Corruption biggest challenge in Ukranian science

Nieuws | de redactie
23 februari 2017 | The biggest challenge facing Ukranian science is still the ever rampant corruption that seems to be inherent to the system. This is the main conclusion of the Policy Support Unit of the EU Horizon 2020 committee led by the old president of the KNAW Hans Chang.

At the end of 2016, on Monday December 19th, the Policy Support Unit (PSF) of the EU Horizon 2020 published a report on science in the Ukrania. Since it might have gone unnoticed over the Christmas break we thought it would be good to highlight a number of the main findings of the report to support an informed discussion on the European collaboration with the Ukranian scientists in the Horizon 2020 programme.

Breaking away from Soviet style culture

The Ukraine has been a member of the Horizon 2020 programme since the early spring of 2015, which allows Ukranian scientists to apply for the much sought after grants in the programme. However, in the time span of a little under two years not a single grant has been awarded to a project led by a Ukranian, and even in international consortia their chances of succesful application are low: a mere four percent. This was reason enough for the Ukranian ministry of education and science to ask the PSF to perform a review of the scientific infrastructure and policy, hoping to elevate the chances of benefiting from a programme that Ukranian citizens ultimately pay for.  

According to the international panel of nine, led by Hans Chang (former director of the KNAW), the major issue holding the Ukranian system back is their inability to break away from the ever prominent Soviet style culture. During communism the academic system succesfully maintained strictly separated from the Party and hence the state, providing the Ukranian Academy of Science with a large degree of independence.

This independence, the committee finds, now hinders the influence that the democratically elected government officials have over science policy. Although 50% of government funds are directed towards research go directly tot he Royal Academy, the Ukranian government still has little to no control over the institute that is led, and has been since 1962, by the 98 year old Boris Paton.

Corruption plays a major role

Another staple of the old system is the ever rampant corruption that is inherent to the Ukranian academy. “It is hard to ascertain to what level corruption is a factor in Ukranian science, but we are sure it plays a major role.”, says Hans Chang who spoke with a range of scientists, policymakers and entrepreneurs. “As an example we often heard that many of the so called institutes of the Medical Academy are in reality private medical clinics aimed at making money.” Another worrying fact is that it is still relatively easy to buy a degree in the Ukraine. This fact undermines the value of a Ukrainan diploma and infuriates many researchers.

The aversion against the Soviet style culture is growing, however. Especially amongst younger researchers who, at the same time, find it increasingly difficult to land an academic position in the Ukraine. The number of Ukranian dissertations increased by 50% between 2000 and 2011 but the number of academic positions has reduced in the same period. This forces researchers of a younger generation to find work elsewhere, mostly outside of the country, leading to a Ukranian brain drain. 

To tackle the most urgent problems and make the Ukraine more eligible for Horizon 2020 applications the PSF comes with a long list of necessary improvements. Most importantly the era of blind allocation of research funding is to be ended and the Ukranian ministry would have to set up a system of allocation based on competition. At least 40% of research funding should be competitive according to the committee by 2020. In addition to this, a national effort has to be made to formulate a set of national priorities at which allocation can be directed. All in all, this can be described as a coordinated action to ‘westernize’ Ukranian science.

The creation of a national organisation resembling the Dutch NWO or American NHS is paramount, and according to Chang: “It is of utmost importance that such an institute is set up by outsiders, since there is little trust amongst the different parties in the Ukraine.” The PSF recommends that this national organisation includes representation from both politics and science, and independently and transparently decides on the quality and priorities of Ukranian science.

No exceptions

Besides the discussion on how the Ukraine should allocate its research funds, the committee also urges a very significant increase in overall spending. The panel insists on a rapid increase of spending from 0.7% to 1.7% percent of the gross domestic product, in order to get on par with other Horizon 2020 partners. “The key here is that Horizon 2020 is all about excellence, not about developmental aid.” Chang states, pressing that the Ukraine has to step up its game in general. “We cannot make exceptions for less performing countries, that is a slippery slope we must avoid.”

Both Chang and the findings of the report received a remarkably warm reception at the final presentation at the Ukranian ministry of education and science. Notwithstanding this enthusiasm Chang has doubts on the actual implementation of the suggestions. “The implementation of new laws in the Ukraine still abides by the Soviet practice. Ukranian laws can be extremely detailed, resulting in impressive amounts of paperwork, but compliance and implementation are of lesser interest to the bureaucracy.” However, Chang is hopeful about the willingness of the relatively young and EU-minded Ukranian government: “I met with many of them and these are people who look at the Czech Republic and Poland as an example.” 

Sicco de Knecht

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