Bulgaria Invests in Youths, Technology
Securing the Balkan nation’s future means stemming a brain drain and financing small high-tech businesses.
Significant financial investments to advance technology in Bulgaria could amount to wasted money if the nation’s political, military and industrial leaders fail to stem the outflow of young and educated citizens, warns a prominent official.
One of the biggest challenges facing Bulgaria is not a lack of technological development, but keeping the nation’s highly trained people, particularly its youths, in the country to serve its military, government and industrial base, says Stefan Vodenicharov, president of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. “There is a brain drain problem,” Vodenicharov declares.
The emigration of Bulgarians has been a persistent issue over the past several years, crowning with roughly 500,000 educated youths seeking employment and better lives elsewhere, he estimates. “This is a substantial number for my country,” he says.
The Bulgarian Academy of Sciences superintends programs to train the new work force and, by default, it is hoped, help halt Bulgaria’s waning population numbers. Officials from the country’s National Statistical Institute predict the population will hit a low of 5.13 million people over the next 55 years.
Already, Bulgaria’s current population of 7.2 million is a marked decrease from an all-time high of roughly 9 million in 1989. Retaining the country’s citizens, especially those who are university-educated, tops the academy’s priority list, Vodenicharov says. “It is necessary to create special programs that would drive more competition for young people, especially in the areas of computer science and information technology,” he offers.
In addition to reducing emigration, the government is investing time, energy and money to support developments in key fields such as material science, nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communication technologies, cybersecurity, pharmaceuticals, machine construction, electronics and environmental technologies, Vodenicharov shares. “In all of these areas, we have international recognition results and achievements,” he says.
Still, the government struggles to advance technology from the research and development phase and push matured products and services into the marketplace. “At present, unfortunately, this process is difficult and slow,” Vodenicharov concedes. The government must forge better relations with the academic and private sectors and tackle the undermining problem of organized crime, which includes human trafficking, drug cartels, arms smugglers and now cyber attacks. Additionally, corruption in public administration and a weak judiciary hamper the country’s investment opportunities and economic prospects, according to a U.S. analysis by the CIA. The accession of Bulgaria and Romania into the European Union in 2007 did not quell the issue, as officials had hoped. In particular, cyber crime perpetrated by individuals and small groups has risen over the past several years and is expected to grow along with the number of Internet users: currently an estimated 4.1 million Bulgarians.
Bulgaria, which joined NATO in 2004, is investing in a national cyber defense system and will piggyback on U.S. government efforts and capitalize on public-private partnerships. For example, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences provides guidance and financial support to create technology-based startups. “This will be a promising experience for us,” Vodenicharov says of the nascent effort that also might serve to entice high-tech companies to invest in Bulgaria. “But there is a lack of the so-called seed money. This is the main problem now in Bulgaria.”
Not only are officials concentrating on boosting high-tech developments within Bulgaria, but they also are committing to a larger European effort to advance science, technology and cyber systems. Bulgaria plays a salient role in one of the European Union’s mammoth research and innovation programs aimed at securing Europe’s global competitiveness. The EU’s Horizon 2020 initiative earmarks nearly €80 billion (about $90 billion) to be spent over the next five years for work on breakthrough technology research and innovation, emphasizing what officials termed “excellent science, industrial leadership and tackling societal challenges.” Bulgaria participates in the initiative and seeks to emulate some of the efforts within its own borders, Vodenicharov allows.
The Balkan nation, slightly larger than Tennessee, wants to capitalize on its environmental diversity and develop technology connected to renewable energies derived from natural resources such as the sun, wind and water, he shares. “In Bulgaria, we have a very nice climate for the different bioproducts. Our country is very clean; our environment is excellent. We have valleys, we have the sea, we have the river. All of these give [us a] chance for good bioproducts,” Vodenicharov says.