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Ukraine can have Nobel Prize winners

By Inna LYKHOVYD, The Day
9 February, 2016 - 12:21
Young Ukrainian scientist shares his views on how to preserve national science to give it a fresh impetus in the near future; on money-end-result effect and why science spells long-term business

Before I interviewed Anton Senenko, senior research fellow with the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, I knew that his internship in France had given him an idee fixe: go back to that country; that he loved nanotechnology and had to his credit fruitful inspired studies on the subject; that he had met with Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko; that his blog promoted Ukrainian scientific developments, often discussing various subjects with “laymen,” that he believed in a happier future for Ukrainian science, that there would be Ukrainian Nobel Prize winners. The Day first met with him during a rally of protest in front of the Verkhovna Rada and the Cabinet of Ministers, organized by the National Academy’s Council of Young Scientists as our MPs were debating the 2016 budget bill, particularly Article 30 (Article 28 in the amended wording) that contradicted the recently passed bill “On Science and Scientific and Technological Activities.” That article read cut budget spending, liquidation of branch academies of sciences, and a blitz audit of the National Academy, using incomprehensible procedures.

My first question was how the reform in the scientific domain could be carried out under the circumstances, considering the discrepancies in the budget and science laws.

THERE ARE CHANCES

Senenko: “We met with Natalie Jaresko and found out that the budget law had precedence over the one on science. Now we had a time frame for the reform – and this considering that the law on science has no time frame clause – it reads between one and two years, because a number of bylaws have to be ratified. Financiers have their view on the matter. We were told that an audit of the National Academy of Sciences had to be carried out before August 1, 2016. The Ministry of Education and Science, having no budget data, asked Project Horizon 2020 experts to do the audit, paid for it, and demanded the findings to be ready in September. In fact, a blitz audit is being negotiated to have findings ready in July. People at the Ministry of Finance don’t seem to realize that they are dealing with an extremely sophisticated field of endeavor. We would also like this audit to be done quickly, because our scientists have to work under very difficult conditions and make do with a $125 monthly pay in Ukraine; we would be better off working abroad.”

Would you say that this reform stands a chance, that it just takes a dedicated effort?

“We have no options. We’re more concerned about the lack of funds, considering that the budget we got from the Ministry of Finance is less than what we had last year. Our minimum requirements read 2.7 billion hryvnias and this year we have de facto 2 billion 50 million. The ministry has lowered the mandatory state social insurance contribution and this will help the wage fund, but there is simply not enough to pay for a five-day working week.”

WE COULD AGREE TO STAFF REDUCTIONS, BUT ONLY IF THEY CARRIED OUT AN AUDIT

When we met during the rally of protest, you said that you were working half a day, that the rooms were cold because they were economizing on central heating.

“We work four days a week. If they keep cutting our budget, we’ll have to work half that time or make staff reductions. We could agree to staff reductions, but only if they carried out an audit. Our scientists worked on the reform silently, but then it transpired that accountants know more about the reform in the scientific domain than we do. Do they? Can they? I received a direct answer from Mrs. Jaresko. She said the budget process would step up our work. Would it? If we wanted to go through the motions of working, we’d have this reform stretch over five, rather than one or two years.”

Yulia Bezvershenko, your colleague, said Article 28 of the Budget is actually a grab-what-you-can approach, particularly in regard to the Agrarian Academy. Do you agree with her?

“There is a peculiar clause to the effect that all land being used must be somehow assessed, and that the land not being used effectively must be leased out. The National Academy owns lots of property, but the budget doesn’t specify the audit procedures or who can assess its effective usage. The blogs I’ve read show that the Academy is the second biggest owner after the Ministry of Defense.”

“OUR RANKING BUREAUCRATS DON’T SEEM TO REALIZE THAT IF YOU CLOSE DOWN SCIENCE FOR A YEAR, THEN IT WILL TAKE YOU DECADES AND MIND-BOGGLING FUNDS TO REOPEN IT”

As the rallies of protest against the science reform were beginning, along with scandals, some believed that reorganizing and liquidating branch academies of sciences would mean parroting Russia’s reform. What do you think?

“I don’t know much about the reforms in Russia, but a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences wrote that the damage caused by the reform was not expressed, and that offered no advantages, period; that the reform had been carried out by fifty percent, with the Russian Academy losing control over its property, that the reform was frozen due to the academicians’ protest, and that the status remained unstable.”

Normally the state has to spend 2 percent of the GDP on science. In Ukraine, it is 0.2 percent and some compare us to Kenya and other Third World countries. This leads to degradation in the scientific domain. How to improve the situation?

“Scientific achievements must be adequately assessed, depending on how science is being funded. If the budget appropriations amount to 0.5 percent GDP, science plays only a sociocultural role and offers no opportunity of a breakthrough – we can only envy Israel and the United States. If it is less than 0.5 percent, it is degradation, with scientists leaving the home country, finding better-paid jobs. This depletes the national scientific potential. National science must be preserved so it can receive a fresh impetus, given a better status. Our ranking bureaucrats don’t seem to realize that if you close down science for a year, then it will take you decades and mind-boggling funds to reopen it. In Israel, science receives 4 percent GDP, including 0.5 percent from the state and the rest from private investors. Could you show me a single sober-minded businessman in Ukraine who would be prepared to invest in national science with the recoupment period ranging from three to five to ten to twenty years?”

