Ukrainian sci­en­tists, starved of fund­ing at home, are in­creas­ingly opt­ing to work abroad

Kyiv Post Legal Quarterly - - Contents - By Luke Smith luke­[email protected]­

Bo­rys Pa­ton, the pres­i­dent of the Ukrainian Na­tional Academy of Sciences, who has been in of­fice since 1962, will turn 100 this year.

The av­er­age age of an academy mem­ber is 70.

Mean­while, the coun­try is see­ing an ex­o­dus of its bright­est young minds to Ger­many, China and the United States. Less than 1 per­cent of the sci­en­tists who leave ever re­turn.

Vik­to­ria Shulga is a rare ex­cep­tion — she re­turned to Ukraine in 2005, af­ter do­ing ground­break­ing re­search at the Univer­sity of Rochester, NY. She had hoped to con­tinue her lab work at home, but Ukraine lacked the fa­cil­i­ties she needed. Un­able to con­tinue her re­search, she founded the Ukrainian Sci­ence Club, a non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion which ad­vises the govern­ment on sci­ence leg­is­la­tion and re­form.

But de­spite their ef­forts, and those of other re­form-fo­cused or­ga­ni­za­tions, things are only get­ting worse.

"By 2005, about 20,000 peo­ple of PH.D. level had left the coun­try and never come back,” Shulga said. “But af­ter 12 years, I can say the num­ber is now 200,000 sci­en­tists at all lev­els."

Ac­cord­ing to govern­ment sta­tis­tics, from 2014–2017, the num­ber of em­ploy­ees in sci­en­tific or­ga­ni­za­tions dropped by 30 per­cent, and Ukraine’s spend­ing on re­search rel­a­tive to gross do­mes­tic prod­uct fell by four times.

The prob­lem is largely caused by a lack of in­cen­tives. For a young per­son in Ukraine, a PH.D. in the sciences just isn’t worth the ef­fort — the typ­i­cal stipend for a PH.D. stu­dent is ap­prox­i­mately $40–50 a month, and af­ter fin­ish­ing their stud­ies, a Ukrainian sci­en­tist can ex­pect to earn slightly less than Kyiv's $300 av­er­age monthly wage.

Out­side of Ukraine, a qual­i­fied re­searcher can earn as much as $200,000 an­nu­ally.

In post-soviet Ukraine, the govern­ment can’t for­bid work­ers with crit­i­cal skills from go­ing abroad, but there are other tools at the govern­ment’s dis­posal that could in­cen­tivize sci­en­tists to stay. How­ever, it isn’t us­ing them. “It’s one thing to have a good law, and an­other to fi­nance im­ple­men­ta­tion,” Shulga said.

Fund­ing new sci­en­tific ini­tia­tives is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the Na­tional Coun­cil on Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy, which has two com­mit­tees — a sci­ence com­mit­tee and ad­min­is­tra­tive com­mit­tee. The func­tion of the sci­ence com­mit­tee is to de­velop pro­grams and ad­vise the govern­ment, while the ad­min­is­tra­tive com­mit­tee’s func­tion is to se­cure fund­ing. This di­vi­sion of la­bor was in­tended to stream­line the fund­ing process.

But this or­ga­ni­za­tional struc­ture has been in place for two years with lit­tle to show for it. The ad­min­is­tra­tive com­mit­tee has not pro­vided suf­fi­cient fund­ing to the Na­tional Re­search Fund. What few ini­tia­tives there have been have pe­tered out, de­spite work­ing well while they were funded (whether by the Na­tional Re­search Fund or other govern­ment in­stru­ments).

For ex­am­ple, the State Key Lab­o­ra­tory pro­gram, founded in 2011, funded re­search in Molec­u­lar and Cell Bi­ol­ogy. The pro­gram pro­duced a va­ri­ety of widely cited pub­li­ca­tions, in­clud­ing a re­view in “Na­ture Re­views Can­cer” which was cited over 360 times by jour­nals world­wide. But de­spite the pro­gram both ad­vanc­ing sci­ence and bring­ing recog­ni­tion to Ukrainian re­searchers, the govern­ment pulled fund­ing af­ter a year.

With­out govern­ment sup­port, Ukrainian sci­ence is be­com­ing largely a di­as­pora phe­nom­e­non. Un­like in other coun­tries, there is a to­tal lack of the brain cir­cu­la­tion of sci­en­tists — where sci­en­tists are en­cour­aged to do re­search abroad, but then re­turn home with new ex­per­tise. For brains to cir­cu­late, there needs to be at least a min­i­mal level of in­fra­struc­ture, and in Ukraine that just isn’t present.

“The prob­lem is not ta­lent — ta­lent is ev­ery­where,” said Nikita Lukianets, a Kyiv born en­trepreneur and neu­ro­sci­en­tist cur­rently based in France. “What is miss­ing is man­age­ment cul­ture at all lev­els, at the level of the lab, at the level of a small com­pany, of a large com­pany, (knowl­edge of how to) cre­ate re­sources…”

Some, how­ever, are wary of the govern­ment tak­ing too ac­tive a role.

Ac­cord­ing to the Odesa-based blog­ger and po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Niko­lai Hol­mov, greater state in­volve­ment in sci­ence and IT could make the sit­u­a­tion even worse if it were to re­sult in state/oli­garchi­cal cap­ture of what should be dy­namic sec­tors of the econ­omy.

Ukrainian sci­en­tists take com­fort in the fact that it is not a zero-sum game. Sci­ence is an in­ter­na­tional phe­nom­e­non, and so are the achieve­ments of Ukrainian sci­en­tists. The work Ukraini­ans do in other coun­tries can still help the coun­try boost its rep­u­ta­tion for pro­duc­ing high-qual­ity re­search and re­searchers.

“It’s all about hav­ing an in­ter­na­tional mind­set,” said Lukianets.

But while it is true that sci­ence ben­e­fits the global com­mu­nity, the ben­e­fits are not evenly dis­trib­uted. Coun­tries where dis­cov­er­ies are ini­tially made typ­i­cally reap the big­gest ben­e­fits, and so ro­bust sci­ence and re­search is key to eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. Those coun­tries that are able to in­vest sig­nif­i­cantly in smart, pro-in­no­va­tion poli­cies at­tract more ta­lent. If Ukraine isn’t able to do this, it will be left be­hind.

“The govern­ment does not re­al­ize that we are los­ing time,” Shulga said.

Sci­en­tists from Ukraine's Academy of Sciences protest against govern­ment cuts to their bud­get on Dec. 9, 2015. (Kostyan­tyn Ch­er­nichkin)

Young sci­en­tists from the Na­tional Academy of Sciences rally near the Cab­i­net of Min­is­ters on Dec. 8, 2015, in Kyiv de­mand­ing bet­ter fund­ing for Ukraine's sci­ence. (Kostyan­tyn Ch­er­nichkin)

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