National innovativeness drowns in bureaucratic morass and Soviet heritage

  • 2011-02-23
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

LAGGING BEHIND: Universities have mistakenly focused on offering social sciences degrees, rather than pushing engineering studies, says Arturas Zukauskas.

KLAIPEDA - Lithuanian image-makers are trying strenuously to conjure up Lithuania as being a high-tech cutting-edge innovation country. However, with thousands of litas allocated and no clear vision yet, the much-cherished aspiration, at its best, stumbles. What makes matters even worse is that, in the beginning of February, the European Commission (EC), referring to last year’s EU-adopted Innovation Union Communication Act, reviewed member countries’ implementation of innovations and inferred mercilessly that Lithuania flounders on the very bottom.

With some high-tech  Lithuanian projects receiving worldwide acknowledgment - a Lithuanian robot constructor constantly wins international tournaments and Lithuania boasts EU leadership in introducing fiber optics to the home, to name a few - the gains look more sporadic than systematic. It is obvious that they are not enough to peg the label of a cutting-edge innovative country on Lithuania yet.

The EC scoreboard of EU members’ progress and achievements in the innovation field has put Lithuania on the so-called Innovation Union Scoreboard’s lowest shelf, pegged courteously as “meager innovation countries,” along with Latvia, Bulgaria and Romania. Besides, embarrassingly, the European Commission, acknowledging advancement of all member countries, has distinguished Lithuania as the country that has not shown any progress in the field. Interestingly, after the scoreboard announcement, the EC, placating Lithuania, discerned its human resources, financing and support as its advantages, but pointed out its weaknesses as well – lack of a high-quality and attractive research system, intellectual means, innovators and production.

For Lithuania, still dealing with the humiliating EC blow, the primal questions stands as: what should be reversed in the course? What is wrong? Is Lithuania capable of standing out when it comes to innovations?
Vladas Bumelis, head of Sicor Biotech/Teva, Biotech, a biotech pharmaceutical company that develops and produces recombinant biopharmaceuticals based on cutting-edge scientific and manufacturing technologies, responds to the questions in a slightly joking manner, suggesting “It is very hard to dream an innovation at night, to get up in the morning and start to carry it out.” According to him, in order to claim the name as an innovative country, Lithuania has to put together many components, including effective study programs, science aimed at generating innovative ideas and institutions that would be ready to hire innovation-savvy graduates.

Regrettably, the mechanism, or certain parts of it, has not been working well up to now. In the recent conference “Innovations in 2010 aimed at larger profitability,” Bumelis emphasized that the current Lithuanian government is the first one to assert that Lithuania can be rich only employing its intellectual resources. The vision, which comes as an EU-emboldened initiative for all EU countries, is a great leap ahead, coming from Lithuania’s long-fostered image as an agricultural country. “The perception is very timely and welcome, however, in a best estimation, we will have to wait at least a decade to reap the products of today’s ideas,” Bumelis noted.

Speaking of the biggest impediments in pursuit of innovations, he points out a lack of scientists’ motivations in creating cutting-edge ideas that could be embodied in business. “Regrettably, most scientists are much more motivated by an idea to write a scientific article than in creating a splendid-idea-turned-superb-product,” Bumelis said. The business luminary pays attention to the fact that, over 20 years, since the restoration of Lithuanian independence, a sheer majority of Lithuanian scientists have largely engaged in exceptionally one thing – compiling expertise, but not creating innovations. “We all here have to understand that the main objective nowadays is not the former, but the latter,” the entrepreneur claimed.

Nevertheless, he observes positive trends emerging in Lithuania as well. “Lately, I have been observing that Lithuania’s science direction is being changed - instead of focusing on accumulating expertise on an issue, as it has been until present, it [now] stresses motivation to assume concrete tasks and technologies. If we succeed in following the latter, I am hopeful that the motivation to bridge the link from science to business will prevail and flourish,” Bumelis maintained.

The afore-mentioned European Commission’s low ranking for Lithuanian innovative efforts does not surprise Arturas Zukauskas, professor and director of Vilnius University Institute of Applied Sciences. “I could not come up with the only answer explaining this plight. I would rather speak about the main aspects determining the lag. First, innovations are par for the course of a knowledge-driven economy, otherwise speaking, for a post-industrial society. This kind of society forms when there is no lack of high-skilled labor force and capital, and new knowledge becomes the most important reservoir. Regrettably, in Lithuania, we have neither a sufficient high-qualification labor force, nor capital. Incomprehension of these things has sown certain futile illusions that disoriented the development of our country,” Zukauskas maintained to The Baltic Times.

