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24 February, 2015  ▪  Ihor Losiev

Trouble at the Academy

On the maladies afflicting Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences and its chances of recovery

The institution that is now called the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (NAS) was founded in 1918. Hetman Pavlo Skoropadskyi stood behind the creation of the Academy, and its first president was the world-renowned scientist Volodymyr Vernadskyi. It was then, in November 1918, that a boy named Borys was born who was destined to lead the Academy for 52 years. Although the NAS has not produced any Nobel laureates, it can be found in the Guiness Book of World Records thanks to the administrative longevity of its leader, Borys Paton.

In this regard, the NAS is definitely "a world leader". In a few years, the institution will celebrate its 100th anniversary. For the last 23 years, Ukraine has been run by figures who were not concerned with knowledge and philosophical wisdom, but with a powerful grasping reflex. They occasionally raise the issue of something being unnecessary and redundant after they drive that something to such state, in order to privatize, optimize and utilize it for the benefit of a narrow circle of limited people. While the NAS amassed considerable property during its decades-long existence, it has often been the subject of envious scrutiny resulting in proposals for its rearranging or re-subordination. These attempts to exercise the grabbing instinct, a strong one in post-communist states, were camouflaged as concerns about the institution being redundant. When the Ukrainian army was looted (after the dissolution of the USSR—Ed.), the looters were similarly questioning the need of its own military machinery in a peaceful Ukrainian nation that has “good friends just across the border”.

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Not all countries can afford to finance strong fundamental sciences. It is quite expensive indeed. However, science can provide a country with great long-term competitive advantages, advanced breakthrough technologies, strategic perspectives and more.

Here much depends on whether state leaders are able to think strategically rather than simply to consider narrow business or administrative career interests, and whether they are capable of planning for the long term.

Great science is intended for the long-term history of society. It cannot exist under a government run by a fussy, kleptocratic class of hucksters who think only of the here and now, forcing the country to start a "new life" with each new group that manages to take control of the state apparatus. This is precisely why renowned sociologist Yevhen Holovakha called their domination a "momentocracy".

Great science is cherished by those peoples that are going to live long and seriously in this world, who do not measure their lives with short-sighted imperatives, where everything is limited to the short interval between elections.

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Ukrainians, in spite of everything, are quite educated, predisposed to learning and intellectual activity, and the NAS still holds some strong scientific schools of thought, traditions, research skills and so on.

That very scientific potential is still one of Ukraine’s few true trump cards in the international division of labor. Without advanced sciences (and a chance to preserve and develop them), Ukraine will quickly slide into the Third World, becoming a country of slow development and accelerated degradation.

Given the proper societal and governmental attitudes, science can provide Ukraine with new technologies, innovation, and fundamental discoveries that will change the landscape of production, lifestyle, interaction with the environment, and more. If it is destroyed, then what will remain for us as a benchmark of progress? A flock of businesspeople that can’t see anything beyond their immediate commercial success. Ukraine’s international weight will be much smaller without its scientific component, for science provides potential and opportunities that, while they may not be realized today, are certainly positive and worth preserving. We might compare this with Britain and France without nuclear weapons. How much do the sciences do for them, considering the significant advantage of global nuclear superpowers and the presence of a US nuclear umbrella under which they can always hide? However, without science, the weight of these countries in Europe and the world would be markedly reduced. And now look at us. Ukraine with science is one thing; Ukraine without science is something completely different. Thus, academic science is crucial. However, does Ukraine need an organizational structure like the National Academy of Sciences? What we see now is a typical product of the Soviet reality with all its virtues and faults. That is why it is very difficult for it to function in a modern environment.

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The NAS is a huge company with dozens of "shops"—institutes and laboratories with thousands of workers. This hierarchical structure forms a sort of pyramid with a supreme power at the top: the President and the Presidium of the NAS. Beneath them is the academic nomenklatura: academics and associate members, and even lower, the scientific "commonwealth": virtually powerless researchers, even if they are doctors and PhDs. For almost nothing here depends on them, they do not affect the life of this organization in any way, and decisions are made without them and for them. Eventually, regulations are merely passed down to them from the academic authorities. Nothing akin to “transparent” mechanisms of democratic self-government exists here that might differentiate the NAS from a pseudo-democratic soviet government.

Elections of academics and associate members occur without the participation of research teams from academic institutions (maybe a little more democratic than the election of the Pope by the College of Cardinals, but not much). The nomenklatura of academic elites decides everything backstage. This leads to rather predictable consequences. The membership of the National Academy of Sciences is often completely unrelated to real scientific advances. One might be a politician, chief of the Presidential Administration, an MP, leader of a political party and a nobody in science, but due to one’s political "merit" and proximity to power, one might become an academician, often with all the "achievements" of several ordinary scientific articles and a monograph. One figure that carried such baggage became famous during the 2004 presidential campaign for his almost criminal actions related to rigging the vote, yet this did not prevent him from becoming an academician. It is predominately among academics in the humanities that we find such “scholars” whose great contribution to the science of their colleagues is completely unknown.

Because the system for electing academics is completely undemocratic, secretive, and driven by caste and nomenklatura, it is not at all conducive to healthy human resource processes. Thus, under Yanukovych’s presidency,  comrade Valeriy Soldatenko, skilled historian of the Communist Party, became a NAS associate member in the field of History instead of renowned scientists, such as Stanislav Kulchytskyi, Volodymyr Serhiychuk, and others. There is another example: for five years, the Institute of Philosophy has nominated Anatoliy Yermolenko as a candidate for NAS associate member. Though he has great influence not only among Ukrainian philosophers, but also in German philosophical circles in Europe and has made great scientific achievements, the top of the academic pyramid has steadfastly ignored these proposals. NAS research teams must be allowed to participate in the election of academics and associate members, otherwise nothing will be updated and the system is guaranteed to become a gerontocracy—rule by the elderly. Yes, many of them have made their contributions to science. But a natural process of generational shift is required if science is not to fall into decay. Of course, this is difficult because the very same man who served as President of the National Academy of Sciences in '96 was still in charge in 2014.


Unfortunately, the NAS has not managed to shed the spirit of Sovietism and Russophilism. Sergei Glazyev, a willful Ukrainophobe and provincial Russian activist with an economics education became the most difficult manifestation of this problem when he was elected a foreign member of the NAS. Now senior veterans in the NAS are standing behind Glazyev to their death, saying that his honorary status cannot be revoked. In another case, The author of this article personally acted as an expert consult on a state deputy’s inquiry into his plan to establish a monument to Russian Emperor Alexander II in Kyiv.

Despite all of the above shortcomings, the National Academy of Sciences should be saved through radical and fundamental reforms based on more than merely the diametrically opposed models of the US and Russia that entail either total separation from the state, or complete state control, and nothing in between. The NAS should become a democratic self-governing structure. In this sense, it is necessary to look at the experience of some post-communist Central European countries such as the Czech Republic. There, the Academy of Sciences was not dismantled, but preserved by substantially modifying its structure and management. 54 of its institutions operate on money from government programs as well as grants (i.e. grants for the work of individual scientists at home) thanks in particular to the EU. Where there’s a will, there’s a suitable model to borrow. However, it is clear that the NAS cannot continue to exist in its current archaic, overly bureaucratic form. It is transforming from a living and active organization into a monument to itself. We need new ideas, new forms, and new leaders. History has challenged us. We must respond.

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