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24 February, 2015  ▪  Hanna Trehub

Deputy Education Minister Maksym Strikha: "Science is not a means of satisfying one's curiosity, but the guarantee of the national security"

Mr. Strikha spoke to The Ukrainian Week about the current status and the potential of the Ukrainian science, the need for reform at the National Academy of Sciences, and forged academic degrees.

U.W.: How can you describe the current situation at the NAS? Are there any initiatives to evaluate what has been left of the Academy of Sciences in terms of technical and human resources, and to decide how to manage it efficiently?

Speaking of the assets of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in terms of lands, facilities, etc., the Academy has been and still remains a unique institution, thanks to a great degree to the role and the activity (and I'm saying this without irony) of Boris Paton. All the institutes that existed in the early 1990s have survived to this day, and their number has even increased.

As for the human resources, changes were not for the better. In fact, very many active people, especially of the younger generations, were washed out of the country or to other sectors. Salary levels at the Academy as of today give no chances to the talented youth from the provinces to settle down in the capital, neither by renting apartments nor by staying at the Academy's dorms after defending their PhD theses.

The average age of the Candidates of Sciences at the NAS is over 50 years, Doctors are aged over 60, Academicians over 70, and the President of the Academy is 96. There is a huge gap between the older generation and the youth. We have a situation where most of Ukrainian science depends on veterans. They chose to work here, rather than leaving the country. Speaking of natural and technology sciences, the older generation of scientists is our gold reserve. They will not invent quantum mechanics (which were created, as you might know, by 25-year-olds), but they can direct and organize the research process, and will keep generating ideas to the ripe old age. Such people are in high demand, because quantum mechanics does not emerge all by itself, it requires the background of a certain scientific environment. However, we should remember that due to biological reasons, in 10 years at the latest the older generation will be gone. If we do not manage during that time to bring to the academia a sufficient number of young people, the issue of science in Ukraine will be taken off the table completely.

The management of the NAS really ought to be more mobile. Boris Paton is not a gerontocrat, he still actively controls everything that happens in the Academy, following the new ideas. However, this is a man who was formed in the 1930s. While in the 1990s, his conservatism was necessary to preserve the NAS as such, today something else is needed. Most Academicians got accustomed over the years to the situation when all external communications are carried out by Paton, whose authority can help resolve any issue. But let's be honest: due to his age, he can no longer be an effective communicator with the power elites and the society. This makes the gap between science and the society even deeper. If the Academy fails to change the situation, it will just disappear, because neither the society nor the authorities understand why Ukraine needs this institution and why it should be financed. So, it is important that the NAS finds the resources to bring young blood to its management, appointing new dynamic people to senior positions. I would not make a forecast as to whether its representatives will be able to do so, since the Academy still remains a conservative structure.

Inventory count at the NAS would be a good idea. Not everything that the Academy owns is used efficiently. But it would be an illusion to believe that following an audit we will find some great assets that were unaccounted for to this day.

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U.W.: The NAS system included a whole number of experimental plants and technology labs, that is, the framework required for the efficient development of the applied science and the implementation of its breakthroughs in the economy and the industry. What is the current state of these enterprises, what do they do to survive?

Speaking not only about the Academy, but also about the Ukrianian science in general, we have both success stories and cases of complete failure. Those that still operate are surviving depending on their niche. What do we actually have? We have hard-working people. The needs of the pharmaceutical market are clear. As for the IT sector, no questions either: it has the greatest potential for outsourcing, so our scientists are working for foreign companies.   But there are very many other high-tech niches, both in Ukraine and abroad. Do you know why Pinchuk still has a large share of the world market of railway wheels? Because he very actively cooperates with the academia. The Dnipropetrovsk National Metallurgical Academy actually works for his plants. It offers technological solutions that allow the wheels produced by INTERPIPE to compete worldwide. But there is also a sad history. Not so long ago, we were very proud of the fact that the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal was given the control of Krivorizhstal. Before that, the whole Dniprodzerzhinsk University worked for that production. Mittal put on hold any research orders, and Krivorizhstal became a dump for outdated Western technologies. Everywhere in the world, people who invest in technology eventually win. The problem is that the Ukrainian economy to this day functions in such a way that no one thinks of investing in research in order to gain a stable +10% over the next few years, because everyone thinks about snatching +50% or +100% here and now, by buying up politicians, using shadow schemes, giving bribes, etc. For any Western capitalist, introducing new technologies means making profit. However, here people make money by siphoning it off.