He went on, explaining that, speaking of a skilled labor force, 40 percent of the Lithuanian population has a higher education, though the level of many universities is not even up to the standard of a “decent” college. “What makes matters even worse is that, after the collapse of Soviet industry, many started believing that we, by gravity, had ended in the post-industrial phase, meaning that we did not have to develop technologies and production, and that we can import all necessary knowledge.

Massive national resources had been wasted in preparation of low-skilled managers, able only to create a primitive business, while many universities have focused entirely only on social sciences, thus, prospering at the expense of duped students and their parents. Meanwhile, the specialties of exact and engineering sciences, that did not see large student numbers, have not received appropriate state support. Thus, the disproportionate university system has ill-affected real colleges, vocational schools, and vocational training centers, which were not able to prepare sufficiently skilled lower-link workers needed for the industry. Besides, as an exacerbating factor, we should have in mind the free labor force movement which, to my mind, is a dishonest developed EU country policy to less developed EU countries, though it has been partly compensated by the structural financial assistance,” Zukauskas asserted.

Speaking of capital, a key factor in forming an innovative society, the professor emphasizes that Lithuania has not succeeded in creating “healthy” capitalism, with its main attribute, investment. “It is hard to speak about innovations without having investment-ready capital. I can hardly fight the impression that our national capitalism has not fully justified itself, deviating to national particularities. In a knowledge-oriented economy, earnings mostly are invested into knowledge, but not in assets, which is to the contrary in Lithuania,” the professor asserted.

Besides, among other things, when it comes to innovation-related issues, he points out that their solutions and implementation in Lithuania is hindered by our unfavorable mentality, arising from such things as risk-avoiding, hierarchal relics of our society and its institutions, an inability to focus on a single activity and context, the inability to adopt information in its expressive form. “Due to the cultural background, we are still dealing with a peasant-like consciousness that was important to the nation’s survival in the past. However, now, it has turned into a setback. According to cultural dimensions, we are in the middle – between innovative nations of Scandinavians, Germany, the Anglo-Saxons, Northern Americans and Israelis on one side, and non-innovative nations like South Americans, Europeans, Arabs and Africans on the other. However, what probably matters most is that our education system is not sufficiently oriented to improve the status quo,” Zukauskas stated.

He admits that Lithuanian authorities do “a lot” to improve the situation; however, their actions lack complexity and consistency. “For example, the state suggests very attractive financial conditions for licensing; the Ministry of Economy carries out an array of important programs, supporting industry-driven scientific research that can increase industrial innovative potential. Essentially, all science, study and innovative programs underway are welcome. However, the changes in the education system are just about to begin, and they are considerably late in respect to financial measures. We still do not have sufficiently good conditions for start-up enterprise establishment. Bureaucracy, especially, undermines promotion of innovativeness. When it comes to EU structural funds, they do open new financial opportunities to develop innovations, but due to certain European bureaucratic impediments, enhanced by local bureaucrats, they are disrupted. Scrappiness and absurd particularity of scientific program administration discourage scientists and innovators to create innovations, and return from emigration,” Zukauskas suggested.

In order to make changes boosting innovativeness, he suggests swiftly intervening through education in the national mentality. “The state seeking innovations has to promote an innovation-friendly environment - to promote investments accordingly regulating taxes and to preach by all means positive experience of innovative entrepreneurs and investors. Along with that, bureaucracy must be radically eradicated and criminal responsibility for bureaucratic procrastinating and redundant administration should be introduced. In addition, it is important to give innovators carte blanche in public tenders. In order to create the innovation-friendly environment, it is necessary to establish a system promoting start-up enterprises, like the one being run in the U.S., the SBIR [Small Business Innovative Research],” the director of Vilnius University’s Institute of Applied Sciences pointed out.

Recently, given a summary of innovative enterprises at a meeting on innovations in the presidential palace, he was astonished to find out that 29 percent of Lithuanian enterprises are considered innovative. “I started thinking – if all is so good, then why is all so bad. Obviously, we do not perceive what innovativeness means, as we give a prize for the supposed innovativeness to a company that has brought technologies from abroad and introduced them here. It should not be that way,” the noted scientist said.