Growing up in Italy during the 1970s and 1980s, I remember Albania being geographically very close, just 150 kilometres across the sea from the harbour city of Brindisi. At the same time, closed and isolated by its communist regime, it seemed very far away. Many fleeing Albanians used small boats for the dangerous crossing to Italian shores. Then the Berlin Wall fell bringing with it the Albanian regime and, after the government was put under considerable pressure by students and workers, the first multiparty election took place in 1991.
Last November, carrying these memories with me, I made my first trip to Albania’s capital, Tirana, to work with the PERFORM - Performing and Responsive Social Sciences project and meet Abi Dodbiba, who leads the project team in Albania.
Albania is one of seven countries preparing to join the European Union (EU) after 2020. The process of EU accession requires many policy and regulatory reforms (so-called ‘Chapters’) and I was curious to discuss the transition with Abi, and looking to understand how the country’s research sector is preparing for it.
Albania is slowly starting to build these systems, together with the culture of using research and evidence to support policy decisions. The evolution of the knowledge system in the country is closely linked to the history of the country before and after the regime change in the early 1990s.
Prior to 1991, policy research organisations and universities existed under the tutelage of the regime, serving the political propaganda and centrally planned economy. After the fall of the regime in 1991, new and independent research organisations and think tanks emerged and, over time, they gained some international visibility because they were part of international networks and research collaborations.
For universities, however, it has been more challenging. Efforts to reform higher education and scientific research have lacked continuity and have not resulted in a strong and internationally-connected research community. Funding for academic research is very limited, which has an impact on the salaries of academic staff, on access to international literature and participation in international conferences, and on publication in internationally recognised journals. The capacity to apply for and manage external research funding is also limited. As a result, many university researchers seek independent consultancy assignments, which further constrains the potential of academic research institutions.
Albania’s Law on Higher Education and Scientific Research was amended in 2015; it now stipulates that the ministry responsible for education should draft a yearly ‘Document of Priorities’ listing the government’s policy research priorities. This is intended to guide budget allocation for research funding. It is also envisaged that the document will be created through consultation with policy makers, as well as researchers.
The establishment of a research and policy development unit within the Office of the Prime Minister provides another example of Albania’s preparation. The unit was in charge of the processes and systems necessary for collecting evidence to inform and coordinate inter-sectoral policy decisions. Following a restructuring process in October 2017, its functions have been absorbed by other units but the overall commitment to improving evidence-informed policy-making practices has been preserved.
Policy documents have also been developed to reflect European standards. For example, in anticipation of future negotiations on Science and Research, the Ministry of Education, Sport and Youth adopted the National Strategy for Scientific Research, Technology and Innovation 2017-2022. This embraces all the key principles of the European Research Area, including fostering collaboration between the research, private, and public sectors.
That said, much still needs to be done, especially regarding the strengthening of a culture where demand and consultation of research becomes organic rather than an action required by regulations and legislation. I also think it’s important that academics are more present within the teams negotiating the different chapters of the EU accession, because research will be required to inform policy decisions for each chapter.
My work with PERFORM in Albania has taught me that that it is crucial to work simultaneously on evidence production and evidence demand capabilities. In other words, helping policy makers to articulate their evidence needs and, at the same time, enabling researchers to produce good quality, relevant, and timely research.
Having said this, a key element of the puzzle is politics. Even if a policy-maker or a government unit has been able to obtain the right type of evidence of the desired quality, it may well happen that politics trumps the analysis. It cannot be assumed that research results will be used by policy makers.
Keeping that in mind helps us to be adaptive and creative in the initiatives we implement. This is what we are trying to do with the government partners with whom we collaborate.