What would it really mean for the EU to support scientific institutions in the Western Balkans?

By Dr. William Burns PhD MSc


  • The scientific enterprise in the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia – has always been relatively large in scope and ambition. Over the last few decades, a fall in R&D expenditure and deindustrialization marked by the break-up or closure of research-intensive firms, have been major forces shaping science in the region. Unequal distribution of scientific activity appears to have been maintained, with the north of the peninsula, always more industrialized and wealthier than the south, holding its lead.
  • The EU is one of the donors likely to become a permanent feature in the region and one of the few donors with a consistent interest in science and research. The European Commission’s agenda on science has focused in the past mainly on universities, innovation systems theories such as the knowledge economy, and participation in Horizon 2020 (and Horizon Europe).
  • I spoke to a small number of scientists across the region to discover what their institutions need to fulfil their ambitions. If there was a common theme, interviewees wanted scientists abroad to work with them as equals. Several highly-investible scientific initiatives as well as ideas for reform were also revealed through my interviews.
  • An EU communications strategy featuring unambiguous positive messages about the strength of science in the Western Balkans would raise morale in the region’s scientific community as well as its profile abroad.
  • After 20 years of intergovernmental forums, plans, roadmaps, networking schemes, etc., reflection by international donors on the performance of their own recommendations (rather than the performance of countries) would help in terms of designing future interventions.


The Western Balkans is a term for countries wanting to join the EU that are close to the Adriatic Sea, i.e., Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia. Given aspirations to become member states, the EU is one of the donors likely to become a permanent feature in the region. It is also one of the few donors with a consistent interest in science and research – focused mainly on universities, innovation systems theories such as the knowledge economy or smart specialization, and participation in Horizon 2020 (and Horizon Europe).

Over the last few months, as part of research for the report that follows, I spoke to a small number of scientists across the region to discover what their institutions need to fulfil their ambitions.

‘Not to look down on us, treat us as equal,’ wrote Prof. Sanja Vraneš, in an email exchange with me, responding to my question about what the international scientific community could do to support the scientific institute she directs, the Mihailo Pupin Institute, in Belgrade (Serbia).

Her comment captures the desire to change the relationship between scientists in the Western Balkans, and their colleagues in the rest of the world. It sets the scene for what follows.

Gross domestic expenditure on R&D (GERD) and net EU contribution via the Horizon 2020 research program

CountryGERD 2018 (€m)Net EU contribution (€m)
North Macedonia3912.95
Bosnia and Herzegovina338.57
Albaniano data (1)5.27
Kosovono data (1)2.5
Total481162 (2)
Sources: Eurostat; Horizon 2020 country profiles; 2020 country reports.

Science under pressure

Over the last decades, there has been an enormous amount of economic, social and political change in the Western Balkans. EU accession negotiations are just the latest factor in the mix.

What happened to science and research during this period? Was there a shift in the scientific topics under study? What was intellectual life like for scientists?

If there was one dominant view among international donors, it was that ‘scientific performance’ in the Western Balkans was ‘substantially below that of the average EU country in both quantity…and quality’. Countries were therefore ‘unable to generate or adapt knowledge, to unleash innovation, or to help shift the region’s growth model’ (quoting a well-known report issued in 2013 by the World Bank).

In the eight years since that report, I think those sentiments generally persist for some parts of the region, but have perhaps modified for others. In 2020, the European Commission informed Albania that it is at an ‘early stage in the area of science and research’ but with ‘some progress’, while Bosnia and Herzegovina got ‘some level of preparation in the area of science and research’ but ‘no progress…in the reporting period’, citing the 2020 country reports. The equivalent reports for Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia appeared to be more positive with phrases such as ‘good level of preparation’ and, in the case of Montenegro, ‘good progress’.

Progress (or lack thereof) is one view of science in the region. In my opinion, this view, despite its dominance, does not adequately explain what happened. Over the last few decades, science obviously faced forces greater than it – funding cuts, deindustrialization, economic crises, UN sanctions, warfare, etc. Rather than progress towards a single goal, goals have changed through time, have been argued about, or have been unclear. I think we are still a long way from understanding the forces at work.