When the society creates the conditions in which the economy will be interested in R&D, the situation will change dramatically. But achieving this goal is beyond the capacity of the Ministry of Education and Science or the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. It takes political decisions at the highest level. Until we have such decisions, it simply makes no sense talking about a possible influx of extrabudgetary funding into science or about its self-financing. Anyway, self-financing is only possible in case of applied research. Basic science everywhere in the world is sponsored by the state.

U.W.: It is clear that the Ukrainian academic science, along with its whole structure, should have switched over to a more efficient model at least 10 years ago. Can it be reformed without destroying whatever we already have?

Any reform should be based on the current situation, because we cannot afford to lose what we have preserved. The reconversion should be carried out very carefully, always in consultation with the professional environment.   Any attempts of mechanically replicating in Ukraine the experience, say, of Georgia, which is now top fashion, or of any other nation, could be disastrous. We have our own deep-rooted traditions: the very same NAS, which is so much criticized today (sometimes rightly so, and sometimes not), was established not by Joseph Stalin, but by the most illustrious Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky, along with Volodymyr Vernadsky.

Ukraine, strange as it may seem, still has first-class science and scientists. Unfortunately, they are largely ignored by the media, since the society prefers quite different public figures. How they manage to survive is not quite clear, since given the amount of funds allocated in recent years, science should have ceased existing long ago. By all international scientometric canons, it is bound to disappear if its funding is lower than a certain critical level. Science is believed to have a direct impact on the economic situation when over 1.7% of GDP is invested in research. This is the conclusion drawn from the study of R&D expenditures in many countries that achieved economic success. Hence the EU Lisbon Strategy (3% of GDP) and the US efforts to keep R&D spending at the level of at least 3% of GDP, while Israel and Sweden spend 4% of GDP on science. For me it is difficult to say today what Ukraine spent on science last year, but in the recent years the funds allocated from the state budget amounted to 0.3% of GDP, plus a little bit from other sources. In 2014, these figures were obviously even less. In 2015, we will have financing at the level of 0.5% of GDP from all sources (including 0.2% of GDP from the state budget). This means that the whole structure of science in Ukraine, including the National Academy of Sciences, universities, industry academies, and research institutes, today costs less than 5 billion hryvnia, which is mere pocket change. But the real tragedy is that some people believe that even this money is unacceptable luxury and should be saved. Many people in the country's top management believe that there is no science in Ukraine. We should dispel this stereotype and show that it is quite the opposite. It is science that can offer brilliant defense solutions that just need to be implemented.

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U.W.: In public discourse, the perception that fundamental science should have strong relations with universities gradually starts to prevail. How strong today is this connection, and how can the situation be balanced in this specific area?

Ukraine has inherited from the past a large sector of extra-university research. It should be preserved and combined with universities as places where science is developing naturally. Once again, quantum mechanics were created by people who were aged 25 at that time. Such people are open to everything new, and this is very important. How can we cope with this task? There are many ways, and they are not revolutionary. We could encourage dual employment on a large scale, as is the case in France. People working for the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) usually also do lecturing. People who pursue science should not lecture 600 hours per year, since this would leave them little time for research. But they need to dedicate at least 200 hours per year to teaching.

Our legislation actually prohibits dual employment, instead of encouraging people from universities to work part-time in research institutes and, vice-versa, scientists to give lectures. Although our budget is limited today, one of the competitions of the State Fund for Fundamental Research was arranged for joint teams of universities and research institutes. We support projects that are carried out by both branches of the academia on a parity basis. We could come up with many more such projects. We need to eliminate certain discrimination that existed previously with respect to academic research, although ultimately it will be simply removed as life goes on, because today both academic institutions and universities are equally bad off.

U.W.: It's no secret that since Ukraine gained independence, buying academic degrees and scientific ranks has become common practice. For instance, former President Viktor Yanukovych called himself a doctor of economic sciences, and many more infamous personalities have acquired fake scientific degrees. What shall we do with these ersatz scientists? It is thanks to them that the whole of Ukrainian scientific community is considered charlatans...

In natural and technology sciences, with a few exceptions, the situation with forged scientific degrees is not so bad. This epidemic has mostly plagued social and humanitarian sciences. When the society is corrupt, it is not realistic to have even one crystal-clear sector, such as science. In other words, the problem is much wider: it's about healing the whole society.

There are also issues related to the scientific community as such. Here we need a policy of zero tolerance for plagiarism and forged research. In the recent years, and this is a very dangerous symptom, the situation with medical sciences has been deteriorating rapidly. As a result, the falsification of clinical trial results to the orders of pharmaceutical companies to prove that certain drugs are effective has become common practice. This is scary. Some constructive results in such situation can only be achieved by joint efforts of the entire academic community.

