The Science We Are Losing

Ukrainian science has gone from being a well respected field to one which is suffering from a lack of funding, reform and a brain drain, thereby pushing it to the brink of survival.

 During the Soviet era, the level of Ukrainian science allowed it to compete with global hegemons and positions within the scienctific community came with advantages inaccessible to most of society. However, after 25 years of occupying last  place in the list of government funding priorities and by suffering a brain drain and a lack of reforms or any social interest in science, only a minor fraction of scientific institutions have managed to maintain a high level of research. The austerity policies pursued by both the first and the second post-Maidan governments have traditionally treated science as a cost-cutting opportunity. This has pushed science to the brink of survival and forced Ukrainian scientists out onto the streets in protest.

“I am planning to quit. With a salary of 2,300 hryvnias ($92.50) a young man cannot survive in Kyiv,” says Pasha, a welder from one of the most famous Ukrainian science institutions, the Paton Electric Welding Institute. “I am thinking of leaving for another field of work. And it is not so much about money as about the lack of development. The regression.” This is not a unique case, although even in these circumstances most of the employees of the National Academy of Science of Ukraine do not leave scientific work of their own accord. Public funding cuts and a cap on pensions for working pensioners has caused the number of the Academy’s employees to fall by 2,830 people in 2015, including 94 doctors and 480 candidates[1]. 2016 has thrown scientists into another wave of “optimization,” which has led them into the streets to protest.

The systematic underfunding and brain drain has long been a phenomenon in Ukrainian science. Despite the government’s declarative support of science and its talks about “unique opportunities,” these same opportunities have been practically lost. From having one of the highest rates of research and development (R&D) spending — 2.5% of the GDP in 1991, which roughly equals the current rate for Belgium (2.46%) or the US (2.74%), this has dropped to 0.76% during the last 25 years of independence. Indeed, very few countries can compete with Ukraine in the rate of falling R&D intensity. Even though the minimum R&D spending was entrenched  in new legislation at 1.7% of the GDP, this did not solve the problem, since these funds have never actually been written into the state budget. Furthermore this year, the R&D spending was reduced by another 19% compared to last year (approximately UAH 775 million, including UAH 622 million of the labour compensation fund); the institutes have simply received a directive to “reform.”

It is the scientists themselves who are most affected by this reform. According to Oleksandr Sabodar, a researcher of the Central Astronomical Observatory of the National Academy of Science, this year’s budget for science was based on the budget of 2015, which included as many as three salary raises. However due to the lack of funding, this is a problem which each institute has tried to solve in its own way. Some have laid  off their employees and others have made them work part-time — 0.75, 0.5 or even 0.25% of the work week. Given that the average full research salary is UAH 3,000-4,000 ($120-160), this salary  has become purely symbolic.

The systematic underfunding and brain drain has long been a phenomenon in Ukrainian science.

“Our institute felt this blow very hard,” says Ihor Dzeverin, the head of the Schmalhausen Zoology Institute of Ukrainian NAS. “Last year, we had a certification test after which many people were transferred to lower positions. So now it turns out that, once again, we have to fire people who passed the test and whose work was deemed satisfactory.” Of course, the first ones to get fired are pensioners and support staff, such as guards and janitors. However, the dismissals of these people also affect the institute’s work.

Academies working in specific fields were hit by the cuts even harder than the National Academy. According to Dmytro Shytikov, doctor of biology and a researcher at the Palladin Institute of Biochemistry, the Gerontology Institute at the Academy of Medical Science had to lay off 20% of its workers and is supposed to lay off another 40%. As the institute has no powerful international connections or opportunities to receive extra funding, the researchers have to find their own ways to sustain themselves and fund their research. “What was the research process in our Gerontology Institute? We did a certain number of commercial commissions to get some money, which we then used to buy reagents for theoretic research. We were self-sufficient.”

The lack of new equipment, reagents, and even basic tools for carrying out experiments is another problem directly caused by underfunding. Reagents, which are mostly imported from abroad have become even less affordable as the exchange rate of hryvnia has fallen. In addition, even where there seems to be nothing left to take there are schemes with numerous intermediaries, which double or triple the price of reagents. So research institutes have to resort to semi-legal ways to import reagents or buy them from third parties, which can be cheaper. Nevertheless, the decree on precursors is still valid, even though most researchers call it absurd. The decree defines a special procedure for storing substances that can potentially be used to produce narcotics or explosives. The list of these substances includes most basic reagents and it is nearly impossible to obtain permission to store them. However, according to Dmytro Shytikov, the strictness of the law is mitigated by the systematic failure to implement it and therefore nearly every laboratory has precursors but researchers simply hide them or move them to another building during inspections.

The situation with equipment is even worse and it has been going on for years. The research equipment at Ukrainian institutes mostly dates back to the 1990s, when it was imported as humanitarian aid or bought with grant money. According to Oleksandr Skorokhod, doctor of biology and a researcher at the Molecular Biology and Genetics Institute of NAS, this equipment is outdated. Although the competitiveness of an institution is often determined by the availability of equipment, new purchases are hardly ever made. There are problems even with buying the necessities: a decree by Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s government about the efficient use of public funds basically prohibited scientists from buying new office equipment and computers. They have to buy components and then assemble them themselves instead of buying whole computers. “When the Central Astronomical Observatory received a request for information on the level of computerization, we replied that ten of our computers still operate on Windows 98 and only a couple of them have Windows XP. The rest run on Linux- a system so basic that even a 60 year old lady learned how to use it,” says Oleksandr Sabodar.

