I believe that science must experience major change; that the ideas and solutions emerging from science should be materialised as concrete products or services, and should serve to improve the technological development of the country and bring benefits for every individual
Serbian Science, Technological Development and Innovation Minister Jelena Begović took on her ministerial position at a time when science, innovation, the fusing of innovation and business, but also innovation and economic development, are being discussed in Serbia more than ever before. Likewise, a much more robust system for financing science has been established over the last few years, prising open the door to the commercialisation of scientific discoveries.
From your position as minister, how much do you feel that you are able to open the door to this change?
When it comes to science, a major shift has occurred in the way society perceives the role of science, and science itself, over the past few decades. The economic potential of science is finally being noticed, but also its potential to be a resource for solving global challenges.
We all want better healthcare, in order for us to be able to extend people’s longevity and make life better, even in old age. Medicine has turned towards personalised medicine, which takes into consideration an individual’s genetics and specifics in order to be able to provide them with the best possible health service.
Furthermore, the topic of agriculture and food production is gaining a new dimension and importance at this time when major climate change is being discussed. Challenges related to the production of sufficient amounts of good quality food are also seeking answers in science.
Problems in the energy field and in the impact of energy production and transformation on the environment are also being solved through a sustainable approach: it is essential for us to have green energy and a healthier environment, as well as more efficient energy transformation and production. Science is expected to provide an answer for each of these examples.
New technologies that are emerging, such as artificial intelligence, represent a major change to people’s lives.
It is for these reasons that I’m glad that science has begun to seek its own answers when it comes to solving those problems and thus improving quality of life for all people, but I also believe it must undergo its own change, because new ideas and solutions emerge from science, but they must also be made material in some way, which is why it is vital to have a methodology and a developed system that can help to develop an idea into a tangible product or service, and thereby influence the technological development of countries, of humanity, and thus bring improvements in life.
The role of our ministry is to provide support to science, to prioritise scientific excellence, but also to support the development of innovations in scientific and research organisations, i.e., in university colleges and institutes, and through the establishing of start-ups
This is a complex process and, as you can see, our Government decided to form a Ministry responsible not only for science, but also for technological development and innovation, and representing an important segment within its scope is taking care of the startup ecosystem, i.e. companies that have the potential to develop much faster than classic companies thanks to their innovative and bold ideas, but that also require a specific type of support due to the high likelihood that they will fail during their first few years of doing business. The state has a very important role to play here, in terms of providing them with support to endure for as long as possible, to access the global market and sell their idea to the whole of humankind.
Both these companies and the state will thus earn, but we are also really changing people’s lives. This is precisely the role of our ministry: to provide support to science, to prioritise scientific excellence, but also to support the development of innovations in scientific and research organisations, i.e., in university colleges and institutes, to support them in developing their own innovations in the technology transfer process, to establish start-up companies, and that’s why the state invests a lot of resources in the construction of science and technology parks, which should be places for concentrating start-up ecosystems and from which they can grow and develop to move beyond science and technology parks and become major companies.
I think that the state, or rather our Ministry, can and should play a key role in this. I personally come from an institute and I dealt with these issues both at the institute and in the broader scientific community, and I think we can do a lot in that area.
If we observe the projects that are being dealt with by the Ministry of Science, Technological Development and Innovation, what does this change mean for you; how is it reflected the most?
Change is multidimensional. I mentioned science and technology parks as places where the start-up ecosystem can develop, and that start-up ecosystem is really becoming a very important factor in the development of the economies of many countries, particularly developed ones. I consider Serbia as having great potential and the ability to make significant progress in this field, and that the start-up ecosystem can become a very important factor of exports from our country over the next decade, but also that it can contribute significantly to developing the economy of the Republic of Serbia.
On the other hand, we should strengthen the position of science and scientific excellence. One of the major projects that I really believe can change the concept of the very existence of science in Serbia is the BIO4 campus. We will open the BioSense Institute in April, as one of the European centres of excellence for nanotechnologies, biosensors and digital agriculture, and this is a big step for science and applied science in Serbia. The BioSense project is really proof that we can do this.
We also have a lot of potential in other areas: the BIO4 campus is one of the state’s priorities, and its task is to bring together all key players in the scientific ecosystem around the areas of biotechnology, bioinformatics, and artificial intelligence, regardless of whether they will be physically located at BIO4 or will be members of the BIO4 campus. We would like to create a network in Serbia and bring together experts around these topics.
We also have great potential in agriculture, physics and chemistry, and new teaching centres should continue springing up in Serbia. I would like to continue with this trend that we’ve started, but I think there’s no turning back once you’ve started. We have extremely high-quality scientists and need to provide them with the best possible ecosystem so that they can give their all.
It is said that science is as important as oxygen. However, looking at the budget that was previously allocated to the Ministry of Science, it couldn’t be said that the state shared this view. Do you now have sufficient funds to get what you want and achieve the goals you’ve set?
The budget for science has increased significantly over the course of the past few years and now amounts to 30 billion dinars. I don’t think it’s just a matter of money, but to an extent also a matter of the activities in which scientists engage.
