science

The end of science in Turkmenistan?

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cat-doing-science
Support cats doing science. And Turkmenistan’s scientists.

The Academy of Sciences in Turkmenistan is facing major budget cuts that will see a third of its personnel lose their jobs and structural changes that may see the Academy disappear from the science scene in the country.

As an institution, the Academy of Sciences brings together researchers from across disciplines, historically separating them from their teaching counterparts in universities and specialized institutes. Although the Russian Academy of Sciences was founded under Peter the Great in 1724 [ru], it is the Soviet-era version that was propagated around the Soviet Union, reaching Central Asia in the 1940s/1950s.

Fast forward to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the Academy of Sciences – now divided into national branches, no longer held together as a single entity – has met varying fates. In Russia and Kazakhstan, there have been moves to get rid of the Academy by merging its functions with universities, whereas in other states like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, its work continues moreorless in the same format as was inherited in the 1990s (even if the structures and disciplinary groupings have changed).

Turkmenistan’s Academy of Science was already dealt a near fatal blow in 1995 when it was closed down, also leading to the closure of postgraduate studies in the country as the Academy of Sciences is also responsible for training the next generation of researchers.

But with a change of president in 2007, the Academy was reopened in 2009. A government sanctioned list of its achievements testifies to the variety of science and research activities being undertaken (or at least reported to the government).

Sadly, notwithstanding the re-emergence of the Academy, it will mark its tenth anniversary as the latest institution to be hit by a series of state funding cutbacks. Budget belt tightening has been underway for three years, as the ever reliable (and very witty) Bruce Pannier of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Qishloq Ovozi reported in December 2018.

Government funding for the Academy is due to be phased out over the next three years and 30% of staff will lose their jobs [ru] in the immediate future. That’s around 200 researchers from the nine research institutes that remain. Mergers will also be underway, bringing the Biology Institute into the University of Engineering and Technology, for example.

Turkmenistan Chronicle tells the sombering tale [ru] of how 2,000 people – including 450 researchers at the Academy of Science – were obliged to attend an event lasting several hours, in which they were ‘treated’ to 23 songs in honour of the President before hearing the Rector of the University of Engineering and Technology give a speech extolling the virtues of the President’s latest great idea. Imagine what it must have felt like sitting in that audience, either knowing or being able to make an educated guess about your unlucky fate.

Even before the news broke, the future for science in Turkmenistan has not been looking promising. Just 300 people in the country hold a Candidate of Sciences (PhD equivalent) degree, and fewer than 100 have the higher level Doctor of Sciences. Of the 12 people awarded a Doctor of Sciences in recent years, only four are working in science and research. And while on a more positive note, 1,200 people have written a Candidate thesis, none have been allowed to defend it.

The science pipeline is not leaky in Turkmenistan anymore. It’s not even burst: it seems to have completely dried up. And that is not a situation that any country with a plan for the future should want to find itself in.

New publication: Scientific nationalism in a globalizing world

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Handbook on the Politics of Higher Education
Hot off the press copies of the Handbook on the Politics of Higher Education

After a break from blogging to attend the recent and quite fantastic World Cup in Russia, I’m back with the good news that I have a new publication out.

This is a book chapter co-written with my supervisor Professor Creso Sá and is titled Scientific nationalism in a globalizing world.

It’s part of a hefty new Handbook on the Politics of Higher Education, which also features chapters by luminaries in the field such as Susan Robertson, Rosemary Deem, Roger King and many, many others. The aim of the Handbook is straightforward: to address the growing politicization of higher education and offer a variety of perspectives on the politics of higher education that will improve our understanding and analysis.

Our chapter, part of a section on political economy and global governance, dives deeper into the politics of academic science. We take two notions – scientific nationalism and scientific globalism – that have different ways of conceptualising the purpose of science as well as how and why it is supported (and by whom) – but which both in different ways help to explain patterns seen in science policies around the world.

On the one hand, scientific nationalism offers a viewpoint of science as being of critical importance to nation states – even as they are increasingly intertwined in global affairs, the idea is that support for academic science will enhance national competitiveness or innovation.

On the other hand, the idea of scientific globalism is one that derives from universalist ideas of the pursuit of science being borderless and not something that can or should be privatized or commercialized. Cross-national academic communities of scientists working together on ‘grand challenges’ would be an excellent example of scientific globalism.

