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The War on Ukrainian Scientists

On April 19, 2016, thousands of scientists and researchers marched from Maidan Square in central Kyiv – the cradle of the Ukrainian ‘revolutions’ of 2004 and 2014 – to the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s Parliament). They were protesting the dire situation of Ukrainian science and demanding increases to the state financing of Ukrainian scientific and research institutions, including the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (NASU) and specialized academies of sciences, including the National Academy of Pedagogic Sciences, Academy of Medical Sciences and the Academy of Agricultural Sciences of Ukraine. [1]

The protest was organized by the Trade Union of Employees of NASU. It was the largest such protest of scientists since 1994. Earlier this year, protest actions by Ukrainian scientists took place in the cities of Lviv, Kharkiv, and Odessa.

During this latest action in Kyiv, the head of the union at NASU, Anatoliy Shyrokov, declared that Ukrainian science has never been in such a catastrophic situation. In 2015, state expenses on science were already at an abysmally low 0.3 per cent of GDP; the corresponding figure in 2016 is around 0.2 per cent.

The overall budgetary expenditures of Ukraine for 2016 were increased by 14.2 per cent compared to 2015, but the financing of academies of science was cut by 19 per cent. Meager financing of NASU for 2016 (2.1 billion hryvnia – app. 83 million USD) does not cover even the payroll expenditures of the NASU (2.3 billion hryvnia – app. 91 million USD) or the indexation of salaries against Ukraine’s very high rate of inflation. There are also expenses for power supply, other utilities, maintenance and development of infrastructure and equipment, and research proper, explains the message of the NASU union to party leaders in the Rada.

Under such unfavorable conditions, researchers, especially talented youth, are quitting the Academy. In 2015, 2,830 employees left NASU. They were not fired due to cuts but just quit, explained Anatoliy Shyrokov. Those who left include more than 90 doctors of science and 511 PhDs.[2]

Shyrokov in his speech to the protest action in Kiev declared that young researchers are enrolling massively into English language courses to “at least enrich science in Europe and in North America” because the Ukrainian state does not respect and does not value the homegrown intellect.

In an address of the NASU union to Ukrainian politicians, the organization states that the ratio of researchers to the working population in Ukraine has regressed to the level of Moldova and Albania. The Ukrainian indicator is five to six times lower than the average of countries of the European Union.

Every research institution in Ukraine has to reduce its hours of paid employment because there is not enough money to pay entire salaries. Many employees are forced to take unpaid leaves.

At a press-conference at the UNIAN press agency, held under a banner with a telling title ‘No to destruction of science’, Shyrokov said that NASU is short of at least 725 million hryvnia for its 2016 budget. He also explained that scientists organized several protests in 2015 demanding budget increases but their demands fell on deaf ears. At the same time, during the past five years, the government has increased budget expenditures of the Prosecutor General office by 240 per cent, of the Security Service by 164 per cent and of the Ministry of Interior (police) by 506 per cent. Financing of NASU increased by 11 per cent during the same period.

Another academician at NASU, Director of the Institute of Theoretical Physics A. Zahorodniy, told the press conference at UNIAN that in the last five years, the number of researchers at NASU has decreased from 21,000 to 17,000. The state budget of Ukraine for 2016 directs NASU to “optimize” its institutions, including cutting of the personnel.

Zahorodniy believes that if the brain drain from Ukraine increases, it will be impossible to ensure high quality research and replenish the personnel of NASU with talented youth. Ukraine’s strong scientific tradition could be broken in one or two years, he fears, saying it takes decades to create a good school of science. Moreover, in Ukraine, only NASU has the means for scientists to study important, fundamental problems, such as the origin and evolution of the universe, dark matter and dark energy. The institution also provides scientific support for the basic industries of Ukraine.

State financing of Ukrainian science started dropping after independence in 1991. The ‘brain drain’ started then as well. For instance, the number of researchers in post-Soviet Ukraine decreased three times from 1991 to 2013.

Expenditures for research and development have been steadily declining in Ukraine: in 1991 they constituted 2.44 per cent of GDP. In 2011, they reached 0.74 per cent and slightly increased to 0.76 per cent in 2013, under then-president Yanukovych. Compare it to 0.2% of the GDP in 2016, under president Poroshenko, who wowed to bring Ukraine to Europe and make of Ukraine a developed country.

How much do developed countries spend on research and development? In 2014, Germany spent 2.8% of its GDP; France spent 2.3 per cent; Sweden, 3.2 per cent; Austria, 3 per cent. In the European Union overall, the expenditures on research and development constituted 1.94 per cent. Ukraine regressed from the level of developed countries in 1991 with 2.4 per cent to the level of a Third World country in 2016 with 0.2 per cent.

Photos of the Ukrainian scientists’ protest demonstration on April 19 show banners expressing their multiple concerns. They read, ‘A country without science is a country without a future’, ‘Ukraine without science is a Third World country’, and ‘Without science there is no European future for Ukraine’.

