable development and progress of the region”. Having in mind
the weak economic structure, low level of industrial production, low
performance results of the educational systems, high unemployment levels, as
well as in some cases the lack of motivation, commitment and trust – to name
just few challenges in the region which all had negative impact on human
capital development in the WB countries while leading to severe brain drain
from the region – it can only be welcomed that political commitment and strong
emphasis is put on initiatives related to youth, such as the establishment of
the “Regional Youth Cooperation Office of the Western Balkans” or proposal of
the European Commission to organize an Enlargement Conference in the first half
of 2016 focusing on youth issues.

Another
challenge related to young people from the region is the fact that they are
often formally well-educated but not necessarily equipped with the right skills
needed at the local labor market. Furthermore, the education system in this
region does not encourage creativity and
entrepreneurial culture
among pupils and students at satisfactory
level . Specific direct and indirect measures would help to foster
entrepreneurial culture in WBC, improve the perspective of young generations
and subsequently contribute to long-term knowledge-based economic growth, as
suggested by SEE2020 (South East European 2020 Strategy).

Balkan Opinion Barometer”,
a set of approximately 80 indicators showing the results of the public opinion
survey on crucial economic and development issues in SEE and commissioned by
Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) clearly shows that vast majority of
interviewees in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, FYR of Macedonia,
Kosovo*, Montenegro and Serbia still prefer to work in the public sector (79%),
only 16% prefer the employment in the private sector. Interestingly, 40%
consider attending additional education / courses to help to find a job as not
necessary and for almost 50% their education is not an obstacle in the labour
market. Only 6% of interviewees are indeed self-employed (out of 45% of total
employed). Asked about two main obstacles to those in the household who do not
work to get a job, 63% indicated the lack of jobs while the second obstacle
identified was “do not know the right people”. When asked about best ways to
contribute to reconciliation in the region, 32% choose increased trade and
commerce between the countries, 25% the shared understanding of history while
only 6% see regional student exchange programmes as valuable to contribute to
reconciliation. It must however been mentioned that only 7% of the interviewees
(N=7000) are currently students or pupils, 56% have finished secondary
education, and only 30% have high school or university education thus the vast
majority is potentially not interested in R&D issues, student mobility and
related topics.

Different research studies and
papers
(e.g. see also country papers andbackground papers related
to WBRIS) identified in the recent years quite detailed the major RTDI
obstacles and challenges in the region. The policy focus in the years to come
should be on implementation of different suggested and already started national
and regional initiatives.

It goes
without saying that initiatives towards youth mentioned in the conclusions of
the Vienna Summit 2015, thus supported by high level experts and policy
stakeholders from the region and EU (from strengthening reform efforts of the
education systems in order to provide youth with relevant basic and transversal
skills, to encouraging mobility of the youth within the region by promoting and
enhancing existing programs such as CEEPUS (Central European Exchange Program
for University Studies) to supporting the development of a vocational training
system in the region and other initiatives mentioned in the text above) are to
be seen in this context. Such initiatives are important, even essential
measures to support the integration of the region into European Research Area
(ERA) and in turn the European Union. Similar conclusions related to importance
of the youth and youth policies were drawn by the participants of the 1st Joint
Science Conference in Halle and Berlin.

When it
comes to the low level of R&D investment in the region (Serbia and
Montenegro spend on research and development around 1% of GDP, while other
countries in the region spend up to 0,3% of GDP) , the recommendation to
allocate 3% of national GDP (reaching the Lisbon agenda target) is desirable,
however currently not very realistic as concluded lately by the participants of
the Steering Platform
on Research for the Western Balkan countries in Budapest in June 2015
. As
mentioned before, social and political problems are still more pressing in WBC
than the low level of R&D investment. On the other hand, it is well known
that the availability of data and reliable statistics in the region is another
challenge to be met; some researchers even argue that the R&D spending in
the region is already higher than the official estimations.

WBRIS (Western Balkan Regional
R&D Strategy for Innovation)
therefore explicitly suggests
generating and systematically updating R&D statistics in line with standard
practices established by the Oslo manual and consistent with EURSTAT data,
including data related to the scientific diaspora, the Community Innovation
Surveys, and other EU indicators as well as to implement a monitoring and
evaluation system enabling the assessment of public expenditures in research
and innovation. The focus is again on implementation of suggested proposals at
local level.

Furthermore,
evaluations are one of the most essential tools for evidence-based decision
making and especially true for regions characterized by an adoption and
adaptation of new RTDI policies, programs and (support) institutions as well as
transformation of funding towards competitive schemes . At the same time,
however, a lack of methodological and procedural know-how on the part of both
evaluators and awarding authorities concerning purpose, design and use of evaluations
is evident in WB countries. Based on the research conducted withinEVAL-INNO project (Fostering
Evaluation Competencies in Research, Technology and Innovation in the SEE
Region), the key challenges
for improved RTDI evaluations in the SEE region
– which applies also
for WBC – include: a) the lack of qualified evaluators for programme,
institutional and policy evaluations in the field of RTDI, as well as
methodological deficits and weaknesses; b) the lack of knowledge on
professional tendering procedures (incl. public procurement laws) to obtain the
best evaluation results; c) difficulties in accessing RTDI evaluation
information and good practices, and a general lack of the usage of
good-practices for RTDI programs, institutions and policy evaluations in the
region . Besides trainings organized, EVAL-INNO project also adopted and
published in several languages a model of RTDI Evaluation Standards.
These were also promoted and disseminated to all relevant stakeholders from
policy and academia in WB countries.

Concluding,
recent developments related to research and innovation policy – particularly on
regional level are positive signals and possible great opportunities for
researchers but also young scientists. Very often the scope, effectiveness and
impact of good national and even regional R&D initiatives are limited
because of a lack of solid political backing, and/or because the relevant
political or academic players are not directly involved and/or implementation
is hindered by change of government and related change of political priorities.
It is also a good sign that some new initiatives (such as Regional Youth
Cooperation Office of the Western Balkans) and some on-going initiatives (such
as Steering Platform on Research
for Western Balkan countries
) have political backing of the current heads
of government, foreign ministers and economics ministers of Albania, Bosnia and
Herzegovina, Kosovo*, FYR of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, as well as Croatia,
Slovenia, Germany, France, Italy, Austria,, representatives of the European
Commission and the European External Action Service and International Financial
Institutions.

Initial
steps were taken, the next few months and years will show if and how the
proposed measures and initiatives will be concretely supported and implemented
on the regional, national and local level.

Note: Article is available attached in pdf including fussnotes and sources.

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