Uzbekistan Losing its Scientists

Qualified scientists can earn far more money and respect by taking their skills abroad.

Uzbekistan Losing its Scientists

Qualified scientists can earn far more money and respect by taking their skills abroad.

Tuesday, 6 October, 2009
As recent graduates and longer-established academics from Uzbekistan continue to chase better opportunities abroad, experts warn that the decline in scientific research will have a long-term impact on the country’s economy. They say the key factors prompting the exodus are the chronic under-funding of science in Uzbekistan and the low pay that graduates can expect.

Although no official statistics are available, some estimates put the brain-drain at several hundred a year. Those leaving the country include mathematicians, physicists and chemists, who feel underpaid and undervalued at home.

“The brain-drain is a real problem in our country,” said a professor at the National University of Uzbekistan, who asked not to be named.

Of the 50,000 students who graduate from Uzbek universities every year, around 40 per cent get jobs in science-based industries, while the rest either find work in other areas or emigrate.

“Educated young people are leaving for one simple reason – it’s impossible to survive on the salary of a junior- or senior-level researcher,” said Usein Kerimov, a lecturer at the National University. “When I talk to young people, I often hear them saying there’s nothing for them to do here, so it’s time for them to leave,”

On average, scientific researchers in Uzbekistan earn 120 US dollars a month, whereas they can expect salaries of up to 1,000 dollars if they move to Russia, as many do. In recent years, southeast Asian countries like Singapore and Malaysia have joined Russia as become magnets for Uzbek graduates as their standard of proficiency in English has risen.

According to Ilhom Atakhanov, who works at the Institute for Algorithms and Cybernetics in Tashkent, young scientists often feel their skills will not be used if they remain.

“There are a lot of talented scientists, but in recent years, funding for science has fallen sharply and dozens of experts have gone into other areas. Most have gone abroad, where they are paid good money and are in demand. Those who remain here are working [purely] out of passion,” he said.

A lecturer at the Institute for Chemical Technology who asked to remain anonymous predicted that state neglect of research would prove damaging for Uzbekistan’s industrial sector.

“Just look what’s happening in the institutions under the Academy of Sciences – there’s nothing left there. There are no specialists left. What kind of scientific capacity can there be if the sums allocated to research are so miserable?” he asked.

The lecturer said his own area, chemistry, was in a parlous state, but no one in government was prepared to listen.

“We’ve spent a long time trying to find out how much exactly is allocated from the state budget for science, specifically chemistry. All the figures are kept secret; there are no realistic figures. The only thing that’s clear is that science in Uzbekistan is funded out of whatever is left over,” he said.

The lecturer said that when scientists ask for higher funding levels, the response from government is that everything is fine as exports of chemicals and petrochemicals are at “record levels”. However, he said, these export items are mostly raw materials with little value-added, whereas with the right input from scientists, Uzbekistan could be using its chemical resources to manufacture high-value products, many of which it currently has to import.

Shavkat Solihov, chairman of the Academy of Sciences, the state body that oversees academia and scientific research institutions, defends the government’s record on science.

Arguing that Uzbekistan leads the way in many hi-tech areas including bio- and nanotechnology, he said there was close cooperation between academia and industry. Science students could go on from university to further studies at various institutes attached to the Academy of Scientists, where they had access to resources like laboratories and a library held on an electronic database, he said.

“Uzbekistan is now reaching a qualitatively new level of innovative development, and we are therefore seeking further new ways of attracting scientists into the academy’s institutes,” said Solihov.

Aspiring scientists like Danil Bagramov, a physics student from Tashkent, remain unconvinced of the opportunities open to them in their own country.

Bagramov feels he will have to go to Moscow once he finishes his first degree because he cannot get the support he needs from his university.

“I want to leave not because I want to earn a lot of money, but primarily in order to gain fulfilment,” he said. “I conduct experiments, but despite numerous applications to the university administration for support for my scientific initiatives, I am always told there is no money for specific projects.”
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