Why the system of financing scientific projects in the Republic of Kazakhstan needs reforms?

The limited financial resources allocated to scientific research, non-transparent model for allocating funds and conflicts and scandals associated with this, and, lastly, low effectiveness of the conducted studies at the present stage call for reforming the existing budget allocation system

Фото: © Depositphotos.com/mostockfootage

Being the working body ensuring the conduct of the state scientific and technical expertise, the National Center of Science and Technology Evaluation (JSC "NCSTE") has repeatedly brought its proposals for reforming the existing system to the attention of the public. Now, during the next round of discussions around this issue, we consider it expedient and useful to repeat our recommendations.

Do not throw away the baby with the bathwater

In 2011, on the initiative of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, a new model of science management was introduced. Its foundation was the Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan "On Science", which determined the legal basis for modernizing the scientific branch. New forms of financing have been introduced: basic, grant and program-target; a system of state scientific and technical expertise was established and national scientific councils were organized.

Let us recall that one of the goals of this reform was to increase the role of the scientific community both in determining the priority directions of the development of science and in their financing. And it was unconditional progress which brought its fruits.

Let us give just one example. In 2011, only one Kazakh scientific publication, the Eurasian Chemical Technology Journal, was among the ranking journals of global science. To date, 10 Kazakhstani journals have been included in the authoritative information resources of Web of Science and Scopus, and the number of publications of domestic scientists in top-rated foreign publications has grown many-fold, they were also more often quoted. All this speaks about the actualization of Kazakhstani studies, as well as the fact that our scientists are starting to keep up with the times.

Thus, in general, despite the existing shortcomings, the current model has shown its viability and fulfills a complex task - it allows financing of prospective scientific projects in conditions of limited financial resources.
Therefore, we believe that at this stage it is inappropriate to abandon the current system. Radical structural reform will inevitably lead to internal conflicts in the management of science, delays in financing projects, which will affect their quality.

Based on this, we offer point-based and, in our opinion, effective measures that can eliminate negative moments in the distribution of finance.

Less is more

First. Until now, we have been "smearing" money in a thin layer, as if trying to hand out to all the sisters by earrings, not keeping with whether one or another topic is needed to a country, an economy, or science itself. The last two competitions held in 2014 and 2017 showed that the number of applications submitted for the competition of the Science Committee of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan was too high - about 5 thousand. Taking into account that only more than 17 thousand people directly engage in science in Kazakhstan, this is an unjustified number. Therefore, we consider it necessary to create additional filters during the process of application for financing, in order to cut off at the initial stage little-promising projects that are not scientifically sustainable. This can be done by pre-selection of applications before the implementation of the SSTE, for example, through the hearing of presentations from principal investigators.

Secondly, young scientists and youth research teams often do not receive the state funding (the scientist is considered young up to 35 years old). In the future, such a situation can negatively affect the state of Kazakh science as the continuity of scientific schools is interrupted, scientific manpower is aging. In this regard, it is necessary to focus on supporting young scientists to address the lack of scientific personnel in the future. It is advisable to hold competitions separately for young researchers. Such a measure will help to provide scientists with equal opportunities.

Thirdly, it is impossible not to mention the role of fundamental science. Inattention to it undermines the roots of applied science. In all leading countries the priority in public funding is given to fundamental research. With that said, no one waits for an immediate feedback from them. Everyone understands that the provision of fundamental science allows preserving a "critical mass" of ideas and institutions in the country and maintaining a high level of development of science as a whole.

Share openly and fairly

Now let’s move to the most crucial issue for today – distribution of budget between projects and programs that went through the state evaluation process.

Unfortunately the system of formation of National Science Committee (NSC) as a body deciding approval or disapproval of financing of projects and programs has a number of shortcomings.

Firstly, according to the resolution of the government of the Republic of Kazakhstan No. 519 from 2011, the head of the scientific organization cannot be a part of NSC. However, in practice, using gaps in the legislation, heads of some organizations along with the several members representing same scientific organization have also entered NSC. As we remember regulations limit representation in NSC to one person from one organization. What does prevent us from returning to return to the letter and the spirit of the law and revise the structure of NSC?

Secondly, today the vote of the members of NSC is taken secretly. On the one hand, of course, this factor promotes independent will of members of NSC, but, on the other hand, nobody in the committee is responsible for result of the vote. We suggest to vote openly and to simplify the counting of votes – to carry it out on the basis of the simple majority – "approved" or "disapproved".

Thirdly, the problematic issue arises in the activity of NSC when in certain cases NSC does not take into account the results of the state scientific technical evaluation (SSTE) provided in the ranked list. There is only one solution here: when making decisions, the NSC should take the expert assessments as a base. This norm should become unshakable.

Fourth, it is necessary to envisage the rotation of chairmen and deputy chairmen of the NSC, with the possibility of their re-election by the NSC itself. It is necessary to give an opportunity to all scientific organizations openly - through the Internet forum - to nominate their candidates for the NSC and vote for them. It is advisable to look at the experience of Germany, where the position of the members of the Science Committee (an analogue of our NSC) is elective.

Fifthly, in order to increase the transparency and personal responsibility of the NSC members, full openness of the NSC meetings is necessary. You can either conduct them online, or share the full records of meetings of the NSC on the website of NCSTE, so that every scientist, the entire scientific community can see and hear how a particular project is considered and what the results of voting are. Such a publicity will help to avoid conflict situations in the future.

Sixthly, raising the status, prestige and responsibility of an expert and a member of the NSC can also play a positive role in improving the quality of NSC’s work. Therefore, we should already start thinking over the mechanisms for this. One of the ways can be the accreditation of experts with the assignment of the status of an "expert scientist of Kazakhstan". It is also advisable to envisage a system of remuneration for members of the NSC, since they are currently working on a gratuitous basis.

Seventh, young scientists should be introduced as NSC members more actively. Lack of experience, they compensate with creativity, originality and independence of thinking, as well as enthusiasm and perseverance.
If all the aforementioned changes are made to the Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan "On Science" and bylaws, then the efficiency of the distribution of funds by NSC will increase. However, if the system remains the same, then the conflicts will continue. In this case, the only solution will be to delegate the authority to allocate budget funds from the NSC to another structure. Nevertheless, with this approach, all the shortcomings inherent in the current budget allocation model will automatically be transferred to the new structure.

In general, it should be noted that there are various systems of distribution of finance in science worldwide. At the same time, despite significant differences, they demonstrate efficiency. A common feature of successful countries in terms of science and technology is the multichannel distribution of public money. In addition to government bodies, the funds are distributed through various scientific foundations, agencies, etc. This allows more flexibility in the financing system.

I would also like to recall something else. One of the conditions for increasing the efficiency of the allocation of public funds to science is taking direction towards results. To do this, we need to increase the personal responsibility of supervisors of the program and organizations-executers to the state, for example, through public reports on the work done, and its stages. At the same time monitoring of the implementation and effectiveness of scientific projects and programs should not be viewed as a club against scientists - it should be perceived as a partnership of science with the state, their mutual and benevolent interest in achieving the best results.

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