Shaping Tomorrow: How Serbian Science impacts Global Progress

Science is a serious pursuit. It requires dedication, creativity, hard work, and ethics. Supporting science is investment in our future

On the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the Science Fund of the Republic of Serbia which was celebrated in March 2024, we spoke with Dr. Milica Djurić – Jovičić, Acting Director of this government institution about achievements and plans for the future.

Dr. Milica Djurić – Jovičić, with Acting Director of the Science Fund of the Republic of Serbia

On the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the Science Fund of the Republic of Serbia which was celebrated in March 2024, we spoke with Dr. Milica Djurić – Jovičić, Acting Director of this government institution about achievements and plans for the future.

What has the Science Fund accomplished in the last five years? 

We live in a time of change and rapid technological development, which pose numerous challenges to humanity. I am deeply convinced that science is the one that can adequately perceive these challenges, and tackle and respond to them.

The Science Fund of the Republic of Serbia was established in March 2019, with the aim to enable quality conditions for the development of Serbian science, as a state institution that ensures competitive project financing. The Science Fund achieves this goal, first and foremost, by devising various programmes that strive for the development of all scientific fields, ensure a high level of scientific activity, innovative results, the competitiveness of our science internationally and the relevance of scientific results concerning the challenges of society. Serbia has a long scientific tradition and truly exceptional scientists. The role of the Science Fund is to provide them with finances for adequate scientific activities, necessary equipment and cooperation with colleagues from abroad and the business sector to improve professionally and achieve top results in their respective fields.

Today, after five years, I can proudly say that the Science Fund has launched 11 programmes through which a total of 81.7 million euros have been allocated to projects. Funds were provided for 497 research projects in which implementation over 3,000 researchers from Serbia from 145 scientific research organizations are engaged. As many as 2,200 scientific papers written based on research supported by the Fund’s programmes were published in various scientific publications, of which 413 papers were published in top international scientific journals.

 I believe that, during these past five years, we built a solid foundation and developed a clear methodology for further work, as well as that we have managed to come up with a new model of competition in the scientific community, which is based on internationally recognized standards and practices. Throughout this whole ‘maturing’ process, we had great support, first of all from the Serbian government and the Ministry of Science, Technological Development and Innovation, and international partners such as the European Union and the World Bank, with whom we have established close cooperation and whose support remains crucial for the Science Fund’s further development.

All the aforementioned factors have contributed to the fact that today the Science Fund is a globally recognized institution and a member of Science Europe, an international organization that brings together the most important science funds in Europe.

Are you satisfied with the results? Would you change anything if you could manage the Science Fund all over again and, if so, what would it be?

When I look back at the implemented programmes, the projects we supported, our position in Science Europe and the recognition we have received for our work from the World Bank and the European Union, I cannot be dissatisfied. In 2019, we could only rely on the experience of international science funds and the enthusiasm of a few of us who were working at the Science Fund at that time, but we had support and great motivation. Ahead of us was a great challenge, but also a great chance to show that the Science Fund is worthy of the tasks that were set before us. Now the situation is completely different and it is an achievement that everyone at the Science Fund should be proud of, because, guided by the Science Fund’s motto that science can save the world, each of the employees gave their best to get us where we are today.

The Science Fund has launched 11 programmes through which a total of 81.7 million euros have been allocated to projects to research projects supporting over 3000 researchers

It was not easy to build an institution from scratch, to adopt complex international procedures that introduce new evaluation criteria and to adequately apply them to Serbian science. Since its inception, the Fund has ensured that all scientists can apply transparently and under equal conditions for funding for scientific projects and that only the best projects and excellent scientific ideas will have an impact on the development of global science and better quality of life. I believe that this competitiveness of our programmes, which at the time of their implementation, was a big change for our scientists, is the most correct way for our science to be competitive on the international stage and for our scientific research institutions to match the scientific and research capacity of more developed countries.

I would also like to use this opportunity to highlight the great role played by the scientific community in the development of the Fund, which showed openness to change, but also patience and understanding for a young institution, when it was needed. Without their support, it would not have been possible to establish the Fund as a stable and recognized European institution that is built on solid foundations. Regardless of our results, the Fund continues to develop and grow and we are constantly boosting cooperation and developing dialogue with the scientific community of Serbia, summarizing experiences while remaining open to their proposals.