The state established the Science Fund of the Republic of Serbia as the main mechanism for financing science in Serbia. We also have the Fund for Innovation, which focuses on the part of the private sector that cooperates with science, so this is also among the mechanisms for financing science, while the state has of course also supported and provided opportunities – via funding from the EU’s Horizon Europe framework programme – for our scientists and the private sector to compete on Europe’s large scientific market, which means entering a very competitive race with the best in Europe and either being part of a consortium based on some exceptional ideas or the lead on those projects and thereby able to attract significant funds, for both research and development.
I don’t think budgets are so small at all any longer and that our science has been given a great chance, and people now have to get accustomed to competitiveness, which is indeed healthy and compels one to change and become better. Based on Horizon Europe’s preliminary results, we have indications that we are improving increasingly and are proving extremely successful in those calls from the European Union, which testifies to the quality of our science, our innovation and our scientists, but also our teams in the country.
During the pandemic, you had an opportunity to apply your knowledge very practically in terms of setting up a virus testing laboratory. How significant was this experience for you and – viewed from this perspective – how much did Serbia have to offer the scientific community when it comes to the fight against pandemics, which many are expecting to become an everyday reality?
During the pandemic, the heaviest burden fell on the healthcare community and doctors. When it comes to testing, which was also an important weapon in the fight against the coronavirus, the scientific community proved exceptional. Our scientific workers engaged as volunteers in laboratories where mass testing was conducted, and that was where I felt the great strength that we have in people who worked in and developed laboratories primarily out of the purest empathy and altruism. That was a completely new and different experience for us. They showed how strongly they feel for their own community, society and country, and what they are ready to do in order to contribute and help in the really difficult moments that we faced.
My ambition, but also the ambition of the Government of the Republic of Serbia as a whole, is for our country to be recognised for its scientific achievements in the field of biotechnology, for applied biotechnology in various aspects of life and industry, and for people to associate Serbia with the BIO4 campus
With their work, fantastic expertise and great knowledge, they contributed to making laboratories operational in record time, in order to launch mass testing as quickly as possible, and all with the aim of us, as a country, knowing how many people were infected and with which variant. We certainly expect pandemics to become an everyday reality for us at some point, considering how aggressively humans penetrate nature and that we still have lots of unknowns in nature, and thus a great possibility for new epidemics and pandemics exists.
What is your top ambition when it comes to the BIO4 campus?
My ambition, but also the ambition of the Government of the Republic of Serbia as a whole, is for our country to be recognised for its scientific achievements in the field of biotechnology, and applied biotechnology in various aspects of life and industry, and for people to associate Serbia with the BIO4 campus, as a bio-economic hub, but also a place that produces fantastic ideas that change the world.
The idea is for the campus to be international, because it is only through cooperation and exchanges of experiences and ways of thinking that we can take big strides forward. I think Serbia has potential and deserves to take great strides forward.
We very often speak about how essential it is to connect the economy, the state and science. However, it seems that there are still a lot of unknowns on this road, because our scientific institutions and business have long since functioned in different worlds. In which areas are scientists and businesses most quickly overcoming these barriers and finding ways to work together?
Here the indicators are very clear. The IT industry represents the second largest export branch in our country, and that originates from strong colleges that have produced specialists who were ready to establish start-ups and enter the world of industry following graduation, and not to stay in college. Of course, this also carries a certain risk, because it is necessary to retain at colleges and institutions certain high-quality staff from these fields, so that we can further develop science in the area of IT.
We also have exceptional experts in the field of biotechnology – combining IT, AI and the natural sciences, but also social sciences that are increasingly gaining importance. Humankind is moving in a direction that will erase the divisions within science, because the only important thing is to find solutions for certain global problems, and the only way for them to be found is through cooperation between all scientific fields.
When we pluck up the courage to try to explore and implement ideas that don’t seem logical, we will begin achieving great success. It is easy to define and seek answers to obvious things. However, in areas where there doesn’t seem to be any logic, and which are nevertheless being explored in depth, great strides are being made.
You’ve traversed all stages: from a young scientist to an experienced doctor of science and a scientific advisor. Is it today easier or tougher for young scientists in Serbia to take this path and become part of the world scientific community?
I think the level of difficulty is always the same, and maybe the problems change. I believe the new generations are better able to articulate what the problems are and have the strength to tackle those problems and go public within the scope of their institutions and colleges and find their own place. I think we should give them a chance to do that as early as possible, in order for them to be a driving force that’s used for good. They should be given an environment in which they will have a choice: perhaps they will deal exclusively with science, or perhaps they have an entrepreneurial spirit and want to materialise their idea and test themselves on the market as soon as possible. Perhaps they want to lecture at a university or work at an institute. It is for these reasons that they should be shown that they have choices and shouldn’t abandon their ideas and desires, because you can only give your best if you work on something that you love and that motivates you. Everything else is a waste of time.
We have extremely high quality scientists and need to provide them with the best possible ecosystem so that they can give their all
When we pluck up the courage to try to explore and implement ideas that don’t seem logical, we will begin achieving great success
The start-up ecosystem can become a very important factor of exports from our country over the next decade, contributing significantly to developing Serbia’s econ