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Ukraine’s science revolution stumbles five years on

On the anniversary of an uprising that propelled Ukraine away from Russia and towards Europe, scientists say things are improving too slowly.

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People carry pro-science placards during a March for Science rally in Kiev, Ukraine, in April 2018.

Scientists say that Ukraine’s revolution has not yet led to major improvements for its science. Credit: STR/NurPhoto via Getty

Ukraine’s science system is in a precarious state, despite promised improvements in the wake of a revolution five years ago that aligned the country with the European Union.

National science spending remains low, government funding is used inefficiently and low salaries discourage talented students from embarking on research careers in the country.

“We’ve been promised change for years,” says Nataliya Shulga, chief executive of the Ukrainian Science Club, a science-advocacy group in Kiev. “But what’s happened so far is an imitation of change, rather than genuine reform.”

The ‘Euromaidan’ revolution, also known as the Revolution of Dignity, was sparked by a wave of protests and civil unrest that, in February 2014, culminated in a change in leadership. It severed Ukraine’s ties with Russia and prompted the election of a pro-European government, raising hopes among scientists that Western partnerships would form and steer them out of international isolation (see ‘Awaiting a science revolution’).

The initial aftermath was promising: the new government promised to revamp the country’s obsolete, Soviet-style science system, and to boost research and development expenditure. In 2015, Ukraine started participating in EU research programmes as an associated country, giving it the same rights as member states when applying for EU grants. And in early 2016, its parliament passed a law to strengthen science, technology and innovation.

But those early efforts haven’t substantially improved things, say scientists. Government spending on science declined to a historically low 0.16% of gross domestic product in 2016, and has not increased much since.

Scarce money

The little public money that there is goes largely to research institutes operated by the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (NASU) — the country’s main basic-research organization — many of which are outdated. The academy will receive nearly 5 billion hryvnia (US$183 million) from the government in 2019 — almost twice what it received in 2016.

But Shulga says that even this relatively generous pot will not be enough for the academy’s institutes to buy modern research instruments, such as electron microscopes and spectrometry machines, without foreign aid. This in turn limits Ukrainian scientists’ ability to compete with researchers in richer countries.

Patience is wearing thin, in particular among the country’s young scientists, who can barely get by on their scant salaries. PhD students in Ukraine get between 3,000 and 4,800 hryvnia a month, and even experienced researchers rarely earn more than 13,500 hryvnia per month.

Ukraine “deserves a science system worthy of a developed country”, says Yulia Bezvershenko, a physicist at the Bogolyubov Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kiev and a co-chair of the NASU’s Council of Young Scientists.

Deep roots

Ukraine’s science woes have deep roots. Isolation, economic hardship and rampant corruption during the transition from communism to capitalism in the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, prompted thousands of Ukrainian scientists to abandon science or pursue a career abroad.

Then, in 2004, mass protests helped to elect a pro-Western president, who promised to improve relations with the EU. But science benefited little from the political turnover, and a Russia-leaning president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was elected in 2010, decided to end talks on an association agreement with the EU, triggering the Euromaidan uprising.

Some things are changing, albeit slowly. A new grant-giving agency is expected to become operational this year. The National Research Foundation of Ukraine will fund individual scientists and groups on the basis of independent peer review. And over the next few years, the share of national research funding distributed on such a competitive basis is to double from around 20% to 40%, says physicist Anatoly Zagorodny, a vice-president of NASU, which employs more than 15,000 researchers across 160 institutes.

But many scientists in Ukraine want more changes, more quickly. Ahead of the presidential election in March, and parliamentary elections later this year, leading scientists are calling for more government support for science, which they see as the key to improving not just research, but also the ailing economy.

“There’s no way to modernize Ukraine’s economy without strengthening research and development capacity in our country,” says Zagorodny.

Modernizing mission

Efforts are under way to streamline and modernize the academy, a mammoth organization that has been led for decades by metallurgist Boris Paton, who turned 100 last year. In Ukraine, as in many other former Soviet countries, researchers at the NASU, rather than at universities, do almost all the basic science.

An evaluation of 94 NASU institutes carried out between 2016 and 2018 by more than 440 Ukrainian reviewers, deemed 21 of the institutes to be outdated or underperforming. This has led to the closure of more than 200 research departments, collectively employing 4,700 staff, says Zagorodny, who acknowledges that the academy is underfunded and overstaffed, and that parts of it produce little competitive science.

And, he adds, deficient units, such as the academy’s coal-energy-technology institute in Kiev and an institute of geotechnical mechanics in Dnipro, are also slated to be reorganized or closed.

But critics point out that the review involved few foreign specialists, so might have failed to reveal the full scope of the academy’s weaknesses — and just how out of date it is with the needs of modern science.

Alexej Verkhratsky, a neuroscientist at the University of Manchester, UK, describes the academy as “outdated”: in his opinion, it should be rebuilt from scratch. Some academy researchers do produce good science — for example, in astronomy, theoretical physics and mathematics, says Verkhratsky, who led a research group at the its Bogomoletz Institute of Physiology in the 1990s. But even for those pockets of excellence, money for activities such as travelling to meetings abroad, or for buying lab equipment, is generally lacking. The academy’s competitive labs should be merged with Ukrainian universities to create European-style research universities and to link research and teaching, suggests Verkhratsky.

Zagorodny acknowledges that many institutes are insufficiently equipped and cannot afford to replace outdated equipment. The reason why only a few foreign experts were involved in the evaluation was a lack of money, too, he says.

But he doesn’t agree that the academy should be dismantled or merged with universities. Following the reorganization, research will focus on technological and socio-economic priorities, including communication technologies, energy, environmental management, life sciences and materials research. “Many institutes and departments must indeed change, and some changes are already in progress,” he says. Moreover, he says, the academy launched a 1-million-hryvnia programme for young researchers last year to prevent talent from leaving science or pursuing a career abroad.

EU disappointments

The country’s science struggle also limits its participation in EU-funded competitive research. As of January, Ukrainian researchers had received a modest €19 million (US$24 million) from the EU’s €80-billion Horizon 2020 research-funding programme, in which they compete on equal terms with researchers from other EU member states and from other associated countries. Its smaller east-European EU neighbours, Poland and Romania, for comparison, received €340 million and €131 million, respectively (see ‘EU grants success’).

Source: European Commission

As yet, Ukraine has failed to win any grants from the European Research Council (ERC), the EU’s flagship mechanism for funding basic research.

The Ukrainian government has asked the European Commission’s policy-support facility — a service designed to help nations improve their participation in EU research programmes — to map the country’s existing research facilities and make concrete recommendations for how to update them.

At a ministerial meeting in Kiev last month, research-policy specialists with the commission urged Ukraine to speed up the pace of reforms to become more internationally competitive in science. “Ukraine’s government has outlined ambitious reform plans,” says Luca Polizzi, a research-policy officer in the commission’s research and innovation directorate in Brussels. “Now it must put the same effort into implementing these plans.”

But many doubt that the required changes will come from the top. “We do have power to change the system,” says Bezvershenko. “But if we want things to change, the revolution of dignity must proceed in our everyday life.”

Nature 566, 162-163 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00512-3
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