The annual RIO Country Report offers an analysis of the R&I system in Bulgaria, including relevant policies and funding, with particular focus on topics critical for EU policies. The report identifies the main challenges of the Bulgarian research and innovation system and assesses the policy response.
The Bulgarian research and innovation system has been characterized by a significant underfunding over a long period of time; in fact since the transition from a centrally planned economy to a free market economy. In June 2010, the Bulgarian government adopted a national R&D investment target of 1.5 % of GDP by 2020, but having in mind that such a target would require dramatic increases of the R&D expenditure over the next five years, the Horizon 2020 PSF panel (hereafter H2020 PSF 2015) discussed in its "Peer review of the Bulgarian research and innovation system 2015" the possibility of setting a more realistic target of at least 1% of GDP. The declining trend in overall, but primarily public funding, of research in Bulgaria came to a halt in the mid-nineties. However, in the Bulgarian case, unlike that of other countries, it remained at the low level of R&D intensity of 0.5% of GDP in 2012 rising only slightly over the next couple of years. In 2013 it stood at 0.65% with a public funding contribution of only 0.24% of GDP. The recent trends in the R&I structural development are characterized by growing private R&D expenditure and in particular by increasing foreign R&D investments. As a result of the implemented EU operational programmes and instruments, the R&D performed by the business sector (as percentage of GERD) increased from 30% in 2009, to 50% in 2010, and further to 61% in 2013 (close to the EU28 average of 64%). However, the growth in BERD was concentrated practically solely in R&D services.
Bulgaria ranks among the poorer research performers in the EU, demonstrated by indicators such as the percentage of the top 10% most highly cited publications for the period 2000-2013 (5.71% compared to 7.83% of Hungary) and the total number of patent applications by the Patent Cooperation Treaty in 2012 (48 compared to 264 of Hungary).
Bulgaria’s performance in the Framework Programmes has also been inadequate, especially in relation to other “new” Member States of similar size. The total income since the beginning of Horizon 2020 has been €8.6m. In comparison, countries with smaller populations have been capable of attracting more H2020 funding: Croatia (€9m), Slovakia (€9m), Latvia (€9m). Participation in ERA-net joint calls is also lower than in comparable countries (e.g. Romania), and there is a general view that Bulgaria has been pulling out of co-operations (e.g. an ERIC infrastructure) rather than engaging in new European scale co-operations, due to a lack of national funding priority.
Simply increasing investment in size, however, cannot be expected to lead to competitive results, unless more focus is placed on incentives for excellence and internationalisation, in particular through a substantial increase in the part of public funding which is allocated competitively, transparently and based on merit. According to the World Bank Report “Input for Bulgaria’s Research and Innovation Strategies for Smart Specialization” (February 2013) , 'the current funding environment does not sufficiently encourage researchers and research organisations to increase the quality and impact of their research'. According to the PSF panel, a framework of restrictive public means contributes to an atmosphere of mistrust between stakeholders. The lesser the resources, the more likely there are to be discussions, dispute and criticism against those who have received some of those limited resources, the more so when there are no clear and transparent rules for allocation.
The low level of public funding of research and innovation is the most striking feature of the Bulgarian R&I system, and one which warrants immediate attention, but the quality and efficiency of such public funding is also of central concern. The first priority area, as detailed in the request from the Bulgarian authorities in their appeal to the EC for using the Policy Support Facility was for: “advice on the “Assessment of R&I funding and performing bodies and instruments”. In short, the request was for assisting in improving the quality and efficiency of the public research organisations and tailoring the normative base for effective monitoring of R&I programmes and project results.
The RIS3 approach tries to encompass the two system failures – weakness and fragmentation. It defines four thematic areas (two strongly technological and two technological with focus on employment), which allow for 1.) strategic focus of funding; and 2.) incentives for all participants to cooperate in these areas. The objective is to foster simultaneously consolidation and excellence, two mutually reinforcing mechanisms to develop the Bulgarian R&I system.
It is essential for the Bulgarian public funding of research and innovation to catch up with what other countries similar to Bulgaria are spending on R&I. The current very low level of public funding for research in Bulgaria is not sustainable for the necessary economic development and the social welfare of the country. Bulgaria has a historic opportunity to strengthen its economic potential by making a renewed, realistic, long term commitment to a clear increase in its R&D intensity to at least 1% of GDP by 2020 from the current level of 0.65% of GDP in 2013. Public funding should play a decisive role in achieving this target, well beyond the current public R&D intensity level of 0.24% of GDP.
The challenge for reinforcing the science base is not just publishing more, but expanding the scope and increasing the impact of the research and development output. Fostering performance-based research funding through focus on RIS3 areas (market-orientation) and impact metrics could guarantee the proper functioning of the R&I system and could provide the missing set of incentives for driving the necessary reforms in the research and higher education institutions. Fast investments (only into the limited number of institutions that produce research results and participate in international research projects) to ensure the build-up of a modern infrastructure are needed in supporting excellence and attracting talented researchers.