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Armenia: Science Shake-Up Debate

United Nations report proposes a radical overhaul of the country’s scientific institutions.
By Arevhat Grigorian
Armenian scientists last week began hotly debating new proposals for a complete overhaul of the country’s scientific academies.



Last year, the Armenian government asked the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, to draw up a reform programme for the country’s prestigious but ailing Academy of Sciences. The completed draft report was submitted to the government on January 19, and is now being dissected by the scientists who will be affected by it.



The draft programme would reform the way the academy is funded, drastically reduce its powers and overhaul the system of academic degrees.



The document has already drawn an angry response from Armenian academicians. In a newspaper interview on January 18, Fadei Sarkisian, chairman of the National Academy of Sciences condemned its authors as “enemies of the country”.



Others have expressed fears that one of the unspoken aims of the scheme is to sell off the academy’s magnificent buildings on Baghramian Avenue in the centre of the capital Yerevan. “I know how this plan will end: in the end, the buildings belonging to the Academy of Sciences will be sold off,” said Konstantin Gharagiozian, director of the Institute of Molecular Biology.



The head of the science department at the education ministry, Aram Kosian, told IWPR that these fears were “groundless” and that even if the buildings were vacated, they would remain the property of the academy.



At issue is the future of what used to be a great source of Armenian pride - its tradition of scholarship in the natural sciences. The National Academy of Sciences, NAS, was founded in 1943 during the Second World War, and became a major centre for Soviet scientists. It still encompasses around 50 institutes and other organisations and employs nearly 4,500 people, 2,000 of them researchers.



However, like the rest of the country, the academy has fallen on hard times. In 2005, it received funding worth 9.3 million US dollars, one per cent of the government’s budget expenditure. Once-high salaries have plummeted to the equivalent of 60 dollars a month due to inflation



The UNDP report proposes combining some parts of the NAS into a cluster of big scientific research centres and amalgamating other elements with Armenia’s state universities. Funding will be provided via new foundations which will be responsible for raising cash.



Atom Margarian, who heads the group of experts that drew up the report, explained that the state could no longer afford to commission such large amounts of scientific research. “That’s a model for a state striving towards totalitarianism or authoritarianism, and it cannot be justified in the conditions that prevail today,” he told IWPR.



Under the new model, the state will commission research projects, alongside businesses and other non-governmental institutions. A new state scientific fund will be set up to attract foreign investment.



Gennady Gasparian, a professor with the Institute of Zoology, said he was worried about who would sit on the board of trustees of the new foundations and they might turn into “one more bureaucratic structure”.



Under the proposals, the current management of NAS will lose their administrative powers to a new agency whose structure has yet to be defined. “Our proposal is fatal for the academy’s leaders, as they will lose their levers of control,” acknowledged Margarian.



Professor Gasparian said the current presidium was only interested in “being in charge, leading the process”, not the bigger issues at stake.



Margarian said the recommendations had drawn on the experience of other post-Soviet countries, and had come after a wide range of Armenian academics had been polled.



Many scholars say they agree with the report’s analysis of the problem, but not with the proposed solution.



“The UN document contains around 68 pages,” said Bagrat Gharibjanian, director of the Institute of Refined Organic Chemistry in a discussion of the report last week. “I completely agree with the content of the first 50 pages which deals with the state of science as a result of the financial shortfall. But I don’t agree with the second part.”



Some scientists agree that if the way science is managed is not reformed, Armenia will fall behind the rest of the world.



But others warn that the wrong reforms could leave academia out of step with the systems used in its near neighbours. Like other post-Soviet countries, Armenia currently has two levels of doctoral degree or PhD - “candidate of science” and “doctor of science” - which the reforms would reduce to a single doctorate.



“The scientific educational field we mainly work in is the post-Soviet - and for the most part Russian - one. Russia, and Ukraine as well, will not recognise a system with one academic degree, which is what the UN experts are proposing,” said academician Eduard Ghazarian.



As well as the UNDP plans, there are two other reform proposals under discussion, one from the Public Council of Scholars of Armenia and another from the presidium of the NAS itself. But another academician, Andrei Nersisian, is dismissive of the latter, saying, “The NAS proposal is like a group of doctors standing by the bedside of a dying sportsman and thinking about new reforms rather than about to revive him.”



Margarian said his proposals would be phased in over several years with a careful monitoring process, so that they would not come as a shock to the academic system.



Spokesmen for the government say it is now carefully studying the findings of the UNDP report.



Arevhat Grigorian is a correspondent with Hetq Online newspaper. Seda Muradian, IWPR’s Armenia editor, contributed to this report.

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