Support for Balkan Science

VIENNA--Scientists in the Balkans may soon get a helping hand from the European Union (E.U.). The European Commission (EC) plans to launch a "Balkan Reintegration" program in 2001 to fund collaborations between E.U. scientists and colleagues in Albania and three former Yugoslavian countries: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Macedonia. Although "the Balkan region is high on the political agenda," says the EC's Peter Härtwich, Western efforts to support research there have been "almost nonexistent" until now.

The EC intends to issue a call for proposals next March that would include scientists from at least two target countries and two E.U. member states. Likely themes are environmental degradation and public health issues linked to war and refugee migration. The EC plans to release a modest 4.3 million euros ($3.8 million) for the new program.

Speaking here at the first meeting on how the E.U. might support Balkan research, scientists from Croatia and Bosnia quickly found common ground on one theme: pollution in the Danube watershed. Yugoslavia may be able to join, too, if, as EC officials expect, the new democracy is cleared to participate in such E.U. programs in time for next spring's call.

But even in these struggling nations, $4 million doesn't go far. "Opening the new Framework program is not enough," argues meeting organizer Manfred Horvat, director of Austria's Bureau for International Research and Technology Cooperation. Erhard Busek, a former Austrian science minister, urged Balkan scientists to try prying loose some research dollars from the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative (SECI), which doles out money in the Balkans for projects such as beefing up border stations, power grids, and securities markets. Busek, who coordinates SECI, suggested that the scientists put together a slate of projects and present them at SECI's next meeting in March.

Scientists from the Balkans region may also be able to compete for funds from the E.U.'s next 5-year research program, Framework 6, which begins in 2003. EC officials have privately encouraged Horvat to compile a wish list of initiatives that could benefit the former Yugoslav countries and Albania in the next Framework. One possibility might be a program to help these countries, which have suffered massive brain drains, recoup scientific talent. "We should fight for return scholarships," says Raoul Kneucker, director-general of Austria's Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture.

Horvat planned to deliver the document to Brussels this month, so it could be considered for the Framework 6 proposal that is expected to go to the European Parliament in March.