Big picture: changes to science in the Western Balkans over the last 40 years

AspectConjecture on direction of change (3)
Number of universities and enrolmentsrise
Number of scientists and engineersstatic or slight rise (probable rise in skills) (4)
Collaboration between academicsstatic (rebound after Yugoslav wars)
Regional imbalance in scientific capacitystatic (5)
Number of domestic patentsstatic or fall (6)
Fundingfall (4)
Number and scale of research institutesfall
Number and scale of R&D-intensive firmsfall (deindustrialization)
Links between research and productionweakened (due to deindustrialization)
Sources: Calori, 2018; Gomulka and Ostojic, 1986, in: Growth, Innovation and Reform in Eastern Europe (ed. Gomulka); Eurostat; Hanson and Pavitt, 1988, The Comparative Economics of Research, Development and Innovation in East and West; Hodges, 2017; Ivanović, et al., 2016; Karanovic and Karanovic, 2015; Kukić and Nikolić, 2021; Mara, 2012; Meske, 1998; Skënde, 2012; UNESCO, 2015; World Bank, 2013; WIPO Statistical Country Profiles.

Referring to the former Yugoslavia, the late 1980s saw attempts to transform the country’s ‘quite sizeable’ R&D sector from one mainly interested in ‘transferring and assimilating foreign-made technology’, to one that generated ‘home-produced inventions’ (Gomulka and Ostojic, 1986, in: Growth, Innovation and Reform in Eastern Europe).

Obviously, war was the dislocating factor in the next decade in parts of the peninsula. But the industry closures that followed probably had longer-term impacts on the knowledge economy. They weakened links between research and production and destroyed a major political lobby for taxpayer investment in R&D (manufacturing firms/local jobs).

Energoinvest (diversified electricals) and Zastava Automobiles (automotive) are two noted examples of firms that were scaled back or closed down during that period (headquartered, respectively, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia).

Energoinvest once operated 11 research institutes, citing a study of the firm by Dr. Anna Calori (2018). ‘Production, research and engineering were tightly connected,’ Dr. Calori noted. While parts of the company survive to this day, most of it was broken up by international experts – against the advice of its own managers. Science was far from the experts’ minds. But negative impacts did not spontaneously arise. They were the consequence of decisions taken at the time.

“I think what seems logical from the perspective of a wealthy, organized country in Western Europe, did not necessarily happen,” said Prof. Dragan Ivanović, University of Novi Sad (Serbia), who has used scientometrics (publication data) to study the development of science and technology in the former Yugoslavia during this period.

Deindustrialization also happened in other European economies. Industrial research was also thrown away. But overall R&D expenditure rose over the same period across Western Europe, as compared to a probable fall in the Western Balkans. This accentuated the divide between the region and its partners in the West.

“The scientific workforce today is probably more multilingual, more highly-qualified, and more connected to Western Europe than previously. Scientists in the universities publish more in English-language scientific journals. But is science of a higher standard than before? I don’t even know how we would answer that question,” Prof. Ivanović said.

Connecting research with strategic sectors

The Mihailo Pupin Institute, founded 1946, was central to the development of the Yugoslav computer industry in the twentieth century. The institute remains an important European center for information technology research.

Besides surviving the pandemic, the main strategic challenges it faces, according to its director, Prof. Sanja Vraneš, are staff retention (due to higher private sector salaries), and the lack of ‘absorptive capacity’ within Serbia for the innovations it develops.

Many states, and not just in the Balkans, do not now have large or even many medium-sized firms that are capable of absorbing the results of research. Nor do they have the policy tools to create these firms. Indeed, no one can really say exactly what policy tools would be needed for such a feat.

This is not an easy environment for research institutes – often a vital link between research and application – to navigate. Scientists have to use all their networks to find new clients. A few have succeeded against the odds.

“The most significant achievement of our institute is definitely a continuous growth of all the important performance indicators,” Prof. Vraneš wrote in her email to me, citing growth in annual turnover, number of research and commercial contracts, publications, international partners, and employees.

“The percentage of income gained via technology transfer to industry and the public sector, and commercialization of research results, was now over 90%,” she said (the balance of income is from the Serbian government and the EU).

“What we need to continue growing is a stable political situation and an end to the pandemic, as well as fair public procurement processes,” she added.

In terms of specifics, she would most like to see support for her institute’s efforts “to export our innovative technologies, products and services via establishing a development bank, or allocating some of the Serbian Export Credit and Insurance Agency (AOFI) funds to the research sector.” Access to the full range of EU monies, not just Horizon Europe, would also be welcome, she added.

She would like to see greater push-back on “international creditors or benefactors who insist on discriminatory tenders, thereby steering the bidding conditions back to the creditor’s country of origin.”

About 700 km away in Tirana, plans are being developed for the Academy of Sciences of Albania. Four ‘units for research’ are being created, with a fifth planned, Prof. Dr. Ariola Bacu, Head, Molecular Biotechnology, University of Tirana, and Unit for Biosciences, Biotechnology & Genetics, Academy of Sciences of Albania, informed me by email.

