Pockets of Excellence in Eastern Europe

Courtesy of Imperial College UnionAndras Dinnyes runs the first nuclear-cell-transfer technology lab in Eastern Europe, at the Agricultural Biotechnology Center near Budapest. Amply accoutered with high-tech equipment, the lab is designed to eventually provide knockout mice for scientists across the continent. It has also attracted funding from outside sources, including the Wellcome Trust and the European Union's Sixth Framework Programme.Like a smattering of research labs with connections to W

May 10, 2004
Philip Hunter

Courtesy of Imperial College Union

Andras Dinnyes runs the first nuclear-cell-transfer technology lab in Eastern Europe, at the Agricultural Biotechnology Center near Budapest. Amply accoutered with high-tech equipment, the lab is designed to eventually provide knockout mice for scientists across the continent. It has also attracted funding from outside sources, including the Wellcome Trust and the European Union's Sixth Framework Programme.

Like a smattering of research labs with connections to Western Europe and the United States, Dinnyes' center also plays another role: as a beacon of science and technology for frustrated researchers. This month Dinnyes' country, Hungary, and nine others including most former Warsaw Pact countries, formally joined the European Union. The development of scientific research in the region mirrors that of Hungary, with pockets of excellence such as Dinnyes' lab amid a larger research community still frustrated by a lack of funding and an abundance of bureaucracy.


Courtesy of Dave Giondan, ©MSU Alumni Association

"A few interesting institutes in central Europe ... are overcoming serious obstacles," says a US science official concerned with Eastern European reform. The successful institutes share common threads: dynamic leadership by a few, private funding from industry or foundations, aggressive pursuit of funding from national and European funding agencies, competitive recruitment of young researchers, and investment in infrastructure (generally from international sources). "Entrepreneurship and aggressive fundraising are the key elements," the official adds.


The International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IIMCB) in Warsaw is another example of isolated excellence highlighting a larger mediocrity, according to Cezary Wojcik, a Polish scientist who is now assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas. Funded by the Max Planck Institute, UNESCO, and the Polish government, the IIMCB has operated outside the strictures of the Polish bureaucracy.

The institute has addressed an issue widely considered to be an impediment to scientific careers in Poland, the requirement for an additional qualification called Habilitation after the PhD. This involves several years of postdoctoral work involving some publications and perhaps a book, after which the postdoc hopes to be awarded the Habilitation by a central certifying committee. Only after achieving the Habilitation can scientists be eligible to become professors. "Habilitation is blocking the careers of young scientists," Wojcik says. "Any Polish scientist working abroad, publishing in international journals and with great achievements, but without the Habilitation, can't be employed in Poland."

The IIMCB waives the need for Habilitation, and scientists such as Wojcik hope that other institutions may follow suit. At the same time, they point out that the retiring of the Habilitation must be accompanied with proper funding for facilities and salaries that at least come close to levels spent in the United States and Western Europe. The European Union would like all countries to spend 3% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on science and technology research and development. In 2001, the last year of available statistics, Poland spent only 0.67%, the United Kingdom 1.9%, and the United States 2.6%. "I would earn €250 ($300 US) a month [in Poland]," Wojcik says, "perhaps €350 if I became a full professor."


Within Hungary, progress has recently been undermined by at least a temporary decline in economic performance. Germany is the major trading partner for many of the countries in central and Eastern Europe, and its recent economic stagnation has contributed directly to a decline of GDP in the region. Hungary has been particularly badly hit, after a decade of steadily improving conditions for scientific research.

Despite assurances to the contrary, the Hungarian National Academy of Sciences, which relays public research funding to universities, was told in February 2004 that its budget for the forthcoming year would be cut by a staggering 30%. "They also announced that the percentage of GDP spent on R&D would be cut to 0.8%," says Jozsef Hamori, the academy's vice president. "It had got back to 1%. This can only cause young scientists to go elsewhere within the European Union."

Such disparity between government promise and reality is common within the former Eastern Bloc countries, according to Leos Raitr, business area leader for central Europe in IBM's healthcare and life sciences division. "That's unfortunately the trend at the moment. At the end of the day, when putting budgets together, they give priority to health care and social security, and usually research suffers," says Raitr.


Courtesy of Dave Giondan, ©MSU Alumni Association

In Hungary, Hamori says, institutions will try to reduce their building maintenance budgets to hold harmless the cuts to research. "There is the feeling that this will be the year of survival," he adds. But Hamori criticizes his government's inconsistent approach not just to science funding but also its overall economic management. "There is no economic strategy. They are just living from one day to another."

Hungary's economic setback came after the country increased salaries to levels approaching those in the rest of Europe, according to Istvan Mezei, head of the country's ministry of foreign affairs. "Salaries used to be about one-tenth the EU average here," says Mezei. "Now it's more like a third."

The cuts also follow a sustained improvement in economic performance during the 1990s, with year-on-year growth in GDP of 3% from 1995 to 2000, according to Ilona Vass, head of Hungary's National Office of Research and Technology.


European science policy experts generally agree that with state funding constrained for the foreseeable future, the only way to boost salary levels and ensure that the best practices currently confined to hot spots become more widespread is through external financial contributions. The main candidates are the EU Framework Programme and commercial sponsorship, but to exploit these opportunities, project proposals have to take into account the increasingly collaborative nature of research, according to Jiri Vanecek of the Technology Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Vanecek argues that Eastern European science has definitely progressed in this respect, especially in the Czech Republic. He cites the work of Antonin Holy and colleagues from the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry at the Czech Academy of Sciences; they discovered a new class of antiviral drugs for treatment of AIDS. In its second year, the Institute won the 2001 Descartes Prize. Established in 2000, this prize is awarded for outstanding collaborative research in Europe.


