Ukraine’s political turmoil offers hope for science

Scientists in Ukraine are pushing through two laws to reform the country’s ailing research and higher education sectors during a window of opportunity before presidential elections in May – or further chaos, according to an article published in Science this week (14 March).

The laws would allow greater freedom to universities and access to scientific literature, a national science foundation to fund science based on merit, an audit of research institutes and easier access to research materials such as chemical reagents.

Out of over 80,000 scientists only a few hundred are recognised internationally, says the article. And funding has dropped from US$700 million since 1991, when Ukraine left the Soviet Union, to US$475 million in 2004, according to article, with only some 7% of that awarded competitively.

Similarly, a Nature News article published in January said funding for science dropped from 2.44% of GDP in 1991 to 0.73% in 2011, with further cuts in 2014.

“Our science lives in an outdated environment and it is hard to really change things,” Nataliya Shulga, executive director of the Ukrainian Science Club and molecular biologist at the National Pedagogical Dragomanov University in Kiev, told Nature News.

Scientists were at the forefront of demonstrations there, it says, just as they were in recent demonstrations in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They also wanted more Westernised science with closer ties to the European Union it says. The ill-fated deal through the EU’s Eastern Partnership Programme, which stoked demonstration when Ukraine decided not to sign it, would have had some modest benefits for science, too.

The wish list described in the Science and Nature News articles – as well as the key issues keeping Ukraine’s science down – is also strikingly similar to those in South-East Europe.

Croatia’s scientists, for example, struggle with access to affordable reagents and research materials. The results of a nationwide audit of research institutes (what the proposed law suggests Ukraine needs), recently leaked to the media, shows a wide variation in performance and there is now some indication that badly performing institutes may shut or be merged with others.

Serbia has at times struggled to keep open access to scientific literature for its scientists, and there have been calls to establish a science foundation. Croatia’s science foundation has just come a step closer to becoming the only significant source of funding – a move that not everyone is convinced is a good one.

Mićo Tatalović

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