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A mosaic of problems

Kirill Alekseev

There is no need to speak of the colossal importance of the scientific and technical potential of the country for its stable development in general, as well as for the realisation of its ambitious goal of becoming one of fifty most developed countries of the world; the connection is obvious. However, analysis of the situation of Kazakhstan’s science shows that we’d better consider the situation more closely; it will enable people to look at many things soberly.

A lot has been written about the poor condition of our domestic science during the last 15 years. However, for the sake of fairness, we need to note that this condition was at least partially caused by, not only the confusion and objective difficulties of the so called transition period, but also by the status of Kazakhstan’s science during the Soviet era: despite some outstanding names and well-known institutions, in general it was not among the leaders of the scientific sphere within the USSR. Kazakh scientists were competitive with their Soviet colleagues in the areas of geology, oil-chemistry, metallurgy and geography. However, a whole range of other subjects, including very promissing ones, were either not represented in Kazakh SSR or represented only partially.
This provinciality of Kazakh science was the result of not only the historical background of the republic. Moscow, as well as the other largest scientific centres of the USSR, extracted the intellectual resources from all the Soviet provinces. Thus, many of our former fellow countrymen ended up in Russian scientific centres (for example, the physicist Galym Abilseitov, who made his scientific career in Moscow, or the well-known chemist Gladyshev). However, it should be mentioned that the flow in the opposite direction was wider and stronger; many very talented scientists were sent to work in Kazakhstan during Soviet times. This allowed the formation of scientific centres in the republic, such as the unique and previously well-known All-Union Institute of rare-earth geology. Unfortunately, the emigration of the early post-Soviet years made Moscow’s scientific staff policy virtually worthless. There are many examples of this; one of them is the work on creation of antitumoral medications based on vegetative materials, which was conducted in a Kazakhs university for many years, but was never finished. The very promissing progress of this work practically disappeared after the departure of its supervisor. They say that she supervises the same study in one of the other CIS countries now…
Undoubtedly, the problem of the emigration of many specialists during the first decade of independence became as important for domestic science as its chronic under-financing. Even now the problem is not eliminated completely, though its scale and reason have changed. According to experts, the outflow of scientists to other countries is still a serious problem for the development of Kazakhstani science. It is impossible to resolve the problem without a fundamental improvement in scientific and technical research conditions.
There is no need to consider very closely the commonly known poor condition of science during the first years of independence. The processes that started in the current decade are more interesting; these processes appeared to be very controversial…
According to the comments of a German scientist, broadcast on the “Euronews” channel, “Science is, firstly, money”. This comment is true as well as banal. According to the dynamics of expenditure on scientific research in Kazakhstan, the situation must be very good. The volume of finished scientific and technical research amounted to 6,1 billion tenge in 2000, and 29,6 billion tenge in 2005 (last year’s data is not yet available). The gross spending on SREDW (scientific research and experimental design works)was 6 billion tenge and became 29,2 billion tenge. Even if inflation is accounted for, the growth of financing is noticeable. However, there are at least two reasons for criticism.
Firstly, the problem of efficiency in exploiting the financial resources is still present. This topic is very large and complicated, and it deserves a separate article. However, the words of Bagdaulet Kenzhaliev, doctor of science, director of Institute of Metallurgy and Mineral Concentration of the Ministry of Education and Science (MES), said last summer on the press-conference regarding the expected closure of the institute, show that the topic is not taken out of the thin air: “The financing of science in Kazakhstan is increasing, but the money is mainly sucked by the sand…”. Here I’d like (and must) remember the conditions for scientific development: the experts note that the equipment used in scientific and technical institutions has become obsolete and physically worn-out (the accumulated depreciation is usually 50 – 100%), while the funding of scientific and technical organisations increased only by 4% during the first 5 years of the current decade. The expenditure on annual renewal of the scientific and technical equipment within the previous years has not been higher than 3% of the total financing of SREDW (by way of comparison, in Russia it was 56% in 2004).
Secondly, the comparison of scientific research expenditure in Kazakhstan with the expenditure in other countries makes the lag even more obvious. The expenditure on SREDW in Kazakhstan in 2005 was less than 0,3% of GDP, while, for example, in Sweden this figure is 3,7%, in Japan it is 3,01%, and in Russia it is 1,37%. And even then, the Russian specialists always emphasise how low their financing is! They say that if the situation continues, Russia will be completely left behind in the scientific researches during the lives of the next generation.