Courtesy of Dave Giondan, ©MSU Alumni Association

The hope is that forthcoming membership in the European Union will make it easier to obtain funding from Brussels within the EU's Framework research programs. But these initiatives represent two-edged swords, and countries have been awaiting May 1 with anxiety as well as hope. "I'm optimistic in the long term (about the implications of EU membership)," says Jozsef Mandl, chairman of Hungary's Medical Research Council.

But in the short term, Mandl expresses concerns shared by many senior scientists in the former Eastern Bloc: "I have problems with the EU project system. It's ... unique. Proposals have to be very long, and the system is not transparent. You don't know how the jury's selected."

The solution, according to Wojcik, is to disband the current EU Framework system and create a single European Research Council (ERC) run along the lines of the National Institutes of Health. But there are fears that such a body would be no great improvement on the current EU Framework system. Indeed, a report from the UK's Royal Society cautions about a lack of clear thinking regarding the funding of a future ERC and how it would allocate money.1

Those former Eastern Bloc countries joining the European Union on May 1 have participated in the recent Framework program as full members, although they have been required to link up with larger, more senior partners from existing member states. This has given scientists experience in formulating grant applications and working within the system, but also has been counterproductive, according to Mezei. "The work of Hungarian scientists in EU projects has tended to be utilized abroad [by senior project partners]," he explains. "It's a sort of paid knowledge drain."


Another problem, relating not just to EU projects but to research in general, is a lack of modern laboratory equipment and the underlying infrastructure, for example in information technology (IT), which is needed to compete on an equal basis with teams in Western Europe. But on this front, the European Union may provide an opening, according to IBM's Raitr, by funding projects involving purely Eastern European groups to tackle infrastructure and other problems that have already been solved in Western Europe.


Courtesy of Dave Giondan, ©MSU Alumni Association

Already some infrastructure is being assembled, with Hungary leading the way in bioinformatics and IT development, Raitr says. A key move was establishment of the National Information Infrastructure Development Programme in 2003 by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the Ministry of Culture and Education, the National Committee for Technological Development, and the Hungarian Scientific Research Fund, with an initial annual budget of €8.7 million.

At the same time, a national computing grid infrastructure called ClusterGRID was made available to the Hungarian research community. The infrastructure comprises 580 nodes distributed among 12 institutes. "There are similar projects now in Poland, Czech Republic, and Russia," Raitr says.

Some of these infrastructure developments are funded by offset programs, whereby Eastern European countries purchase military equipment such as fighter jets from the United States and Western Europe, and then these countries send the profits back into the Eastern European economies. A Polish order for Lockheed jets brought an estimated $6 billion into the economy in 2003.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), however, only 10% of offset revenue is spent on genuine technology transfers designed to modernize the economies, with 70% purely for purchase of goods and services, so the value of such deals is not what it seems (the EIU lists the other 20% as investments). Even so, given their size, offset programs are playing a major role in updating Eastern Europe's overall infrastructure for research and development, according to Raitr. This has helped bring forward such projects at a time when public research budgets are often being cut.

Two-Speed Eastern Europe

Of the 10 new members, eight are from Eastern Europe. Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia are former members of the Warsaw Pact. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, the three Baltic states, were part of the Soviet Union and have reclaimed their former nationality.

Slovenia was a state of Yugoslavia, having emerged in much better economic condition than the others; Slovenia spends a greater proportion of its gross domestic product on scientific research than any other Eastern European country.

Romania and Bulgaria are still waiting to join the European Union. Other countries yet to join include the Balkan states of Bosnia and Serbia, and also the Ukraine, which would be the largest Eastern European EU member. In these countries, research is minimal or in disarray, and there is a growing exodus of scientists even to the newest EU members in Eastern Europe. For example, ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine and Romania are taking advantage of growing opportunities in Hungary.

Eastern European countries are also attracting investment in research and development from foreign multinationals through a combination of fiscal incentives and existence of core research skills. GE Medical Imaging recently set up a research and development center near Budapest, creating 300 new jobs. But, there is a tendency for good news to merely highlight the bad in the regime.

The fact that 70% of private research and development investment comes from foreign companies in Hungary, and similar proportions elsewhere, accentuates the dearth of domestic innovation. The Hungarian government has taken a bold and; in some places; unpopular step to address this by imposing an innovation tax on firms that do no research and development themselves. The government matches this with at least an equal amount, and distributes these funds to those firms that do research and development. For larger companies with more than 50 employees and still doing no research and development, this tax amounts to 0.5% of profits.


These countries also have a poor record for transferring technology from universities and creating spinoff companies. They have no venture capital industry to speak off, and in Hungary, academic staff have to resign from their posts before they can create spinoffs. "That's very risky, especially for a professor," Vass says. Similar factors have restricted mobility between institutions, and this, in turn, has stifled both basic research and innovation. Only about 1.5% of Hungary's and Poland's academic staff moves each year.

Within the academic structures, however, some dynamic hot spots have greater mobility. These hot spots are often focused around areas of traditional strength, such as neuroscience in Hungary and genomics in the Czech Republic. According to Vanecek, regulation of genome expression is one of the main areas of Czech biotechnology research and is focused around the recently founded Centre for Integrated Genomics. The Czech Republic also has one of Eastern Europe's few extensive animal research programs, with several centers such as the Institute of Animal Physiology and Genetics in Libichov.

So while significant problems remain to be solved, there is scope for building on recent progress in creating islands of excellence and fostering greater cooperation both between and within countries.

Philip Hunter ph@philiphunter.com is a freelance writer in London.