In the recent $40 billion U.S. military and humanitarian assistance program for Ukraine, there was not a word about support for high-level scientific research, higher education, or industrial innovation. technology in Ukraine. And yet, these areas are absolutely vital if Ukraine is to be a sustainable, sovereign and independent country.
Over the past thirty years, Ukraine has experienced a massive brain drain of talented and dynamic young scientific researchers, students and innovators to the most attractive and lucrative laboratories and industries in Europe, Asia and from North America. This loss has been severely exacerbated by the current Russian invasion of the country. Although there have been large-scale efforts to accommodate Ukrainian refugees in temporary posts abroad, it can be assumed that many will never return to their home countries.
One need only look at the role of Ukraine’s wartime IT sector to understand why cutting-edge scientific research, education and high-tech entrepreneurship are so essential to the country’s military and economic security. Since the outbreak of hostilities just over four months ago, young Ukrainian cyber-warriors have surprisingly exceeded expectations that Russian military and criminal hackers (who may be one and the same) would destroy Ukraine through cvber war.
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Ukrainian science goes much further than cyber defense. In materials science, physics, mathematical modelling, engineering and a range of other fields, Ukraine’s cutting-edge scientific research has had a significant impact not only in terms of international scientific publications, but also in the world of technology and commerce.
It is important to note that the strength of Ukrainian science and technology is not limited to the civilian sphere and has always been closely linked to defense production. Kyiv’s renowned Paton Electric Welding Institute not only conducted cutting-edge research in metallurgy and welding; it was also a primary producer of Soviet tanks as well as specialty metals for submarines and aircraft. Ukraine must also venture in new directions in the life sciences, in part to research countermeasures to biological warfare as well as to prevent the spread of disease among farm animals.
Major restructuring is needed to make the most of Ukraine’s technological potential. Like other countries of the former Soviet bloc, Ukraine inherited the highly hierarchical, bureaucratic and inefficient Russian research system. The concept of a modern research university, combining advanced research and teaching at all levels and contributing to technological innovation through links with industry, is still largely absent in Ukraine. Due to the thirty-year post-Soviet brain drain, a very high priority must now be given to educating the next generations of Ukrainian scientists and engineers.
Other post-Soviet countries realigned their research and higher education systems in various ways and to varying degrees. Reforms have gained ground in Ukraine since the 2014 Dignity Revolution, but in most areas progress remains extremely slow.
In this light, the radical devastation of war presents both profound challenges and major opportunities. In the words of 17th century English historian Thomas Fuller, set to music by Mamas and Papas, “the darkest hour of the night comes just before dawn”.
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Currently, the United States government’s humanitarian and reconstruction assistance program is silent on targeted support to Ukraine’s science and technology sector. There are multiple opportunities for USAID and others to make a difference. There are also multiple opportunities not only to fail through inaction or lack of vision, but also for US aid to fall behind support from other sources such as the European Union.
It is time for the US government to wake up and realize that for Ukraine to enter the modern world of knowledge economies, action must be taken now. Even before major physical reconstruction is underway, or at the same time as it is, there is an urgent need to address the immediate financial crisis of Ukrainian science, by directing short-term support, especially to young scientists who stay in Ukraine. It is also essential to strengthen and realign Ukraine’s research, higher education and technological innovation systems to succeed in the world of economic competitiveness and global cooperation.
Now is the perfect opportunity to look at these key issues in a new light and take bold action. Without such thought and planning, throwing money at the problem will have no lasting impact. As a senior Ukrainian official from the RESET-Ukraine task force informally observed: “We need to change the system. If you go back to the old system, nothing will change.
Only the willingness to engage in meaningful system change, the kind that will elevate Ukrainian research, education and innovation to standards and practices resembling those in Europe and elsewhere, will inspire the confidence necessary for external funders provide the higher amounts of funding needed to make a long-term and lasting difference.
Direct assistance grants, support for Ukrainian STEM programs, especially in higher education, and start-up grants for small high-tech Ukrainian companies, such as the US Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, can go a long way, dollar for dollar, aimed at ensuring the long-term economic health and vitality of a sovereign and independent Ukraine. But these efforts must go hand in hand with a project for systemic change, which works for all Ukrainian stakeholders.
That’s why the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in the United States created an informal working group called Rebuilding Engineering, Science, Education, and Technology (RESET-Ukraine) to work with our Ukrainian colleagues. to examine best practices from other countries. to realign their national research systems for the 21st century. Our work is already underway. But such efforts cannot reach their full potential without a clear commitment, first and foremost, from the United States and other governments to make material assistance in this area a priority.
Gerson S. Sher is a retired civil servant and foundation executive whose forty-year career has involved leading scientific cooperation with countries of the former Soviet Union. He is the author of “From Pugwash to Putin: A Critical History of US-Soviet Scientific Cooperation” (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2019), and is co-chair of the informal working group of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine the United States. group, RESET-Ukraine.
The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.
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