Kyrgyzstan seeks a new scientific method

Proposals call for a radical shakeup of a withering science establishment.

BISHKEK | When Umutai Dauletova’s 17-year-old son, Nazar Abdimomunov, decided to pursue a science degree, the family agreed there was only one place for him to study – abroad.

“My son wants to study chemical engineering, but there are no strong universities in our country that properly teach hard sciences,” said Dauletova, who works for an international organization in Bishkek. “Kyrgyzstan is behind in this regard. It’s not a country where hard sciences are applied, as Kyrgyzstan’s industry is almost dead.”

So Abdimomunov was shipped off to Gazi University in Turkey.

“Based on the experience of our relatives, I can say that teaching methods are outdated. Teachers educated under the Soviet Union are good, but they still just stand in front of students and read their lectures,” Dauletova said. “Kyrgyzstan’s universities don’t have cutting-edge approaches. Labs and equipment are quite outdated.”

Her concern is shared at the highest levels of government. In the fall, a presidential advisory council recommended wholesale changes to the country’s scientific establishment and science education.

The council said Kyrgyzstan ranks 142nd of 236 countries and territories it surveyed in terms of citations and research publications. The group bemoaned a rapidly aging population of scientists with advanced degrees, and it found inertia at the Academy of Sciences, which it said had not had any marked achievements since the Soviet era.

International ratings show broadly how a lack of technological know-how has hit the country’s economy. The UN’s massive Industrial Competitive Indexranked Kyrgyzstan 117th of 135 countries surveyed in 2010 (down from 90th in 1995), behind neighbors Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. (Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, two other post-Soviet Central Asian states, provided no data for the report.) Kyrgyzstan fared poorly in the index’s two measures of technological prowess: the share of medium and high tech in total manufacturing (4.36 percent) and the proportion of medium- and high-tech products in manufactured exports (19.95 percent).

It was not always so. Scientists in Soviet Kyrgyzstan, though not necessarily ethnically Kyrgyz, did important work. In the 1960s, Pavel Chalov helped develop the process of dating bodies of water and other natural objects according to the instability of uranium isotopes they contained. In the next decade, Oleg Alimov developed the drilling units on unmanned Soviet spacecrafts sent to take samples from the moon.

The advisory council’s recommendations to restore the country’s scientific luster, endorsed by President Almazbek Atambaev, included making the National Academy of Sciences self-supporting and integrating scientific research and teaching, which are now divided between the academy and universities.

In a September letter to Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev, Atambaev followed up the council’s suggestions by saying the academy had little to show for its “more than 20 institutions, 115 full members, corresponding members and honorary academicians.” He called for new blood and new approaches, particularly in education and in areas where research could boost the country’s anemic economy.

By law, the government-funded academy’s duties include conducting basic research; studying pressing issues of the country’s socio-economic, political, scientific, technological, and cultural development; facilitating the application of scientific developments; and training researchers and specialists.

The body’s president, Abdygany Erkebaev, agreed that reform is overdue and welcomed the government’s attention.

“In Kyrgyzstan, there has been no state science policy. There is no clear coordination between the academy and the Ministry of Education and Science,” Erkebaev said. “The country must have a mechanism to coordinate and conduct a proper policy. Now, for the first time, these matters are being seriously addressed at the national level.”

He said scientific research has effectively been starved in Kyrgyzstan: no funds have been allocated for equipment, chemicals, researchers, or scientific expeditions since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union. The the academy’s annual budget of 252 million soms (about $4.3 million) goes only for salaries and maintenance.

The academy’s response to the reform proposals has been to lop off some of its bureaucracy. It plans to cut about 30 percent of administrative positions and merge 25 institutes into seven.

“We’ll dramatically reduce the administrative apparatus and the bureaucracy in order to spend those funds mainly to purchase equipment. We want to upgrade our experimental base,” Erkebaev said.

And although the academy leader said he welcomed “collaboration” with universities, he took issue with the idea of formally merging the organization with higher education institutions.

“It’s better to keep the Russian model developed under [Tsar] Peter I, according to which the academy is engaged exclusively in basic sciences and universities only teach,” Erkebaev said. “We believe that to hand science over to universities would be a thoughtless step because universities don’t have the experimental base and broad experience.”

He also dismissed the idea of withdrawing public funds and making the academy fully self-supporting. “There have been hotheads who wanted to eliminate the Academy of Sciences. We reject this,” he said.

Overall, Erkebaev is bullish on the academy’s future. He said young scientists have started to return after an exodus in the 1990s, but he noted that the average salary at the academy is still low – only 8,000 soms a month, slightly higher than the government-estimated minimum cost of living of 5,500 soms.

His optimism is not shared by Marat Sultanov, a physicist and member of parliament who in November said the country lagged behind in coal chemistry and biotechnology for agricultural production.

“There are areas where the Kyrgyz Academy is not competitive at all, for instance, in applied and computer engineering. In this sector, many countries are far ahead,” Sultanov said, according to the news agency.

Juldyz Baimagambetova, a senior expert on special projects for market-leading cellphone operator Sky Mobile, would add information technology to that list. She said the main hiring challenge for the firm, which trades in Kyrgyzstan under the name Beeline, is the lack of trained specialists in the country.

“Our company is an international one using many international practices on the telecommunications market, which never stands still. So prospective employees have to have a high level of proficiency,” Baimagambetova said. She said Sky Mobile ends up training local university graduates or specialists itself.

Hamid Toursunov is an independent journalist in Osh. This article was originally published by Transitions Online


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