We studied national science policies in twenty countries across all continents and with a very wide range of economic and political contexts. Despite this diversity, we found the depth of commonalities across the policies remarkable. For instance, almost all of the policies expressed a desire to become (or remain) globally competitive, with great importance placed on science as a tool to achieve that goal. From Saudi Arabia to South Africa and from Canada to China, this positioning was embraced around the world.

In addition to similarities across the policies, we also identified a number of tensions that arise from the dual existence of both logics of scientific nationalism and scientific globalism. Whilst scientific nationalism is well anchored in a global institutional order, there was  clear friction with ideas stemming from more globalist thinking. This is encapsulated well in how the policies talk about the mobility of scientists and researchers. Nations want their scientists to cooperate globally and to be able to travel around the world, but many countries also expressed a desire for said scientists to ultimately return to their home country to utilize the skills and experience gained abroad.

Written at the end of 2016 and start of 2017, we end the chapter by considering some areas for future research in this topic. For example, how will science policy making be affected by the emerging politics of neo-nationalism or nativism (e.g. Brexit in the UK, Trump in the US to name just two mid-2010s events)? And – worryingly – could scientific globalism be under threat from the rise of xenophobic right-wing populism?

The Handbook has had some very nice reviews already, being described by Simon Marginson as ‘much the best available collection of its kind’ (praise indeed!).

The attached flyer – Handbook on the Politics of Higher Education – gives more details about the book and how to buy it with a 20% discount. You can also access details on the publisher’s website at https://www.e-elgar.com/shop/handbook-on-the-politics-of-higher-education. If you’re based at a university/HEI, do please encourage your library to get a copy either of the heavyweight hardback or the e-book.

Does research always have to be targeted towards economic benefit?

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If you are a developing Asian state, the answer apparently seems to be ‘yes’. This has been suggested as a strategy for Asian countries in achieving their research and development goals. Resources for scientific research, whether undertaken in universities or in the private sector, should be carefully allocated and targeted towards specific areas for priority development.

Here is well-known international higher education academic Philip Altbach writing about China and India back in 2001:

One strategy available to China and India is targeting specific areas for intensive research and development investment. These areas are generally in fields that can directly benefit the economy and that build on existing strengths in the country.

And here’s another academic, William Cummings, on the growth of a new academic centre in the Asia-Pacific region in 2010:

An interesting line of speculation is that the different academic systems of the Asia-Pacific region might develop distinctive directions of excellence in the decades ahead… China is notable for its achievements in space and in computer-related areas. The Philippines is known for its training of doctors and other health personnel. An infusion of increased resources might allow the country to gain prominence in the health-related sciences.

In recognition of the recent Day of Science in Kyrgyzstan, President Almazbek Atambayev is also weighing in:

Science is of paramount importance in the formation of human capital that is an important factor in accelerating social and economic development of any country. In Kyrgyzstan, it is necessary to concentrate the whole scientific potential on priority directions for the country.

Three narratives from the last 15 years, all suggesting concentration and specialization in some form or another. I think this raises interesting questions around:

  • defining national research/science priorities in an interconnected and interdependent world
  • the benefits and drawbacks of focussing investment in a small number of fields vs sharing resources more widely, if also more thinly
  • the relative weight placed on economic development vs social development
  • whether this push towards concentration is visible in other regions of the world
  • the role that universities can play either in supporting government policy or developing their own priorities drawing on their local, national and global networks

References

Altbach, Philip, “Gigantic Peripheries: India and China in the International Knowledge System,” in Hayhoe, Ruth and Pan, Julia (eds), Knowledge Across Cultures, 2001, pp. 199-214.

Cummings, William.  “Is the Academic Centre Shifting to Asia?” In David Chapman, William Cummings and Gerard Postiglione (eds.) Border Crossing in East Asian Higher Education   (Hong Kong: Comparative Education Centre, University of Hong Kong and Springer Press, 2010), 47-76.

Manasova, Kanykei, “Almazbek Atambayev: We have to concentrate all scientific potential on priority directions for country”, 24.kg, 10.11.2015, accessed from http://www.eng.24.kg/community/177917-news24.html