Science is at the heart of the reform process

20 March 2015 University World News Global Edition Issue 359

Scientific innovation and social reform are intrinsically linked in Ukraine but to create an effective scientific ecosystem will require systemic changes. 

Last summer, a new higher education law was finally passed. It was a true victory for the academic community, civil society and the revolution.

University World News has addressed the issues around the passing of the law many times. Work is currently focusing on the implementation of this law, which aims to give Ukrainian universities more academic, financial and organisational autonomy. But the reality is not straightforward.

The reality today

Ultimately, the reforms (including those in the fields of education and science) are being carried out in a climate of undeclared war between Russia and Ukraine – and at a time of economic recession and falling gross domestic product, or GDP.

That is why more often than not the higher education agenda is dominated by the need to make cuts rather than financing reform. Moreover, some 26 academic institutions have been evacuated from the combat zone, including 16 universities.

Second, the fact that the higher education law was passed has demonstrated the durability of post-Soviet thinking in which scientific activity is considered in isolation from the rest of higher education. It would have been better to pass a higher education and research law, but that was not possible at the time.

Third, the corrupt Ukrainian bureaucratic system needs special attention. The policy of decentralisation and deregulation, and reforms of the legal and police system, are gradually yielding results, but this is slow.

Fourth, the conservative National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine is the greatest obstacle to successful reform. The academy is headed by an outstanding scientist, Borys Paton, who was born in the year of its foundation in 1918. Thanks to his consistent position the academy was not ruined in the 1990s, but now its refusal to act decisively is condemning the system of scientific research to inevitable decline.

Fifth, we are seeing a renewal and strengthening of our institutions of higher education, a reduction in their number and new quality standards, especially in relation to scientific criteria.

Following adoption of the higher education law, the total number of universities has fallen from 802 to 317 (some universities have changed category and are now vocational education colleges). By the end of this academic year, the total number of universities will fall even further, mainly due to the withdrawal of licences for low-quality institutions.

The infrastructure for scientific research is outdated. It was formed in the Soviet era, mainly to meet the needs of the military-industrial complex. It consists of four major parts: the National Academy of Sciences; universities; specialised research institutions and corporate R&D centres.

In total, they make up 1,143 research organisations with 51% consisting of specialised R&D institutions, 28% Academy of Sciences, 15% universities and 6% industrial enterprises. Similarly, the main emphasis of scientific research is on engineering sciences (42%), natural sciences (34%), inter-disciplinary research (7%), social sciences (13%) and humanities (4%).

But the total number of researchers working in the R&D sector has fallen from 449,900 in 1991 to 123,200 in 2013. The age distribution of the nation’s scientists shows that 8.5% are aged 70 and over, 18% are in the 60-69 age group, 22% are aged 50-59, 15% are in the 40-49 bracket, 21% are 30-39, and 16% are aged up to 29.

The percentage of non-state budget spent on scientific research has almost halved since 2005 with state funding also declining, though not to the same extent. Not surprisingly, in 2012, Ukraine occupied 40th place in the world for publications and 42nd place for citations.

What changes are needed?

Ukraine has great scientific potential. Our country is facing an important challenge to remain an active player at the global level. We should begin with a special audit of all our existing infrastructure of scientific research, involving recognised experts from abroad.

We should understand not only what real scientific potential there is and what laboratories we have, but also determine our priorities for future areas of research. We should also implement evidence-based criteria for evaluating the effectiveness of research institutions and give up purely bureaucratic Soviet traditions inside the academy.

All scientific research projects should be financed by public funds from the National Science Foundation. Specialised research institutions and universities should jointly submit their research projects for grant funding.

The rapprochement of higher education and scientific research centres should be continued partly by bringing together universities with the academy’s institutions and partly through joint MA and PhD programmes.

The main focus is on creating specialised centres that follow global best practice. This requires not only the purchase of expensive equipment and paying scientists higher salaries, but also creating an intellectual ecosystem where researchers can grow, communicate, work on projects with business and aspire to produce rapid and successful results.

The funding system will change as a result and as innovative activity comes to the fore. Significant changes in the organisation of scientific research will have a positive impact on higher education and not just by creating world-class universities. For example, Ukraine will witness the emergence of a new category of good quality liberal arts universities with no research component.

This week I signed an Agreement for the Association of Ukraine to Horizon 2020 with Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation. Horizon 2020 is the first EU programme in which Ukraine has chosen to participate following the beginning of provisional application of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and represents an important stage in the development of research in Ukraine.

Only a fully functioning state can organise national research that has global aspirations. However, an innovative economy and the emergence of a knowledge society are impossible without modern science and education.

That is why Ukraine cannot do without them. Scientific development is intrinsically linked to all the drastic reforms which the nation needs.

University World News


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