This proves the banal truth; everything is understood in comparisons. If we compare current scientific expenditure with expenditure in the 1990s, everything seems to be fine. However, if compared with the required level of financing, in order to fulfil the country’s ambitions, (particularly the desire to become “one of the 50”) progress from the 1990s is obviously not enough. Even if the ambitions are not taken into account, international experience has shown that financing at a level of 2% of GDP is critically low. If it is lower, then issues of the country’s security are raised. In addition, the 2% level was derived from the experience of rich Western countries, which have an additional resource of scientific and technical progress – the inflow of scientists from other countries. This resource provides them with qualified specialists, educated and trained in other countries. In our case we don’t have this resource, and, in truth, it is unlikely that this will change. This means that the small share of GDP designated to scientific and technical development must cover even more objectives. Kazakhstan is expected to reach the minimally accepted level of financing the country’s science (of 2% of GDP) by 2010. However, by that time the process of development in other countries, will leave the progress in Kazakhstan far behind. Today, scientific research has been activated in a multitude of areas all over the developed part of the world, especially in the areas of preserving energy, alternative sources of energy, and biotechnology, which allows to increase considerable the efficiency of agriculture. There is no need to be an expert to see that all of these areas are very important for Kazakhstan. They are important in themselves, as well as in the effect that breakthroughs may have on the country’s economy. For example, successful scientific research and the introduction of their results in the sphere of preserving energy might increase the export potential of Kazakhstan’s oil and gas sector without a significant increase in the extraction of the reserves; or a breakthrough in agriculture might reanimate the production of crops, which is important even in considering the results of entering the WTO.
However, experts notice a reduction in research activity within our country. Paradoxically, this reduction progresses from year to year, despite the increase in financing. For example, the average number of pieces of research per organisation engaged in scientific works was 3,1 in 2001, and became 2,7 in 2005. Even during the crisis of the 1990s, the quality characteristics of Kazakhstan’s scientific activity were twice as high as in the period 2001 – 2005. Why? The explanation is easy; during 1994 – 1999, the scientific life of the republic was running on the resources created during the Soviet era. Now they are exhausted, and new resources have not been created. This relates to the issue of the efficiency of the exploitation of the financial recourses. Kazakhstan has 6 to 7 times less pieces of research and works per specialist engaged in the SREDW than the most developed European countries. Of course, we could state that the situation in our neighbouring countries is not much better, or even worse than in Kazakhstan; this comparison is often made when different problems are considered. For example, Russia has also experienced a sharp reduction in scientific activity. However, we have our own life. In addition, it is Kazakhstan that wants to become one of the 50 most developed countries.
One of the problems of Kazakh science is the gap between the academic and educational components. There are several difficult issues in this respect. For example, as stated in an analytical article (the author of which has asked to remain anonymous at this time), more than half of the people engaged in scientific research specialise in the sphere of state budgeting policy. At the same time “it is commonly known, that the so called state budget topics are often a cover for some academics who are interested in research only at the times of preparation of the annual state budget and who actually don’t produce valuable scientific results in many years.”
Experts agree that there are many factors impeding Kazakhstan’s scientific development. In fact, only listing all the factors would take as much space as an average journal article. However, some of them can be emphasised; the absence of an effective system of introducing the research results into the industries and the creation of science intensive technologies and productions. In other words, science is not demanded. It is common to think that the main reason is the “absence of the link between science and industry”. This is true even on the administrative level. Here one could remember that several years ago at the time of Kazakhstan’s “know-how” euphoria and creation of, the so called, development institutes, a director of one of these institutes complained that even though there are enough scientists with their research results, the results are not relevant to practical application. In other words, the research didn’t have a practical return. One of the reasons, according to this specialist-administrator, was the age of the scientists. The scientists, educated during the time of the Soviet Union couldn’t transform their scientific mentality to accommodate the modern pragmatism.
The next problem (or sub-problem, if we analyse the problems in descending order) is that the dominant share of funds designated for science in Kazakhstan is used by the applicable researches, but not by the experimental design works. The latter only gets 8% of the scientific budget. It means that the discrepancy in the support between the two levels of scientific research is very big. Although the financing of fundamental studies (21% of the total scientific expenditure) is close to the world’s average level, the problem is in the further gap between the lower and higher levels of scientific and technical development.

Even a cursory glance upon the conditions of Kazakh science, and especially its projection on the technical and technological plate, shows a very complicated and contradictory picture. In fact, it is a mosaic of problems. Some of them emerged during the early post-Soviet years, others grew out of modern reality. There are even problems coming from the times of the USSR. This mixture makes the finding of a solution problematic, even if there is proper funding in place. However, they say “the walker will finish the road”. The fact that the government has begun to show an interest in this area at least gives grounds for some optimism.

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