Prof. Litov, what stands behind the familiar abbreviation of CERN? We know this is the European Centre for Nuclear Research, but still...
What stands behind it is the clear understanding that if you want to do complex research, you have to join forces with other countries, in order to provide the necessary financial and human resources. This organization was founded more than 60 years ago and have 23 full member states. The newest member is Serbia, which joined in late March. Yugoslavia is among the founders of CERN, but during the time of Tito, it left the organization.
What is the contribution of Bulgarian scientists?
We have a strong scientific potential and CERN plays an important role in its development since it provides unique opportunities for our scientists to conduct their research using the best equipment and infrastructure in the world.
But how is science developing in Bulgaria?
Apart from physics, chemistry, biology and medicine are also developing well, but our common problem is that for 30 years, there was no national policy on science. Its blood was drained out and it was left to die. In the last two years, however, there is an awareness that without science, there is no way to create high-tech industry and correspondently prosperity for the country. Measures are being taken for the establishment of scientific infrastructure and international networks and for launching national programs for the retention of young people. A National Strategy for the Development of Scientific Research has been adopted. Still, I don’t know how late we are with these actions. Young people leave the country to study and to work abroad. Only 5-6 out of 35 students, who started their research career with me are in Bulgaria, the rest scattered in the leading universities and laboratories all over the world.
What would keep young people in Bulgaria?
The most important thing for them is to do something that they believe would realize their potential and allows them to feel part of the global world. Only then comes the pay, which has to guarantee a decent living, as well as the possibility for hobbies and activities.
Can only applied research be conducted, as we hear the Bulgarian business insisting on?
Fundamental research gives knowledge but it is unclear when it will be used for the needs of society. Without fundamental research, however, it is like building a house without a foundation. It will fall down with the first wind.
What is the road from science to real business application?
It should be invested in both fundamental and applied research. CERN, for example, conducts purely fundamental research with the purpose of gaining new knowledge about the structure of the universe. This will hardly help us live a better life. But while preparing experiments, we often have to develop new technologies. Many of them then enter the everyday life of people. In March, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web (www). This product was developed by CERN and in 1993, it was given to humanity. It changed the course of human history since it made information accessible for everyone. If CERN was a company and owned all the rights on www, it would have had full control over the entire information flow in the world and it would have been the richest in the world. The money spent on research at CERN has repeatedly returned to society, even from this product only.
Medicine also enjoys such “gifts” from CERN...
All medical imaging is based on methods and technologies developed for the needs of nuclear physics and elementary particle physics. People are using widely computer and positron emission tomography – technologies also developed at CERN. Just to give you another example, Bulgarian scientists are involved also in the development new drugs as well. Recently, in the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, there was a presentation of the National Program “BioActiveMed”. It is oriented towards the use of natural products for the development of new drugs, such as antimicrobial and antitumor agents, including those for fighting the Alzheimer’s disease.
Bulgarian scientists achieve incredible results but there is no one to transfer them to the business afterwards. How to build a bridge between them?
This is a global problem. For industry purposes, technology has to be adapted and modified. There is a gap between science and industry – those who have developed the technology do not know what the needs of the business are, on the other side the industry does not have the knowledge of how to modify it. But a bridge can be built through a unit that can implement the adaptation.
What is CERN’s approach?
Incubators are being created and they develop companies that want to apply the technology developed in CERN. We plan to create such an incubator in Bulgaria together with Sofia Tech Park.
Do we have the necessary human resources?
That’s the most difficult question. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is currently under way. Computers are gradually taking the place of people in their decision-making function. This increases the potential of production but leads to the restructuring of society. In developed industrialized countries, material goods are produced by 20-25% of the population, others have to be employed in the services sector. This quarter will gradually shrink, requiring these specialists to be more and more qualified. Bulgaria does not even have a national strategy for Industry 4.0. We are at a small train station and the express train will pass through it without stopping. The question is whether it will run us over. The acute shortage of people oriented towards natural and mathematical sciences and technical disciplines is already felt. They will be the driving force for the future development of the society.
How can we spark interest in them?
Education has to be fully restructured. In our schools, for example mainly physics of the 19th century is teach, and this science has evolved greatly during last century building the basis for today’s technology development. The change of the education system must start at the kindergarten. In the 21st century, the prosperity of a state depends on its ability to develop high-tech products. The awareness of this fact leads to conclusions about what the education system is and what the priorities should be. In Bulgaria, we often concentrate on the small matters, and there are important things of strategic nature – let’s focus on them.