An older gentleman at the rally held a banner saying ‘Fund the salaries of scientists with taxes on the rich’.

I feel some pity as well as compassion for this older gentleman. He probably still lives mentally in Soviet Ukraine, where science and research were prestigious professions and where Ukrainians together with Russians were building spaceships and atomic reactors, where fundamental research was funded by the state, and where thinking about dark matter and dark energy was possible because however small one’s salary and apartment may have been, the vast majority of people of Ukraine lived in some form of equality.

Since Ukraine became independent in 1991, the country’s scientific institutions have found themselves in the dark hole of dire financial circumstances, like every other institution relying on the state budget. And that’s also when the brain drain from Ukraine began.

I remember those difficult times in the early 1990s when I lived in Kyiv and was studying as a doctoral student at the Institute of Linguistics of NASU. I remember the high-ceilinged offices in the NASU building on Hrushevskoho Street, with their aesthetic simplicity, complete with bookshelves, desks and old rotary phones. An old Soviet-style canteen was on the first floor.

There was a stark contrast at NASU between the shabby, leatherette covered doors of our department of Slavic and Baltic languages and the shiny doors of another room on the same floor, upholstered in brand-new leather. This was a space which the Institute was renting to a private firm. NASU’s building is located in downtown Kyiv, so it was convenient for firms looking to rent an office and scientific or educational institutes, in dire need of money, were renting many rooms to various firms.

Soon our canteen on the first floor was transformed into a Thai restaurant. I remember our first visit there after having received our monthly bursary. We were curious to try out the exotic food. I will never forget a friend’s enthusiasm over pineapple chicken, whereas I was rather puzzled – the taste was foreign and strange compared to my Ukrainian culinary habits. And the price of that Thai treat was rather steep for our modest means. But it was so cool, so Western!

Today’s youth in Ukraine are fascinated by the West as well. To be with the West is a “big Ukrainian dream”, as President Poroshenko recently declared. Obtaining visa free entry to the European Union is the ultimate goal of Euromaidan Ukraine. It is a symbol of success, of European recognition that Ukrainians are equal to ‘civilized’ Europeans. It doesn’t matter that today, the majority of Ukrainians cannot even dream of a tourist trip to Prague or Paris because, quite simply, they are in survival mode.

Thank the current regime in Kyiv for that. It is slavishly, blindly following the neoliberal advice of the West, which is designed to ‘open’ Ukraine to Western business interests. Ukrainian political and business elites are trying so hard to be admitted to the ‘elite’ club of Western countries that they do not notice that nobody wants them there – they are perceived as something akin to the kinglets of colonial times, offering their lands and people to the white man in exchange for glass beads.

These new, ‘European’ elites of Ukraine do not understand a simple, fundamental truth – the West never helps out others from sheer altruism or love for democracy and human rights. There are always strings attached to credits provided by the IMF and other Western financial institutions, designed to ensure the interests of Western capital. ‘Reform – and we will give you money,’ they say. Then comes, ‘You are not reforming your economy fast enough – sorry no money for you.’ Or, ‘ You are not fighting corruption resolutely enough – no money.’ And so on. Then Ukraine’s politicians start making declarations even faster, swearing to the West that they are fighting corruption, accusing each other, suing each other in courts whose impartiality and fairness have been tarnished even more in post-Maidan Ukraine.

The ousted Ukrainian President Yanukovych used to say: “We must build Europe here, in Ukraine.” These are wise words, whoever authored them. Any country aspiring to build a true democracy in which differences are respected and an economy in which nobody begs in the streets should not follow the road of Western neoliberal capitalism. That road leads to colonization – the loss of national sovereignty and the subordination to the dictate of transnational corporations.

In the case of Ukraine, with its industry and science developed during the years of the Soviet Union, the Western model means the destruction of both. For one simple reason – Ukrainian industry and science cannot compete with the advanced industry and science in the West. In order to encourage the development of national research and industry, the Ukrainian government needs to finance and invest in science. Money for research and the impulse to develop new technologies typically come from industry. Since 1991, Ukraine’s industrial ties have been with Russia.

One of the few world-scale enterprises in Ukraine was the Motorsich plant in Zaporizzhia, manufacturing engines for airplanes and helicopters. Motorsich was the main supplier of shaft-turbine engines for Russian helicopters, and Russia was the main market for the company. For instance, in 2013, 52 per cent of the revenues of Motorsich were generated by exports to the Russian Federation.

The gas turbine research and production complex ‘Zorya-Mashproekt’ in Mykolayiv in southern Ukraine used to supply gas turbine engines to almost all Russian military ships.

Kharkiv TurboAtom, a designer and manufacturer of steam turbines, sold turbines for nuclear power plants and hydro-electric and thermal power plants in Russia and other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States. In 2014, 60 per cent of its exports went to these countries.