The units cover research believed to be of strategic importance for Albania, namely, nanotechnology (NanoAlb); biosciences, biotechnology and genetics; geology and seismology; and artificial intelligence. “Soon there will be a new unit on renewable energy,” Prof. Dr. Bacu added.

“The goal is to use these units as a node to channel our efforts to participate in international research projects. Scientists abroad will be able to quickly understand what we are interested in, and who within Albania is working on it. We aim to establish agreements with analogous European institutions.”

Prof. Dr. Bacu would ultimately like to see the creation of a “National Centre for Research, which would transform the role of the Academy of Sciences of Albania from a coordinating organization into a high-tech research provider.”

Unlike many academies of sciences, it does not currently employ researchers or operate research institutes.

She also envisages the reorganization of existing research institutions of national importance such as the Academy of Albanological Studies, to become “elite research centers”. This Academy undertakes humanities research in fields such as archeology, linguistics and history relevant to Albania.

A decade ago, Petrit Skënde, a prominent Albanian physicist (now deceased), wrote that Western donors did not welcome Albanian scientists. ‘Institutes…are not invited or informed to participate in the tenders…They are not included in the short lists’ (citing his comments in Science Policy and Research Management in the Balkan Countries, 2012).

‘It is rather strange to think and to accept that many institutes, working for 20-30 years, collecting data about Albanian resources or the environment, are not chosen to prepare feasibility studies in related fields…a half million dollar study of a strategy for the environmental situation in Albania was prepared by a team of foreign experts,’ Skënde wrote.

The overall situation may have improved. Prof. Dr. Bacu highlights Albania’s association with Horizon 2020. As the table at the top of the report shows, the country won €5.27m through the scheme (the University of Medicine Tirana was the top recipient, gaining about 20% of that funding). She also cites participation of Albanian universities in the Erasmus Mundus program, which offers training for university staff and students, as well as lecturing for senior staff.

She believes one of the most important actions would be “to prepare a strategy for science diplomacy that will present the Albanian scientific community abroad.” The details of this strategy have yet to be worked out, but there is no doubt that this approach ought to gain support.

Across the region, institutions are giving priority to building their brand outside their own borders. But they face difficulties.

“Our ambition is to be a leader in education and scientific research, particularly in fields such as geology, mining, materials and metallurgy,” Prof. dr. Behxhet Shala, Vice-Rector for International Cooperation and Research, Isa Boletini University (Kosovo) wrote in an email to me.

“Our university moved to a new campus three years ago. In the last 4-5 years, about €3m has been invested in laboratory equipment, some of which is in operation.”

She cited the HERAS+ project, funded by the Austrian government, as being particularly influential, but wrote overall that there are “insufficient financial resources for scientific research, low economic development, brain drain abroad, and limited international cooperation.”

“There is, as yet, no strategic approach to the development, prioritisation and promotion of research activities in Kosovo.”

“Kosovan citizens, including students and academic staff, have great trouble gaining visas to travel to EU countries and the UK,” Prof. dr. Shala wrote.

Beyond the economy

As everywhere else on the planet, there is substantial demand in the Western Balkans for research in specific areas such as civil and human rights, environmental protection, health, decarbonization, and so on. In other words, factors that contribute to the high quality of life that we seek.

But research organizations that know how to make the links are not always supported as much as they could be. This is not unique to the Western Balkans. Political systems elsewhere in Europe and other places also struggle to see the value of research as a contributor to wider societal goals.

The Research Institute on Social Development, known as RESIS, based in Skopje (North Macedonia), was founded four years ago. It is a non-governmental social science research organization whose main mission is to improve the quality of social research in the country, according to its director, Dr. Snezana Trpevska, who I corresponded with in March.

Examples of recent successful projects undertaken by RESIS include research on the freedom and safety of journalists, efforts to improve communications and transparency in the Parliament of the Republic of North Macedonia and the State Audit Office, as well as three complex research studies for the Agency for Audio and Audio-visual Media Services (media regulator). Funding has come from various sources on a project-by-project basis, as well as through an institutional grant from the Swiss government (Civica Mobilitas).

“We believe that research can be a powerful driver for social change and development, if well designed and conducted and, in particular, when involving social actors themselves, for example, by working with public institutions and local NGOs,” Dr. Trpevska told me.

She added that RESIS is entering “new areas of research related to the use of new technologies and the social processes that take place under their influence, such as how information and disinformation are spread in the online sphere and how it affects the perceptions, attitudes and social behavior of citizens.”

The research undertaken by RESIS is obviously highly-skilled work. The organization therefore struggles to recruit and retain individuals with the skill sets needed, Dr. Trpevska wrote.

