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Ukraine scientists grow impatient for change

Nature volume 440, pages 132133 (09 March 2006) | Download Citation

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Researchers still waiting for a dividend from the ‘orange revolution’.

Ukraine's ‘orange revolution’ — a national protest against corruption that overthrew the first results of the country's 2004 election — raised hopes for political and societal change. But more than a year on, scientists are increasingly frustrated by the slow pace of reform of the country's Soviet-style research system, which they believe is being hampered by Ukraine's aged and anti-European scientific establishment.

“Nothing will change in Ukrainian science as long as the current system exists”

The nation, which has a population of 48 million and is Europe's second-largest country in terms of area, has a long tradition in science and hosts an extensive network of academic institutes and research facilities. But, as it did elsewhere in Eastern Europe, science declined dramatically after the collapse of communism in 1991, forcing thousands of researchers to leave the country.

When Viktor Yushchenko came into power in January 2005, it was hoped that the pro-West president would encourage a fundamental reform of the science system. But critics say that the promised switch to less a authoritarian system has hardly begun.

The focal point of criticism is the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (NASU), which runs 174 institutes and employs around 28,000 researchers. The powerful academy, a relic of the Soviet science complex, dominates Ukrainian science. The average age of the academicians is about 71; the president, Boris Paton, an expert in electric welding and the son of the former president, is 85.

The bulk of the academy's activities relate to mechanics, material sciences and physics — euphemisms, according to critics, for former military-oriented engineering institutes. And productivity is low. According to the Thomson Scientific (ISI) statistics, academy scientists publish around 1,500 papers a year — roughly one-third of the output of Britain's University of Manchester alone.

Russian premier Vladimir Putin (left) salutes academy president Boris Paton, aged 85. Image: E. LUKATSKY/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

But critics say the academy is not interested in carrying out an independent review of its scientific performance. There are also claims of widespread corruption. For example, an attempt to create closer ties between Ukraine and western European institutions by linking Ukraine to GÉANT, the high-speed European data communication network, was allegedly hindered by academy members demanding bribes. Another complaint is that the academy leaders, fearing competition and loss of influence, are blocking attempts to facilitate Ukraine's participation in research programmes funded by the European Union (EU), by deliberately holding back information and generally failing to cooperate with EU authorities.

“The Academy is not interested in any reform whatsoever,” says Aleksei Boyarski, a theoretical physicist at CERN, the European lab for particle physics in Geneva, Switzerland. “Nothing will change in Ukrainian science as long as this system exists.”

Ukrainian scientists are eligible for EU research money thanks to a 2002 association agreement with the European Commission's framework programme for research. But so far, only seven out of thousands of EU-funded projects include Ukrainian participants, says Vadym Yashenkov, deputy director of Ukraine's National Information Point for EU research.

According to Yashenkov, this is partly because of the general weakness of Ukrainian science and industry, and the complicated application procedures that put off many scientists.

But participation is also hindered because the academy fails to provide and disseminate relevant documents and information, says Oleh Napov, a science attaché at the Ukrainian mission to the EU in Brussels, Belgium. For example, Napov has submitted a proposal for scientific reform to the Ukrainian research ministry. He says that when he asked the academy to outline its scientific priorities, he received only a list of the names and titles of all current academicians, and a letter stating that the academicians themselves were the academy's priorities.

“Maybe they have not asked us in a proper way,” counters Yaroslav Yatskiv, director of the Main Astronomical Observatory in Kiev, and a member of the academy's presidium. The president, Paton, had not responded to queries when Nature went to press.

Yatskiv says he is aware that corruption is a widespread problem within the academy. “It is true, unfortunately, that funding is not based on scientific merit,” he says. But he adds that efforts to evaluate and possibly transform the academy are being considered.

Brain drain

Yatskiv has recently proposed the creation of a National Science Foundation that, like its US counterpart, would fund research on the sole basis of excellence judged by peer review. But Paton last year told a presidium meeting that the future role of the academy should be similar to that of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, another relic of the Soviet science complex. “I don't think this is a good idea,” says Yatskiv.

Resistance to the academy's backward-looking plans is growing, both inside and outside Ukraine. A 13-strong group of Ukrainian scientists, led by Boyarski, has suggested to the country's science ministry a detailed concept of domestic reform, including rigorous evaluation of all academy institutes, the creation of an international institute of advanced study in Kiev and of a number of centres of excellence supported by the EU.

“Things back home really need to improve substantially,” says Alexej Verkhratsky, a Ukrainian-born neurophysiologist at the University of Manchester and a member of Boyarski's group. “If they don't, our best young people will soon have left for good. A considerable number of Ukrainian scientists working abroad (myself included) would come back if things were reorganized.”

“We have the same potential, scientifically and politically, as Poland or Hungary to become a genuine part of Europe,” adds Oleg Krishtal, deputy director of the academy's Bogomoletz institute of physiology in Kiev. “What we need is proper political stimulus. Clearly, the academy cannot repair itself as long as the old guard is keeping all the key positions.”

Christian Patermann, director for biotechnology, agriculture and food at the European commission's directorate general for research in Brussels, led an EU delegation to Ukraine last month. He says that the country's scientific potential in areas such as materials sciences, energy, space and organic farming is impressive and deserves European support. Patermannn is optimistic that the academy will not ultimately stand in the way of reform. “The Czech Republic, Hungary and the Baltic countries have all managed to reform their academies of science; sooner or later this will also happen in Ukraine.”

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