If a new institution like this one were to be founded now, many things could be done differently. Institutions are more mature, better organized and digitized, while scientists are ready for a competitive system and project management. Now we have databases, data and systems in place that did not exist five years ago. But the moment and circumstances in which the Science Fund became operational, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic, required very fast action and the development of procedures that will be resistant to all challenges while facilitating the development of science despite all aggravating circumstances.

Would I have done anything differently today? In ideal conditions, the launch of the first programmes would be preceded by longer preparation, analysis, formation of all segments of the Science Fund and then the start of programme-related activities. Also, our foreign colleagues advised us to see off the first programme as a whole and then launch new programmes after we generated more experience and conducted a relevant analysis. However, this was not possible. The scientific community needed the Science Fund and that was the top priority – to develop programmes and allow our scientists to pursue new ideas. That’s why we launched programmes in succession, developed the Science Fund alongside those programmes and learned and improved year-on-year.

This development would be much slower in the rest of the world and this is exactly what our foreign colleagues pointed out to us which is why they value us so much. 

What did the establishment of the Science Fund bring to Serbian science? Why is the Science Fund important?

To have top-quality science, having excellent ideas is not sufficient but you also need to have sufficient finances, i.e. provide the means for work. The financial resources approved through the Fund’s programme are intended for the employment of young researchers, the work of scientists on projects, the purchase of materials and equipment, scientific publications and the establishment of international cooperation. Therefore, part of the funds is intended for the purchase of equipment that remains with the scientific institution, but also for the entire scientific community and future generations of scientists to use. Thus, as part of the COVID-19 programme, a high-resolution mass spectrometer was purchased, which is an important piece of equipment that does not exist in our region. The spectrometer is now used by the Faculty of Chemistry, which makes it also available to all scientists. On the other hand, funds are also allocated for the professional development of our scientists and the inclusion of young researchers in scientific research work, which helps prevent the brain Dr.ain of young talent, but also facilitates the return of researchers from abroad. In other words, the funding provided by the Science Fund is not only an investment in scientific research infrastructure, technology and equipment but also in our people, knowledge and intelligence.

Our procedures are fully harmonized with the procedures of other European science funds

As our procedures are fully harmonized with the procedures of other European science funds, through the Science Fund’s programmes, researchers get acquainted with the prerequisites they need to meet when applying for international grants and get the opportunity to cooperate with foreign colleagues, the scientific diaspora and the business sector. The importance of making young PhD holders empowered is best illustrated by the example of a young researcher from the Institute of Physics in Belgrade, Dr. Jakša Vučičević, who first participated in a project under the auspices of our programme PROMIS and subsequently won a grant from the European Research Council (ERC) in the amount of 1.5 million euros.

You mentioned earlier international reviewers. Why are the projects of our scientists evaluated by foreigners? Doesn’t that send a message to Serbian scientists that they are not good enough?

Not at all! Serbia has exceptional scientists and great potential for top scientific results. I am confident that many of our scientists would be excellent reviewers for Science Fund programmes, just as some of them are already excellent evaluators for foreign funds and programmes under the auspices of Horizon Europe. But making a scientist also a reviewer would not be fair to them, because it would make it impossible for them to participate in our programmes with their work, teams and research to contribute to the progress of our science and country. However, the engagement of foreign reviewers ensures that the Science Fund eliminates a conflict of interest and that our scientists receive an expert evaluation done by their foreign colleagues from the same scientific field.

The issue of conflict of interest is also extremely important for the integrity of our procedures and the Science Fund’s procedures are extremely strict in this segment.

Before accepting this position, you worked in science and were the director of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering Innovation Centre. In what way was that experience useful to you and prepared you for this position?

All of my previous career stages were extremely important for the Science Fund’s development. Having managerial experience and knowledge of legal regulation, finance and how an organization works were important to me when developing the Fund in its initial stage. Experience in science and international cooperation helped in developing the programmes, along with understanding the expectations of fund givers and our fund users, that is the scientific community. During these five years, we had extremely demanding deadlines, complex processes, a huge number of projects and an insufficient number of people to meet those deadlines and complete the volume of work. To resolve that, I actively used my engineering knowledge and experience in software engineering.

The Science Fund has a large number of users, different processes and databases. The previous experience helped me in recognizing work segments that can be automated, defining functionality and choosing technologies. I know their capabilities as well as their limitations. Every part of the process and software system was created according to the Science Fund’s measures and needs. In some segments, we use machine learning techniques, advanced techniques for processing big data and artificial intelligence algorithms. They can be used successfully, with validation, in some segments of our work. In other segments, they are about to be used. This was exactly the topic of a recent conference held by the international organization Science Europe. We have demonstrated our project evaluation system and the matching of project proposals with potential evaluators. The science funds of Switzerland, Germany and Norway also presented their systems. It makes you feel good when you see that despite the significant difference in financial resources, we are not lagging behind the most advanced countries in Europe in this domain.

