Promoting research in Kazakhstan

I made my interest in Nazarbayev University clear in an earlier post, asking (only semi-jokingly) if it could become the Oxford of Kazakhstan. Largely at the eponymous President’s initiative, Nazarbayev University is being pumped with millions of petro-dollars to become, at great speed, a world-leading centre of academic excellence.

Following on from this, a recent article has now highlighted the government’s keenness to promote research in Kazakhstan. I should note for the record that the author of the largely factual piece is currently an Associate Professor at – guess where – Nazarbayev University, so bear that in mind when reading.

The article explains that the government is throwing large amounts of money at research with several aims:

  • to shift the existing focus away from pure science, towards research that creates products, thus benefiting the economy more directly (let’s not have a debate about whether indeed research should only aim towards outcomes – save that for another day!)
  • to create a more meritocratic award system for awarding research grants. This is a big ask in a country where the higher education system – with some notable exceptions – tends not to be viewed as entirely uncorrupt
  • to help scholars internationalise their research by increasing publication rates in internationally recognised academic journals

I find the last point the most interesting, and also the most achievable. It follows the 2011 establishment of five National Research Councils, a model used by the UK and Canada, to give just two examples. Where the Kazakh model differs is in its deliberate use of international peer reviewers – I use the word ‘deliberate’ because much research undertaken in the UK is international almost without trying, given the huge number of global research collaborations.

There are a number of challenges to the success of this new, ideally more transparent system. The first is the score of Soviet-educated academics with a particularly Soviet way of doing research (generally quite factual) and working. However, this challenge is not unique to Kazakhstan and this provides opportunities for the country to look at good practice, where it exists, in the other former Soviet countries.

A second challenge is going to be retaining the interest of international reviewers in working with Kazakh colleagues. To my mind, a common perception amongst foreigners is still one of ‘helping out’ in the country, rather than working as equal colleagues. I think it will take time to shift out of this developmental mindset.

And a third challenge is how to recruit and retain the younger generation into academia. Right now, there are few incentives for young people to pursue a career in higher education when serious money can be made and more jobs are available in the private sector.

So once again, let’s watch this space and see what has changed in Kazakh research over the next five and then ten years.

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