The Ministry of Education and Science is making some real steps, each State Accreditation Commission makes decisions to annul academic degrees or refuses to award them due to plagiarism. For instance, at the last meeting, an academic council was disbanded after we saw a video of its chairman showing to a student a price list for the whole range of services, from writing a thesis to defending it. If previously everything was limited to talks, today we already have people who were really punished.

Regarding ersatz academicians, I cannot name a single one among Ukrainian physicists. But I understand that in other branches of the National Academy of Sciences the situation is worse.  We had a certain Academician Nikolay Bagrov, who later became a traitor after the annexation of Crimea, defecting to the Russian side. It's no secret that he was an apparatchik rather than a scientist, who became a manager of education. But I would not say that this is a rule. The situation is different in sectoral research academies. Hopefully, if we now become members of the European Research Area (since there are hopes that the agreement on Ukraine joining Horizon 2020 Programme will be signed in March, giving us the rights of European research communities), this will automatically bring about great change. So far, the Academicians were considered to be the most important, but now, simply and naturally, the major players will be those who can effectively compete for European research grants. This reform would be deeper than anything we could do by administrative means.

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U.W.: Do Ukrainian scientists and politicians have a clearly defined national science development strategy for the next 5-10 years? While the needs of physical and exact sciences are clear, what would be the fate of the humanities that are part of the academic basic science?

The future of science is an important issue. There is even such term as foresight, or futures studies, which refers to the research of the areas that may be important today, taking into account their possible use in the real economy of tomorrow. In Ukraine five years ago, there have been attempts of such research, which later stopped. It would be critically important to resume it today, because without it we could not determine priority areas of applied science that we need to support in order to get the products required by the real business and industry. We still have no answer to this, same as no money in our miserable budget. But world-class basic science should be supported, because it is the basis of the knowledge of mankind, without which no other science is possible.

I believe that humanities knowledge is the basis for very many things and for all people. By the way, this is also true for exact sciences. In this sense, science as such has a very strong humanitarian component. I am trying to demonstrate it. Ukrainian science, due to miserable funding, cannot currently bring us Nobel Prizes. It is very expensive, although I must say that all Nobel Prize winners in recent years, at least as far as physics are concerned, had Ukrainian contributors in the near circle. But if this science in our country disappears, the overall level of the society, its intelligence, and its culture would drop drastically. In fact, the Humanities in science and the humanitarian level of science in general are extremely important for the society. Their impact cannot be measured with money. Without this component, there would have been no Revolution of Dignity (Maidan – Ed.).

U.W.: Ukraine has a National Security Council, but still has no state doctrine of social and humanitarian development. Under this perspective, culture, education and science have not yet been recognized as the basis for national security. Is there a way to change the situation?

I don't quite like the term of "humanitarian development strategy," because this also involves a large non-humanitarian component. In fact, we need to talk about science and technology policy, among other things. Whatever words we use, we are talking about the strategy for the future sustainable development of the Ukrainian society. There is no doubt that we need it, but it has to be formed by high-ranking professionals from various areas. I am not aware of any such work currently underway. Naturally, some of its components are now being considered. This refers to the information security, the future of the defense science, and so on. But I haven't heard of anyone preparing a global document that would encompass this all.

However, it is clear to me that one of the reasons for losing Donetsk Airport, besides the errors made by the military commanders, is our fundamental technological inferiority. The Russians are fighting using the latest developments, while we only have patched up Soviet weapons made in the 1980s. This is entirely understandable, because none of the previous governments took the army for something serious, and Ukraine spent on research 50 times less than Russia in the last 25 years. This clearly indicates the state of the national science, the level of technical education, etc. Period. No further comments.

Sadly, the country's management has not yet come to the understanding that science is not just a means of satisfying one's curiosity and a reserve for budget cuts, but the guarantee of the national security. Today, victory belongs to those who have high-precision modern weapons. Ukraine, thank God, still has the scientific potential required for their design and manufacture.

 

BIO

Maksym Strikha is an academic, social and political activist, translator, and writer. Doctor of Physics and Mathematics (1997). Has has been Chief Researcher at the Institute of Semiconductor Physics, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, since 2010; Head of Translation Deparment at the Humanities Institute of Borys Hrinchenko, Taras Shevchenko University since 2010; Vice President of the Higher Education Academy of Sciences of Ukraine since 2010; Vice President of the Ukrainian Writers Association since 2009; and Chairman of the Public Council at the State Agency for Science, Innovations and Informatization of Ukraine since 2011. Deputy Minister of Education in 2008-2010 and since summer 2014

 


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