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19 September, 2019  ▪  

Science & Technology: Diagnosis and treatment

Ukraine’s scientific sphere needs to be overhauled and invested in

Maksym Strikha

One thing that is acknowledged broadly is Ukraine’s strong scientific tradition. The country can take proud credit for a number of global discoveries. In 1932, a team led by Oleksandr Leipunskiy at the Ukrainian Institute of Physics and Technology in Kharkiv was the first in continental Europe to split a lithium nucleus. In 1940 in Kyiv, Vadym Lashkariov conducted the first experimental research into the PN junction involving silicon, a fundamental element of modern electronics. In 1951, a team led by Serhiy Lebedev in Feofania, a suburb of Kyiv, launched the first computer in continental Europe, while the world’s first Encyclopedia of Cyberneticswas edited by Viktor Hlushkov and published in Ukrainian in 1973, also in Kyiv. In the 1930s in Kharkiv, Lev Landau developed the theory of second-order phase transitions, while Mykola Boholiubov published Lectures on Quantum Statistics in the late 1940s in Kyiv. Also in Ukrainian, this was one of the most important academic texts of the 20thcentury. The list of accomplishments continues into the present: detector crystals grown in Kharkiv helped discover the Higgs boson in an experiment at the Large Hadron Collider in 2012.

On the academic side

Formed in the 1960-1980s under Borys Paton’s leadership, the Ukrainian SSR Academy of Sciences was unique in the Soviet Union. It was far better integrated into the command economy than the Soviet Union’s Academy of Sciences or the academies of the other republics. The phrase patonization of sciencewas coined here: critics used it to reflect the focus on R&D that was customized to the needs of the republic’s economy, thanks to Dr. Paton, president of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences since 1962. This system of academic science has barely changed since. Although academy staff has almost halved in the years since independence, virtually all of its institutes are still operating. Some continue to contribute to the progress of global science and technology, while others were set up to serve industries that vanished two decades ago.

Throughout all the transformations in Ukrainian society, the National Academy of Sciences has kept its leading place in the country’s system of scientific development. Art. 17 of the Law on scientific and technological activity allocates 55% of all public funding for science to the NAS. Together with five sector-oriented academies established in the years of independence – medicine, agriculture, teaching, law and the arts—, the academic sector receives 68% of the entire science budget.

Apart from the Ukrainian SSR Academy, the scientific segment had two other important components in the soviet period: sectoral institutes and institutions of higher education. The task of thousands of sectoral institutes was to work on various technological solutions for industry. These institutes employed severalfold more researchers than the Academy itself, even if work there was seen as less prestigious and academic prospects were largely limited to the level of a candidate of sciences, a degree between a Master’s and a Doctor’s. Few PhDs or professors worked at the sectoral “boxes,” a term reflecting the secret status of many of these institutions with just the mailbox index for an address. Most of these institutes were turned into joint stock companies and privatized in the 1990s. Just a few hundred survive today, that have adjusted to the market environment and provide proper R&D services to clients.

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In Western countries, fundamental science is still mostly developed at universities, where senior and PhD students engage in research. The Soviet Union mostly looked at universities as educational facilities. Their staff had to focus on lectures and do research in their free time. As a result, there was no public funding for university science in the Soviet Union. Its only source of money was R&D commissioned by state enterprises. This made university researchers more flexible and ambitious compared to their Academy peers. By habit, the latter still see universities as places where no serious science takes place because intense lecturing leaves no time for it.

Throughout the years of independence, there have been many calls for Ukraine to turn its universities into key scientific research centers, following American or British models. The 2014 Law on higher education defined science and R&D as mandatory activities for post-secondary institutions, alongside the teaching component. The Law on scientific and technological activity placed university research on an equal footing with academics in 2015. But real numbers don’t reflect official declarations: less than 15% of the total science and R&D budget goes to university research in Ukraine today. Some university R&D work is funded through education funds allocated to thematic research in individual departments, but this has not made much of a difference.

Despite all this, universities have grown into serious players in Ukraine’s scientific efforts since 1991. For the last four years, university researchers have been publishing more articles in journals referenced in WoS and Scopus databases than their Academy of Sciences peers and the gap keeps growing. Universities and NAS institutes contribute 26% of Ukrainian researchers to the Horizon 2020 winning consortia each. One positive trend in the past 18 months has been that innovative SMEs contribute a whopping 42%. Finally, universities make nearly 80 kopiykas on every hryvnia they receive from the public purse in contracts with domestic and international clients. By contrast, NAS institutes make around 20 kopiykas.

