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26 January, 2019  ▪  

The year of grants

What are the prospects for the sciences in Ukraine in 2019?

 

 

The big deal coming up for science administration in Ukraine is the launch of the National Research Foundation (NRF), an agency that is supposed to issue grant money transparently. The hope is that it will counter the brain drain from the sciences and raise the quality of research. However, the launch is already facing some hurdles.

An independent European audit of Ukraine’s research infrastructure carried out under the Horizon 2020 program showed that lack of funding is the key issue that underlies all the other problems facing the country: outdated research facilities, low salaries for scientists, and the brain drain from the country’s scientific ranks. Nor will 2019 turn out to be the breakthrough year as far as funding is concerned. For one thing, funding for the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is being pegged at UAH 4.6bn—as much as has been earmarked for the Central Electoral Commission. The Law “On science and scientific and technological activities” states that funding allocated to the sciences should be at least 1.7% of GDP. Right now, it’s 0.27%.

In 2019, on the other hand, the National Council for the Development of Science and Technology is expected to start functioning fully, together with the NRF. The National Council was set up back in 2017, in accordance with Art. 20 of the law on science, as an advisory body under the Cabinet of Ministers and directed by the Premier’s Office. It includes world-class academics with a high reputation and it is expected to advise the government on the development of science in the country. The administrative committee includes the education minister, other ministers, officials from oblast state administrations, and the rectors of leading post-secondary institutions. The Council is to meet at least once every quarter but so far it has only convened once, in January 2018.

The 2019 Budget provides only UAH 509,000 for this body to operate, which is very little.

“The system where scientists advise the government has proved excellent in Europe, for example,” explains Yulia Bezvershenko, deputy chair of the Council of Young Scientists at the NAS. “That’s why we saw the National Council as primarily an advisory body that provides a platform for scientists, profile ministries and business to discuss the development of science and its role in the country’s well-being as equals. When the Council got together in January, the premier tried made it very clear that he wanted to take on the political leadership in reforming science. Everything looked pretty good. But now it’s been almost a year and there’s no dialog at all. The science committee cannot present its accomplishments and propositions to speed up the founding of the National Foundation itself.”

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Bezvershenko says that the Council needs funding, regardless of the fact that the scientists in it work on a voluntary basis. The money needs to go to set up an analytical department to collect data about Ukraine’s science system.

“This unit would work over the data that would then be audited by the science committee, discussed with government officials and provide the foundation for real policy,” says Bezvershenko. “Scientific statistics are at a very low level here and they need to be handled by professionals. Not long ago, the CEDOS think-tank undertook a study among some of the country’s best educational institutions. It turned out that the quality of the work of the Academy of Teaching Sciences is under considerable question. This is the kind of work the analytical unit under the National Council should be doing: collecting statistics and analyzing them. Only when we have the right information will it be possible to make policy decisions that are appropriate and well-reasoned. And so funding needs to be provided to set up such a service. Without it, the science committee will do a lot less than it could and should. It was hard to explain the need for this funding. What’s worse, committee members from outside Kyiv were not paid back for their travel to Kyiv, although this is required by law.”

On July 4, the Government established the National Research Foundation and it will begin issuing grant in the new year. Of the minimal budget of UAH 300mn requested, the NRF received only UAH 262mn. Even its legal status is still in the air: the Cabinet is in no hurry to confirm an interim head for the Foundation, and without a director the institution cannot be registered as a legal entity. This has already cost the Foundation its status as the main manager of budget funds. Right now, the NRF remains under a ministry, which violates both the Law “On scientific and science and scientific and technological activities” and the very notion of the Foundation as independent agency that is equidistant from all players in science.

“At one point, there was talk of UAH 1 billion, but UAH 262mn is not bad for a start,” says Stanislav Vilchynskiy, a PhD in physics and maths who was selected to the NRF’s Science Board. “The State Basic Research Foundation is a department under the Ministry of Education and Science that already exists today and has a budget that is considerably smaller. I get the impression that Groisman is putting a lot of hope in the Foundation and understands how important it is, but there are people in the Ministry who are resisting this. The first signal should go from the National Council, which also includes officials from MES. My personal opinion is that they have been deliberately protracting the registration of the Foundation. I have good reason to believe that those running the current State Foundation, which will cease to exist the minute the NRF is registered, are doing everything they can to prevent this from happening.”

The Foundation has three sections: 14 researchers in mathematics and natural sciences, 9 researchers in biology, medicine and agronomy, and 7 researchers in the humanities. All told, the Science Board includes 30 scientists.

“The members of the Science Board of the NRF were selected on September 16, with more than 5 individuals competing for each spot in all the sections,” explains Vilchynskiy. “However, the documents approving the members of the council have been sitting on Ms. Hrynevych’s desk ever since [Liliya Hrynevych, Minister of Education and Science]. As soon as the Science Board is legally formalized, we will elect a head and heads of each of the sections. After that, we will hold a competition to select an executive director for the NRF, hire a staff of 60, and begin holding competitions for grants as soon as the budget money is in the Foundation’s account.

“Once the Foundation is registered, it will become completely independent structurally from MES,” Vilchynskiy continues. “But for this to all work properly, the ministry needs to also prepare a request to the Cabinet to appoint an acting director of the NRF who will, in accordance with the law, carry out the registration. This seems to be the point that MES is being openly dilatory over, and the impression is that it will continue to do so until mid-2019. The point is that, until the NRF is officially registered, its budget for 2019 – UAH 262mn – will be sitting in the ministry’s account. If the Foundation is not registered, the money will continue to sit there, with all the possible consequences and prospects.”

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According to Vilchynskiy, the projects that the Foundation will issue grants to will have to meet the highest European standards, as the minimum grant will be UAH 1 million for 12 months. Every project will be independently and transparently vetted by experts and the members of the Science Board will provide support for both fundamental research, such as natural and technical sciences, and applied research. 

“We will be especially working to foster research by young academics, as one of the purposes of the Foundation is to stop the brain drain by offering talented researchers the conditions for normal work,” says Vilchynskiy. “I’ve had many opportunities to talk with young researchers who are working abroad. Many of them would like to return but Ukraine doesn’t currently offer the kinds of opportunities and funding that they need. I’m hoping that the NRF will be able to do this, even if only for a limited number of young scientists – provided that it gets up and running.”

Meanwhile, President Poroshenko approved the decision to establish a fund worth UAH 1 billion to support young people, master’s degree holders, post-graduates, and PhD students. The assumption is that it will start working in 2018 as well, although how it’s supposed to work isn’t clear yet. Altogether, the hope is that, starting in 2019, Ukraine will finally have a system to properly fund scientific projects through grants.

By Oleh Feya

 

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj 

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