Ukraine's Science Reformers Seize the Moment

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Science  14 Mar 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6176, pp. 1185
DOI: 10.1126/science.343.6176.1185

Law would give Chernivtsi National University and other Ukrainian universities autonomy.


While chaos mounted in southern Ukraine last week, with Russian forces overrunning Crimea and the region threatening to secede, a handful of science leaders huddled in Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, plotting a revolution of their own. Their aim: reinvigorate a scientific community that has been adrift since Soviet times.

Gathered in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament, on 6 March, the luminaries reviewed draft legislation that would transform the nation's science and higher education system. The two bills would set up a competitive grant system, root out moribund institutions, give greater autonomy to universities, and make it easier to ship reagents and biological samples into and out of Ukraine. "We have a historic chance to revitalize science," says molecular biologist Nataliya Shulga, chief executive of the Ukrainian Science Club, a think tank in Kyiv.

Their window of opportunity, which opened with the ouster of the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych last month, may be fleeting. Backers are angling to get the laws—one on S&T and a second on higher education—on the books before presidential elections on 25 May, after which the Rada may have new priorities. Science could slip off the Rada's radar even before then, if Crimea careens out of control. "The situation is tense and unpredictable," says neuroscientist Oleg Krishtal, director of the Bogomoletz Institute of Physiology in Kyiv and a longtime advocate of radical reforms.

Ukrainian science has been in a downward spiral since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. That year, Ukraine spent roughly $700 million on S&T, or 0.9% of its gross domestic product; the 2014 S&T budget, in contrast, stood at just $475 million—and that was before the depths of Ukraine's penury became known.

As spending shriveled over the years, scientific vitality withered. In 2007, the Ukrainian Science Club set out to determine how many Ukrainian researchers are "internationally visible," says Krishtal, the club's president. Of the nation's estimated 82,000 scientists, "we found that only a few hundred" are known outside Ukraine, he says. "It was a shock."

Leading the charge.

Rada deputy Liliya Hrynevych.


Yet there was little impetus for change—until now. The ouster of Yanukovych's government, which spurned calls for educational reform, has raised hopes. Equally important, reformists have one of their own in the Rada: Liliya Hrynevych, an educator elected in 2012. "We need to reinvent the system," says Hrynevych, who heads the Rada's Committee on Science and Education.

One target for reform is how the scarce government science funding is doled out. A mere 7% is disbursed competitively, Hrynevych says. "Bureaucrats allocate the rest." The science law would establish a National Research Fund to distribute state science funding based on merit-based review. And to better focus scarce resources, the science law mandates a nationwide audit to identify intellectually "dead" institutes.

The proposed science law also aims to ease the passage of research materials across the border. "Biomedical science in Ukraine is controlled by customs," Shulga says. For starters, she explains, you "can't ship anything on dry ice." And ordering reagents is often an adventure. For instance, a Bogomoletz team last year placed a €216 order for 250 milligrams of ultrapure sucrose for isolation of membrane peptides. A customs officer refused to believe that sugar could cost so much and demanded that the scientists apply for an import license. "We have many more stories like that," Shulga says. The draft law calls for a team of customs officers specially trained to deal with science-related imports and exports.

The second law, on higher education, would unfetter universities from stifling state controls. "Universities need more freedom, and independent funding sources," says Vladimir Konovalchuk, an agricultural science expert at Bridges, a consulting firm in Kyiv. The law would give universities autonomy to run their own affairs, free professors from onerous ministry requirements on lecturing hours, and mandate access for all researchers in Ukraine to scientific literature databases such as the Web of Science.

The full Rada has already received the higher education bill, while the S&T bill should be ready for consideration later this month. The interim science and education minister, Serhiy Kvit, has been a proponent of education reform and backs the legislation, Shulga says. Hrynevych, meanwhile, says she's "working with all [Rada] factions to ensure support for the reforms."

Although Crimea is casting a shadow, Hrynevych sees a more prosaic threat to her efforts to overhaul the system—and one that will require help from abroad to overcome. "Reforms need money, which we do not have."

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