It has to be admitted that, since independence, science and R&D have hardly ever been a priority for Ukraine’s politicians. Finance ministers saw it as an expenditure rather than as critical investment in the future. Sadly, researchers themselves and the NAS leadership contributed to this attitude because of their reluctance to consider even cosmetic changes to the system inherited from the soviets: the room where the Academy’s presidium meets still displays a marble stele with quotes from decrees by Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Georgadze awarding the Academy soviet orders. Even in the run-up to the NAS’s centenary, a proposal to replace these quotes with Hetman Pavlo Skoropadskiy’s law on the founding of the Academy, which was much more broadly acceptable, was treated as “heretical” and never implemented.

As a result, the National Academy of Sciences is generally seen as an “assembly of the very elderly” and pragmatic politicians are increasingly reluctant to discuss any increase in funding for scientific activity. The consequences are clear: the equipment and technology at most the country’s scientific institutions are hopelessly outdated, even though serious research is impossible without expensive modern equipment—and salaries are miserable. All this pushes researchers, especially the young and proactive, to emigrate or to change jobs. The total number involved in scientific activity has plummeted fivefold from over 300,000 researchers in 1991. Ukraine lags behind all of its neighbors, including Poland, Romania and Turkey, for the number of scientists per 10,000 adults, although 20 years ago it was ahead of them.

War tips the scales

The current war partly affected attitudes, as it has hit science hard. Ukraine lost 95% of its marine research infrastructure, the only highland astrophysical observatory in Crimea, the most modern telescope, the best center for catastrophic medicine, and more. 27 universities and research institutes have relocated away from the occupied territories since 2014. Nearly 12,000 researchers and lecturers had to leave their jobs and start from scratch elsewhere, as their equipment, materials, libraries, lecture halls, and homes lay on the other side of the line of contact.

Meanwhile, politicians and the public have understood that Ukraine’s researchers and engineers are the only possible developers of defensive and offensive weapons under a de factoembargo on weapon supplies from Western “allies.” A great deal has been done over these last few years. Ukraine now has its own high-performance multipurpose drones, new missile systems using new fuels, reliable communications systems, world-class tactical combat care methods, and more.

And so, changes in science and R&D have begun after 25 years of mere talk. They are still fragmentary and restricted by the wartime lack of funding, but they are at least underway. The Verkhovna Rada passed a new version of the Law on scientific and technological activity in late November 2015, the product of a difficult compromise between various reformers with diverging views of reform, and conservatives from the NAS with their desire to avoid change. The law introduced a number of important provisions democratizing science, restricting terms of office for all top positions to two, deepening international scientific cooperation – Ukraine joined the EU’s Horizon 2020 program in 2015 as associate member—, diversifying funding for research, and introducing a new procedure for certifying scientific institutions based on authorizing meaningful scientific hubs, not those imitating activity.

Public attention is now primarily focused on two innovations: the establishment of the National Science and Technology Development Council chaired by the PM, and the National Research Fund. An international audit of Ukraine’s science and innovations initiated by the Ministry of Education and Science and conducted by EU experts in 2016 using Horizon 2020 political tools generally approved these innovations in its 7 key points and 30 recommendations for Ukraine’s leadership. The auditors paid specific attention to the work of the National Council as the coordinator of all scientific policies in Ukraine and the National Fund as the entity providing grant money for scientific projects, regardless of the institution or industry they work in. At the same time, the audit noted that, with its long-standing tradition of science, Ukraine did not fit into the general scheme, and needed customized solutions.

The EU assessment

Ukraine’s EU partners positively assessed the country’s progress in reforming its scientific sector at the Ukraine-EU science cooperation commission in January 2019. The National Council has started working, even if less frequently or deeply than what the law calls for. The National Fund has been set up as a legal entity with UAH 262mn allocated for 2019 as separate funding and not just a temporary patch. EU experts have also noted the significant success of Ukrainian scientists in international cooperation: 138 consortia with 198 Ukrainian scientific institutions, universities and R&D SMEs have earned funding under Horizon 2020. Overall, €24mn has come to Ukraine through Horizon 2020. Associate membership has become a commercially successful project for the country, as Ukraine received more from the program than what it contributed as a member.

