Ukraine needs new doctoral schools or risks losing generation of scholars, official warns

08 Nov 2022 | News

Russian strikes on electricity infrastructure have made research all but impossible, and slashed academic salaries are pushing scholars to moonlight in the IT sector, conference hears

Oleksiy Kolezhuk

Oleksiy Kolezhuk, chair of the Scientific Committee of the National Council of Ukraine on Science and Technology Development. Photo: Falling Walls

Ukraine urgently needs new doctoral schools to train its next generation of academics, according to a senior Ukrainian science administrator. He warned that, without that and other measures to stop “internal brain drain”, many researchers are fleeing universities for better paid IT jobs in order to make ends meet.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, European countries have launched countless schemes and scholarships to help displaced Ukrainian students and academics.

But Oleksiy Kolezhuk, chair of the country’s Scientific Committee of the National Council of Ukraine on Science and Technology Development, told the Falling Walls science conference in Berlin that Western partners should focus on doctoral schools and networks to ensure young Ukrainian researchers have a future in the country.

For Ukrainian masters students approaching the end of their studies, “the possibilities are very limited,” he said.

“I think establishing joint doctoral networks [is crucial], he said. “Because otherwise, we risk losing them.”

For Kolezhuk, a theoretical physicist who is currently based in Mainz, the priority is to support scholars still in Ukraine, rather than allowing them study or research elsewhere in Europe.

Travel restrictions meant that each delegation leaving Ukraine had to be cleared by the government, “which is simply not possible if we want to scale up this effort,” he said.

What’s more, initiatives to help Ukraine were a sprawling tangle of programmes, he said, and there needed to be some kind of coordination hub where Ukrainians can see everything available all in one place.

Research now ‘nearly impossible’

Over the past few weeks, as Russia has begun to target Ukraine’s electricity infrastructure more intensively, and the resulting blackouts have made research even harder, said Kolezhuk.

“Especially now with the big cuts of electricity, it's nearly impossible to work at all,” he told the audience at a session on rebuilding Ukrainian science.

“So you still continue to get your salary. But the point is, you cannot continue work, if there is no electricity, or it's unpredictable. So you can imagine running an experiment in the conditions where electricity can be cut in any moment – it’s impossible”.

What’s more, the financial drain of the war had forced the government to cut researcher salaries – meagre even in peacetime – by up to 50%, he said. This had forced academics to take up other jobs, particularly in the much more lucrative IT sector, threatening an “internal brain drain” away from research. “Good for IT, bad for science,” he said.

Heide Ahrens, secretary general of the Germany Research Foundation (DFG), stressed that support was going to academics in Ukraine, not just scholarships abroad.

The foundation has recently started to pay Ukrainian researchers up to €1,000 a month when cooperating in DFG projects, she said. More support might be on the way, she said, with the DFG mulling paying the Ukrainian side of joint funding projects in German and Ukrainian partnerships.

The war should also have an impact on curricula and the university research agenda, argued Julia von Blumenthal, president of Humboldt University in Berlin.

Germany needed to “support the institutions who have expertise, who have supported […] Ukrainian studies for a long time, to enable them to strengthen the expertise, although we all know that this is not a field where we can attract many students,” she said.

German academia needed more diverse perspectives from across central and eastern Europe, she said – something that might have given Germany more warning about the invasion.

“We had scholars, especially scholars also in Poland, who warned what was going to happen in Ukraine, and what the plans of the Russian government were [….] We didn't listen, because there was so much focus on other interpretations,” said von Blumenthal.

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