Five years at the healm ofthe Science Fund only strengthened my belief that Serbia has exceptional scientists, who can give the world top scientific results

As a scientist, I understand the needs of scientists and researchers in Serbia, as well as the challenges they face. For instance, to secure project funds, in addition to an excellent scientific idea, a lot of administration work needs to be done, while a project needs to have a scientific impact or be implemented in practice. I know it can be frustrating for our scientists when they have to deal with the paperwork, so I, as the acting director, try to contribute as much as possible to improve and expedite certain application and reporting procedures. On the other hand, the Science Fund is a kind of national bank for scientists. Responsible management of funds and administration is an integral part of our work and our obligation toward those who provide us with funds for our work and scientific development.

While I was running the Innovation Centre at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering in Belgrade, I worked on numerous projects that connect science and businesses and I can use my experience to help our researchers bring their solutions closer to the business sector.

Also, I know how important it is to work on promoting science, affirming scientific work in the public and elevating the social reputation of researchers. That is why bringing science closer to the public and emphasizing the importance and relevance of science for understanding the world around us, as well as ourselves, and for establishing a knowledge-based society are some of the Science Fund’s most important goals.

You have recently become a member of the Governing Board of the international organization Science Europe. What does this mean for science in Serbia?

The fact that I became a member of the Governing Board of Science Europe is proof that the Science Fund of the Republic of Serbia is internationally recognized as a stable European institution. This decision is a culmination of five years of work on the implementation of international procedures and the development of the Science Fund as a renowned partner to other European scientific institutions. In this way, our country got the opportunity to directly participate in devising strategic directions and building the European research space, while shaping European research policies and defining the global scientific agenda in the next two years.

My task will be to work together with directors and senior representatives of prominent European institutions to define, monitor and manage the strategic directions of Science Europe and identify key areas that require joint action at the European and global levels.

Can you single out several scientific results accomplished by the projects supported by the Science Fund?

Five years as the healm of the Science Fundonly strengthened my belief that Serbia has exceptional scientists, who can give the world top scientific results. This is why it is very difficult to single out one of the 497 projects that received the Science Fund’s support because each of them is excellent in its respective field.

Five years at the healm of the Science Fund only strengthened my belief that Serbia has exceptional scientists, who can give the world top scientific results. This is why it is very difficult to single out one of the 497 projects that received the Science Fund’s support because each of them is excellent in its respective field

These are projects of public interest that pose vitally important questions and offer scientifically based solutions for the current challenges of our society, which can be applied in various areas of life – from industry, agriculture, medicine, pharmacy, energy, environmental protection and culture to the development of artificial intelligence and solutions that will improve our everyday life.

However, I would like to single out some projects that might sound interesting to the general public, such as a project that produces a new type of cytostatics and antibiotics from waste microorganisms, then the development of new types of batteries that do not use lithium, the development of scientific solutions for the removal arsenic from water or finding new methods for treating obesity. There is, of course, a study on the impact of microplastics on the female reproductive system.

These are just some of the examples that testify that our scientists and researchers are interested in the most diverse problems of modern society, but also that they are capable of pushing the boundaries of science and contributing to a better quality of life for all of us.

How do you see the future of Serbian science and the Science Fund?

It seems to me that the future pathways of Serbian science and the Science Fund are the same because we share the same goal – the progress of science, boosting its competitiveness and creating better conditions for engaging in science in our country.

To achieve these goals, we need to have continuous investment in science and new scientific projects, because investment in the development of science is an investment in the economic, technological, cultural and social development of Serbia. Investing in science is not only useful for the economy, but it is important for us as rational beings, since science asks the most important questions, i.e. questions the fundamental values and postulates of our society and allows us to better understand both the world that surrounds us and our own identity, language, history, culture and ultimately ourselves.

Serbia has abundant scientific tradition and good higher education. To build an advanced world on a human scale, it is important to believe in science, support scientists and facilitate the development of science and innovation.

The Science Fund will do everything in its power to support the development of science so that our laboratories are places where top scientific publications are born, patents are developed and innovations are created that will benefit all people in Serbia.



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