“But the wider problem is that donors in the NGO sector still do not sufficiently recognize the importance of scientifically-based research in driving social change and social development.”

“There are many funding programs for NGOs that really need research, but the eligibility criteria emphasize that research activity is not funded, so you have to somehow ‘disguise’ the research.” But the situation needs to change, Dr. Trpevska believes. “It would be good to recognize the importance of applied research and, in particular, to raise the standards of research in this sector.”


The scientific enterprise in the Western Balkans has always been relatively large in scope and ambition and often of very high quality. Over the last few decades, alongside budget cuts, we have seen expansion of universities, restructuring of scientific research institutions, and break-up or closure of R&D-intensive firms. These changes are not unique to the region, but would have had their distinct features in the Western Balkans.

One of the greatest gains would be for institutions in Western Europe to treat the Western Balkans as a scientific equal.

An EU communications strategy featuring unambiguous positive messages about the strength of science in the Western Balkans would raise morale in the region’s scientific community as well as its profile abroad. The European Commission is optimistic about the future of science in the region.

After 20 years of intergovernmental forums, plans, roadmaps, networking schemes, etc., reflection by international donors on the performance of their own recommendations (rather than the performance of countries) would help in terms of designing future interventions. At a very basic level, it is currently difficult to know what was recommended, why, and by whom; what was implemented; and with what impacts.

To conclude – it is sometimes said that the Balkans is on the periphery. But this thinking is not borne out by the map, i.e., the Balkan coast is 300 km from Italy (as an example) and, with modern communications, the distance becomes irrelevant.

But it is also untrue in other ways. The Balkans share science policy problems with other parts of Europe. Among these are the difficulties of gaining funding for scientific research that relates to quality of life, rather than economic growth. A second problem lies with sustaining political enthusiasm for R&D in deindustrialized societies.

As everywhere, scientific activities will have to evolve if they are to remain relevant. But no one has all the answers to the problems we face.

Sincere thanks to those interviewed for giving their time so freely and generously. I would also like to thank the officials and experts who gave their advice. However, opinions expressed in this report remain my own and should not be construed as representing the views of others, except where clearly attributed.

(1) GERD not reported. The ‘national resources for research and innovation’ in 2019 in Albania were 227m lek (€1.8m), while the 2019 government budget allocation for research and science in Kosovo was €1.6m, citing, respectively, the Albania 2020 Report and the Kosovo 2020 Report.
(2) About 0.2% of the total Horizon 2020 budget of €77bn.
(3) Compares start (ca. 1980) and end of period (now) based only on the limited data I have to hand. Probable fluctuations in the intervening years were not assessed. Should not be considered definitive.
(4) Impression only. Refers only to former Yugoslavia. First data points refer to the entire Yugoslavia, the second only to a subset of successor states. But I believe the trends identified are a reasonable ‘best guess’. In 1979, the country had 224,000 ‘research scientists and engineers’, citing Hanson and Pavitt. In 2018, Serbia and Montenegro had a combined 229,000 ‘research and development personnel’, citing Eurostat (data not presented for other countries of the Western Balkans). The equivalent numbers for GERD are US$ 600m (US$ 2.7bn with an inflation adjustment) and US$ 580m (1.3% and 0.5% as % of GDP) citing, respectively, the same source for the start of the period (as well as Gomulka and Ostojic, 1986); and Eurostat for 2018. Hanson and Pavitt warn that their figures should be viewed with ‘great caution’. In Western Europe, the number of scientists and engineers fell from 3.9m (‘Western Europe’) to 2.7m (‘EU-27’); GERD rose from US$ 174bn to US$ 356bn (or 2.04% to 2.19% as % of GDP); citing the same sources with the same inflation adjustment.
(5) Long-running regional capacity imbalances appear, perhaps, not to have changed (in terms of the amount of scientific output and intensity of international collaboration). These imbalances reflect the fact that the northern Balkans were generally wealthier and more industrialized than the south. Serbia is still the dominant venue for scientific research. It gained the most from Horizon 2020.
(6) Domestic patents refers to the patents filed by residents of the country. Gomulka and Ostojic (1986) note that 92 domestic patents p.a. were granted in Yugoslavia for the period 1981-1983. In comparison, in 2019, there were 86 patent grants to residents in countries of the former Yugoslavia – data combined for Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia from the WIPO Statistical Country Profiles (data not reported for other states of the former Yugoslavia). This is obviously a fall but given the incompleteness of the data I labeled the trend as static or fall. Patenting was always uncommon in the region, even in Yugoslav times, so the measure may not tell us much about the performance of the innovation system.