IN EUROPE, IT IS HARD TO FIND PEOPLE PREPARED TO DEDICATE THE REST OF THEIR LIFE TO SCIENCE, SO THEY WELCOME UKRAINIANS

How did you find yourself in France? What did you do there?

“I was awarded my doctorate in Ukraine, then took a postdoctoral course at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris. After that I was twice invited to work there as a researcher. Scientists in Europe aren’t very happy about their pay; they aren’t oligarchs and for them being paid two or three thousand euros a month isn’t enough, while this is something our scientists could only dream about. In Europe, it is hard to find people prepared to dedicate the rest of their life to science, so they welcome Ukrainians. By the way, under our previous legislation I had no right to go on a business trip abroad for longer than two months. Otherwise, I had to resign my job in Ukraine.”

Some said there would be another brain drain in the Ukrainian academe because of budget cuts. Is it happening?

“Bloggers say it is, on a mind-boggling scale. In 2014, statistics read that 2,800 physicists had left Ukraine over the past decade, with 7,000 young researchers over the past three years. Today the number must be even greater. But there is a strong counterweight. I mean IT, a field of scientific endeavor in Ukraine where you can easily make good money using your intellect.”

Any other such fields of endeavor in Ukraine – I mean where you can use your intellect and earn a decent living?

“Private businesses, companies dealing with medicine, chemistry… A scientist I know quit his job at a research institute and was hired by a company specializing in chemicals and equipment supplies. However, their investment climate is bad. Our government must improve it. Companies that make intellectual products must have tax concessions, but apparently nothing is being done.”

FRONT LINE RESEARCH

What is the subject of your research in Ukraine?

“I’m a member of the Physical Electronics Department. I’m into scanning microscopy of ultrathin organic films. Humankind faced the problem of creating technologies that would allow to see atoms and molecules. That’s nanotechnology. Nano is one billionth of a meter. Nanotechnology helps manipulate atoms and molecules that make up our world. This is a ‘bottom-up’ technology and scanning microscopy is part of it. My scanning microscope uses a focused beam of electrons, ‘senses’ a molecule and the computer produces a graphic image on the screen. This is front line research.”

Do you have the necessary equipment?

“We were lucky. Back in 2005-06, the government paid for precious equipment, including a scanning tunneling microscope. Sad by true, my colleagues have to make do with equipment dating back to the 1960s-1970s. I know of some research labs that can beat international projects, but they can be counted on the fingers of one hand.”

SCIENCE IS EASY TO PROMOTE BECAUSE THERE IS TANGIBLE CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE

There are lots of stories, many of them mythical, about science in Ukraine. The National Academy’s system raises a number of questions. And so does its 97-year-old President Borys Paton. The man is easily associated with the old system and the allegation that the young brain drain will continue for as long as the old system exists, and that science as such will remain nonexistent. If so, why invest in it? On the other hand, you keep writing on your Facebook, your blog keeps informing about Ukrainian scientists, their discoveries and projects. Does this help refute such myths?

“I’m always glad to write about scientific developments in Ukraine. Our public must realize that there can be no revolutionizing reforms in a sphere that took shape almost a hundred years back. As for promoting our science, we have made considerable progress this year. We have websites http://my.science.ua/, http://dni-nauky.in.ua/, http://festival.nas.gov.ua/, https://www.facebook.com/ScientificFun. Here one finds graphic evidence that Ukraine does have scientific achievements, that its science is alive and kicking. Science is easy to promote because there is tangible conclusive evidence. You can hear that we have no scientific developments, but that’s not true. Even with our meager funding we have them. For example, there is a device that can determine whether a woman is a breast cancer risk. This device was developed by the National Academy’s scientists, launched into serial production, and supplied to hospitals (mostly in Donbas). Within one year, the number of women diagnosed for grave breast cancer in Budionovsky raion, Donetsk oblast, had dropped eightfold. Another example is extending the fuel life of nuclear reactors. That way our scientists are saving the central budget $1.5 billion at each such reactor a year – and there are 15 in Ukraine!”

I’M A SCIENTIST. I’D LIKE TO DO RESEARCH IN UKRAINE

I believe that my editor-in-chief would describe you as a man of a new social conduct. How would you describe yourself?

“I’m a scientist. I’d like to do research in Ukraine. We all of us understand that our science is in jeopardy, that the scientific domain has to be defended the way people defended the first Maidan barricade. Yet for all I know, this kind of defense must be stopped and replaced with professional promotion, the way they do it on the Discovery Channel. We have put together a group on our Facebook where scientists will address media people, drawing their attention to interesting developments, helping them write on scientific subjects and distinguish science from pseudoscience, considering that there are many examples of false identification. Recently there appeared an article about a medical researcher who had studied blood cells and determined that a prayer had a curative effect on them. There was another story about a conference where a 1 kW battery was alleged to produce 3 kW. A paradox, but if true, a sure Nobel Prize winner.”

Do you think Ukraine will have its Nobel Prize winners?

“I keep saying that it will, just let us have 2 percent GDP. Poland is a graphic example. Money first, end result next. Science spells long-term business. It’s like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity that paved the way for the Global Positioning System. This principle works everywhere today. How is one to assess it? Science adds to the added value tax imposed on goods that just can’t be evaluated. Take iPhone: over 90 percent of its cost is payment for intellect because putting it together technically costs peanuts. Ukraine stands no chance of becoming a successful state without an innovative economy based on innovative technologies. Our main objective today is to preserve what we have.”