Due to the lack of public funding that would cover at least the basic research needs combined with one of the lowest average wages among all economic sectors (UAH 3992 — $160.6), scientists have to use individual survival strategies and institutes have to look for additional opportunities to cover their budget deficits. “A colleague of mine from a neighbouring lab, a morphologist, works in drug testing for pharmacological companies. So every day, Monday to Friday, he mass produces these projects, trying to squeeze some scientific research in between. Obviously, in these circumstances, one cannot talk about any significant scientific breakthroughs,” says Dmytro Shytikov. Occasionally the institute management create new “jobs” by founding their own private companies, which use the institute equipment and hire the same researchers, but for better salaries. Of course, the State Financial Inspectorate is not fond of such schemes.

Additional sources of income for research institutions include government or commercial commissions, expertise, renting out premises and equipment, etc. However, these funds are just a drop in the ocean. They are only enough to cover utilities, according to Oleksandr Skorokhod. Even the utility fees have soared to threatening levels this year, especially for the institutes that have a lot of property and independent heating systems. As such grant money remains the key source of funding. However, if you want to apply for a big grant, such as Horizon 2020, you have to compete with world class laboratories that exist in different financial, legal and institutional circumstances. “In order to seriously compete for such grants, you need considerable basic funding, which we do not have. Science is similar to sports in this respect. In theory when sportsmen come to a competition, they are all supposedly equal. However, a lot depends on the way  their training was organized and funded,” says Ihor Dzeverin. So in fact only the institutes which are already at the top can apply for major grants since they are the only ones that have the best equipment and the best professionals. According to Oleksandr Skorokhod, these make up 20 percent of the total number of research institutions.

Ukrainian science, which survived with great losses following the collapse of the Soviet Union whilst preserving its ability to produce results, has turned out to be unprepared for the challenge of neoliberal reform with its total austerity.

In these circumstances, Ukrainian science is often accused of inefficiency and unwillingness to reform. The critics emphasize that before demanding money from the government, the scientists should change the system itself. Of course, nobody denies that internal problems exist. Researchers themselves complain about the Soviet hierarchy which academics and associate members have turned into a separate sacred caste with a special status and considerable (by academic rates) additional stipends — UAH 4000 ($160) for an associate member and UAH 7000 ($280) for an academic. For example, although science received UAH 700 million less in 2016, the NAS Presidium received UAH 8 million, which is more than last year. Every so often some politician receives an academic rank to “heat up” the  low interest in science — let me remind you of “proffesor” Yanukovych. In addition, the number of research institutions, despite the constant research funding cuts, demonstrates an opposite tendency: this number increased from 90 to 169 between 1991 and 2011.

However, the inefficiency of Ukrainian science is a myth, according to Ihor Dzeverin, who commented that if you compare the expenses per researcher in Ukraine and in the West, you will find that the Ukrainian science sector is actually quite efficient. Additionally, it is not enough to pass reformist legislation to really reform the field. The content of reforms must be carefully thought out. Some of the recent reforms, such as turning postgraduate studies into something which resembles a repetition of previous studies, are questionable and unlikely to promote scientific revival. In addition, time, money and some room for maneuver are needed. Reforms require public investment, not cuts and bureaucrats should limit their intervention into the research process. According to Dzeverin, Ukrainian science has to make a transition from bureaucratic mechanisms to a more egalitarian system of relations, with fewer superstructures built over labs and greater freedom for researchers. In addition, Ukraine needs a transparent system of combining basic and grant funding with international expertise, as well as targeted aid for young scientists. Otherwise the brain drain will continue. However, as the government decided to take an easier path and habitually cut R&D funding, the scientists’ protests against these actions are a completely natural outcome.

“Here there is demand. People know why they do it,” says Dmytro Shytikov, who was working  in Zurich University of Switzerland at the moment of our conversation. “And in Ukraine, I do not know if that is the case. I believe that my research can turn into a start of some interesting cancer cell diagnostic project. But who cares about it? Me, my supervisor, and probably that’s it. Arseniy (Yatsenyuk) or Mr. Groysman do not give a damn about it.” And he seems to be right. Despite two public protests organized by the NAS Union in the center of Kyiv and despite meetings with the parliament speaker Andriy Parubiy, the minister of education and science Liliya Grynevych and the vice prime minister Vyacheslav Kyrylenko (whose wife, meanwhile, became a protagonist of a plagiarism scandal), the researchers’ demands were never heard.

Ukrainian science, which survived with great losses following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the period of primitive capital accumulation and systematic underfunding, yet which preserved its ability to produce scientific results, has turned out to be unprepared for the challenge of neoliberal reform with its total austerity. Although it is too early to mourn science yet, the situation already looks critical. So, instead of realizing the country’s “unique scientific potential,” what most probably awaits us in the global world system is a  reputation as a provider of raw materials and cheap labour which our president is so proud of.

[1] Post-Soviet Ukrainian academic degree system had four stages: BA, MA, candidate and doctor of science. Recently, the candidate degree was replaced with PhD. Transl.


Sergey Movchan
Sergey Movchan is a left-wing activist, anarchist, and correspondent for Political Critique Ukraine (“Політична критика»).