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Ukraine’s Borys Paton, National Academy of Sciences turn 100

The National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine celebrates its centennial anniversary, and so does its president, Borys Paton, who turns 100 on November 27th 2018. Appointed to this position in 1961, Paton, referred to recently as the “Perpetum mobile” of Ukrainian science, has ruled the Academy for 57 years. Celebration events for the Academy’s anniversary are scheduled for early December. But there may be not much to celebrate, other than the date itself.

November 27, 2018 - Ararat L. Osipian - AnalysisArticles and Commentary

The Presidium building of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine Photo: AMY / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Chinese aircraft carriers, the largest cargo plane in the world, and the largest nuclear power station in Europe were all built in Ukraine. They were products of Ukraine’s intellectual might. At the core of these achievements, there was the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, known by its abbreviation NANU. The only issue is that all of these achievements date back to the Soviet era.

As a sovereign republic, Ukraine was able to surprise the world with technological miracles. Today’s Ukraine is different. The country is no longer capable of producing even smaller-scale planes or ships, let alone aircraft carriers. The usual claim “but we make missiles” –intercontinental ballistic missiles that is – no longer stands. Over the last three decades, Ukraine’s research capacities have shrunk dramatically, quite possibly beyond the point of restoration. The country’s brainpower, concentrated in the National Academy of Sciences, is perilously depleted by the continuous brain drain to the West. This large and diverse organisation now faces an existential crisis and will have to undergo drastic changes in order to survive in the long run.

The events of Euromaidan, which erupted five years ago, brought to the surface old problems for the Academy, forgotten by many. During fierce clashes in January 2014, the police stormed one of the buildings in downtown Kyiv and assaulted the protesters, allegedly throwing some out of first floor windows. It turned out those “protesters” were employees of the National Museum of Art. The building was located at the epicentre of the events, right by the governmental quarters which is why it was used by the protesters. The riot police, in pursuit of the rebels, rushed into the building on Hrushevskogo Street at night and clashed with protesters. Employees of the Museum and construction workers nearby were not among the rebels – although they may have shared their views. Yet they became unintentional victims of police brutality, tragically finding themselves in the wrong place in the wrong time. The leadership of the Museum appealed to both sides of the conflict—the state authorities and protesters—pleading with them not to burn the building and keep it neutral in their clashes. Still, the situation raised serious a question mark – what were they doing there on Saturday evening, given the tense situation in the area that had continued for weeks?

It seemed obvious to me that they were guarding the premises from raiders, taking shifts in order to ensure 24/7 protection of the building. It turned out that my guess was right.

So what do employees of research institutes normally do in Ukraine? They guard the property, cook their meals, exchange gossip, receive salary and benefits from the state, plagiarise, and look for opportunities to earn some extra cash on the side like ghost writing dissertations for wealthy clients. The property of the Academy is so plentiful that the conversations around its future possible divestment were depriving state bureaucrats and businessmen of sleep. Office buildings, laboratories, workshops, warehouses, urban lots and agricultural lands, natural preservations, medical facilities, resort areas, spas, sanatoriums, vehicles, and equipment – all of these are at stake. Some estimates put the cumulative property value at 40 billion US dollars, which is equal to the country’s annual state budget.

The National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine celebrates its centennial anniversary, and so does its president, Borys Paton, who turns 100 on November 27th 2018. Appointed to this position in 1961, Paton, referred to recently as the “Perpetum mobile” of Ukrainian science, has ruled the Academy for 57 years. Celebration events for the Academy’s anniversary are scheduled for early December. But there may be not much to celebrate, other than the date itself. The Academy meets its centennial anniversary in a state of disarray, evidence of its lack of relevance to the modern world.

Volodymyr Kornilov, Head of the General Planning Division in the Academy and Deputy Head of the Science Organisational Department, commented that, “In the past, the state paid much more attention to research. We felt needed. And today it is just fog. There is no intermediary between business and research.” Nostalgia for the Soviet past is the real mantra of the Academy, not aspirations for future reforms.

Does Ukraine need this kind of outdated, ill-funded, and in many respects deficient organisation that supposedly performs the major part of the country’s research? Does the country need any research-focused monopoly at all, for that matter? The voices “for” are primarily those of employees of this old Soviet Stalinist mammoth. Neither the state nor large corporations show any interest in investing in fundamental and applied research. The general public does not show much interest in the Academy either. In contrast to the Soviet era, the present political regime fails to publicise the few achievements of Ukrainian researchers, the result being that the public takes no pride in the activities of the national research institutes. Russia’s annexation of Crimea deprived the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine of some of its research facilities, equipment, property and cadres. The war in eastern Ukraine detached many more research institutes from the centre and further undermined the Academy’s research capabilities. Obviously, pro-Russian militants in Donbas do what they can to prevent local research institutes co-operating with Kyiv, pushing them instead to develop links with Moscow.

What can be done to save the Academy? One suggestion is to merge education and research into a world-class university and save the remaining researchers and facilities of the National Academy of Sciences. For Ukraine, this would mean merging its 174 research institutes of the National Academy of Sciences with over 200 public universities. The process already started in 2014, but unfortunately only on paper. In reality, the only real merger that took place is that of the State Tax Academy and two research institutes: the Institute of Customs Control and Institute of Financial Law. These are special entities, similar to military or police academies, and have nothing to do with the National Academy of Sciences. The process of the mergers is a false start. Moreover, what would really be gained by merging Stalinist-era university buildings that feature classical columns on their front porticos with the depressing concrete buildings of the Research Institutes built on oil dollar revenues in the 1970s?

The National Academy of Sciences has around 40,000 employees, less than half what it had on the eve of the Soviet Union’s disintegration. But cutting staff is not the only problem. The Academy’s so-called geriatric component is overwhelming. The average age for members of the academy is close to 80. This implies that many members of Ukraine’s Academy of Sciences attended school under Joseph Stalin and received higher education under Nikita Khrushchev. Suppressed by the communist totalitarian regime during their formative years, it would be extremely difficult to imagine how they could transform and adopt to modern day realities.

As a result, the Academy’s existing leadership simply cannot be relied upon when it comes to issues of designing and implementing reforms. They are preoccupied with preserving the status quo, financial benefits, and the Academy’s vast properties. The mantra of autonomy is simply used as a shield from any possible changes. The major task is seen as suppressing any initiatives emerging from within the Academy while safeguarding the Academy from external impacts.

The old cadres further suffer from a lack of international connections, having spent their productive years firmly on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain. They therefore also lack knowledge of foreign languages. And many of the younger cadres are not particularly inspiring either. As one senior researcher put it, “A friend comes to the Academy’s leadership and says: ‘Listen, my son is a complete degenerate, and I can’t get him a job anywhere. Take him to your department and let him shuffle papers on the desk’.” Nepotism and cronyism are endemic to academia in Ukraine.

Adopting a US-inspired model of autonomous research universities and bringing in new, western-educated cadres would be a powerful remedy. Some research institutes would die out naturally, while others may integrate successfully into country’s leading universities. But this merger would entail transforming the universities as well, and fast. Ukraine has let three decades pass without seriously addressing this issue, and the situation requires immediate and drastic action. Ukraine should rid itself of the old communist guard and import western-educated academics and models in order to restart its research and development sector. Perhaps, transformation of the Academy should start with its President, Borys Paton. Maybe it is time for the old man, who has ruled the Academy for almost six decades, to finally retire and allow the Academy a fresh start.

Ararat L Osipian is a fellow of the Institute of International Education, United Nations Plaza, New York, and an honorary associate at the Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison. He holds a PhD in Education and Human Development from Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University, where he came as a fellow of the US Department of State.

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