I could provide many other examples of Ukrainian advanced technology products being exported to Russia. The whole infrastructure of Ukrainian industry and science was designed and built in the Soviet Union. The system of standards and norms of Ukrainian industry was developed in the Soviet Union. It is different than the standards used in Europe and North America. It cannot be changed overnight without provoking a technological catastrophe.

Here is an example. Ukrainians took a political decision to replace the Russia-produced fuel for Ukrainian nuclear reactors with fuel produced by the U.S. conglomerate Westinghouse. Former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk trumpeted this as yet another successful step in the diversification of the nuclear fuel supply in Ukraine and the reduction of its dependence on Russia.

The Czech Republic could have warned Mr. Yatseniuk not to shout prematurely. Czechs have been down this road. In January of 2007, the entire first unit of the Soviet-designed Temelin nuclear plant in the Czech Republic required an emergency shutdown caused by problems associated with fuel supplied by Westinghouse. The problem was that when burning, the Westinghouse-supplied fuel deformed the reactor, causing disruptions to the power plant’s operation. Temelin is the Czech Republic’s largest nuclear power plant. In 2010, it had to resume the use of Russia-manufactured fuel.

Ukraine had its own, earlier unsuccessful experience with Westinghouse nuclear fuel. In April of 2012, Westinghouse fuel assemblies (cartridges) were tested in the third power generating unit of the nuclear power plant in Mykolaiv. The tests were stopped because the cartridges became bent and deformed, making it difficult to remove them from the reactor as needed. Enerhoatom, the Ukrainian state company operating all nuclear plants in Ukraine, lost at least 175 million dollars as the result of this test.

Ukrainian politicians’ desire to break all ties with Russia goes against common sense. It is so obvious as to hardly need spelling out. Since the summer of 2014, when the Ukrainian leadership declared that Ukraine would stop trade relations with Russia, Ukrainian industrial production has dropped precipitously. The decline between January-March of 2015 was 20.5 per cent compared to the same period of 2014, while in general, industrial production in Ukraine fell by 13.4 per cent in 2015 compared to 10.1 per cent in 2014. (The optimistic note is that it increased by 4.6 per cent in March 2016.)

Ukraine is also reverting to being primarily an agricultural country. In January-February of 2016 the first two positions in Ukrainian export were occupied by corn and sunflower oil, while the mechanical engineering production export is being pushed at the bottom of the lists.

The West does not need Ukrainian technologies or Ukrainian industry. The West needs open markets where it can sell its own products. The Ukrainian political leadership does not seem to understand this simple reality. Or quite possibly, they understand exactly what they are doing and accept it.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian scientists and researchers see one obvious thing – Ukraine is rapidly becoming a Third World country, if it is not already there. A Third World country does not need science.

I sincerely hope that the ‘big’ Ukrainian dream will be realized one day and Ukraine can find a productive and respectful relationship with the countries of the European Union. But today, this dream seems so distant that it is rather a utopia than a realizable dream. Ukraine is losing its chance of becoming an independent, neutral country that could develop its economy by continuing cooperation with Russia while simultaneously developing ties with the European Union.

Ukrainians wanted so desperately their own share of the European paradise that there was no way of stopping them. They had to try. I hope they have realized by now that nobody in Europe really wants another lodger at the table.

The good news is that Ukrainian scientists are actively voicing their concerns. On the same date of April 19 following the protest actions of scientists, the government of Ukraine organized a meeting to discuss increasing state funding of science. On April 20, the Science and Education Committee of the Verkhovna Rada held hearings on the subject. As a result, several deputies brought in a bill to increase the budget expenditures for Ukrainian science (by 622 million hryvnia – app. 25 million USD).

Notes:
[1] The National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine was founded on November 27, 1918 in Kyiv by Vladimir Vernadsky, prominent mineralogist and geochemist. NASU is a self-governing, state institute of high research. NASU conducts fundamental and applied research on the most important issues of natural, technical, social and humanities sciences. It has 168 affiliated academic research institutions and 46 affiliated industrial research organizations. It has five regional research centers of in association with the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine, in Kramatorsk, Donetsk region; Lviv in western Ukraine; Odessa in southern Ukraine, Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine and Dnipropetrovsk in central Ukraine.

[2] The Ukrainian system of attaining academic/research degrees remains the same as it was in the Soviet Union. The Soviet system was inspired by the German and Austrian classifications. In this classification, the degree of a Doctor of Science is the highest research degree in a given field. It requires writing a dissertation and a monograph. In Germany, this qualification is called Habilitation. North American PhD degrees are equivalent to a candidate of sciences title in Ukraine and Russia, which is one level lower than a doctor of science.

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Halyna Mokrushyna, Ph.D., is an independent researcher and journalist. Her research interests include the challenges of the post-Soviet transition in Ukraine; social and economic inequality in the post-Soviet context; historical and cultural divisions within Ukraine; social memory and politics of memory; relations between Russia and Canada and the broader context of the post-cold war world and relations between the East and the West. Her articles on these subjects were published on Counterpunch, Truthdig, and Truthout websites.

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