European Commission experts have defined three key problems facing science in Ukraine today:

·          extremely poor funding;

·          lack of an effective innovation system to ensure the commercialization of R&D results;

·          an unreformed, outdated and inflexible system at the NAS.

They noted that trying to solve any one of these problems without solving the other two would fail. Politicians will never allocate more funding to an unreformed Academy, especially when it lacks proper links between research labs and manufacturing. Ukraine’s science and technology system is intertwined, and neither the NAS, nor universities are monopolists in it. So it is wrong to speak of any islands of improvement in an environment of overall degeneration.

Tiny steps forward

In fact, funding for science has increased 77% in absolute numbers over the past three years, from UAH 5.289bn in 2016 to UAH 9.364bn in 2019. But it is still just 0.24% of GDP compared to an average of 2% in the EU. The Government’s approval in July of the Innovation Sector Development Strategy developed by the MES jointly with scientists and business representatives sent a positive signal this July. Much more legislation has to be passed soon to support it. 

Two other serious problems stem from the three noted: one relates to youth and the other to research infrastructure. The Kharkiv Institute for Physics and Technology offers a good illustration of the first problem: it has 2,000 staff and just nine PhD students. This means that it has no future, despite its unique schools and equipment. Other institutes of the National Academy of Sciences are in a somewhat better position, but still far from normal. The share of young teams has grown from 0.5% to 1.5% in the science budget over the past three years, mostly thanks to the Ministry of Education and Science, which allocates almost 11% of its total funding for science in universities to the young.

Despite largely outdated equipment and technology in most institutions, the ultramodern Neutron Source Facility at the Kharkiv Institute for Physics and Technology was built with American funding as a compensation for giving up its stocks of plutonium. The facility is unique, not just in Ukraine but in the whole of Europe. Otherwise, though, Ukrainian scientists can only envy their colleagues in Poland, Romania and Baltic States, which have built ultramodern labs with structural funds from the EU. Ukraine has no access to these funds for now. 

The Ministry of Education and Science has funded the construction of 15 centers for the collective use of equipment, each servicing several universities and scientific institutions based on their specialization. This policy is already bringing positive results. Two young talents said that they would not emigrate at the opening ceremony of the Ivan Franko University’s Laboratory of Intermetallic Compounds, a collective-use research equipment center in Lviv. They can now do more complex work at home. Ukraine needs many more such centers equipped with the technology worth tens of thousands of euros, and even millions of euros in some cases.

Looking to the future

When Ukraine’s new Government starts working in a few more weeks, it will face a number of challenges in science:

·          to complete the launch of the National Research Fund. The ball is in the science and research community’s court now: it needs to propose someone to be the Fund’s executive director;

·          to introduce basic funding for priority research in universities based on a government audit. The 2020 budget already allocates the initial UAH 100mn;

·          to increase salaries for researchers and investment in research infrastructure;

·          to successfully negotiate Ukraine’s status in Horizon Europe, the EU’s next framework research initiative.

Preparations have already started. The new Government will have to make good use of what its predecessors accomplished so far. At the same time, questions will remain about the future status of the National Research Fund and the National Academy of Sciences, which have not been subject to wide public discussion yet.

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The current law makes the Fund fully independent of the executive agencies. As a result, it cannot be an effective tool to support sectoral R&D, such as defense, medicine, the environment, and so on. The scientific community decides on its priorities through its delegates to the National Council Science Committee and the Research Council of the Fund will always put the support of “high” fundamental science first. One option is to accept the Fund’s current fully independent status, in which case it will focus on what experts refer to as excellent science. Another option is for the Fund to become a player in a much bigger field. Then it will be the Government that defines thematic and sectoral priorities. EU experts suggested the second option three years ago.

When it comes to the NAS, ideas vary, ranging from “leave the organization as is and increase the funding” to “merge NAS institutes with universities.” Some propose a compromise: establish a powerful public research concern like the French CNRS on the basis of functional institutions based on a state audit, and transform the National Academy of Sciences into a collegium of academics and associate fellows, a community of scientists respected and supported by the state, similar to the National Academy of Sciences in the US or the Royal Society in the UK.

If the country’s politicians really care about developing science in Ukraine, they will finally launch reforms in this most conservative segment of the science and research system. It’s important that any reform is discussed with and accepted by the majority of the scientific community. Researchers should see it as an opportunity to introduce new European rules, not as a cover-up for yet another round of asset distribution. It’s equally important to bring serious money to this process, including from the private sector.



Maksym Strikha

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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