The Last Pharaoh of Ukraine’s Science

The President of Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences, Borys Paton, will turn 100 this year.  He is perhaps the oldest chief of a national academy in the world. 

February 17, 2018

Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences will celebrate its centennial anniversary this year. Almost two years ago, Ukraine introduced a new law for science to regulate relations between the state and the National Academy of Sciences. This legislative move did not help, however. The National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine is a direct descendant of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, with all of the Soviet Union’s chronic illnesses. The reproduction of the Soviet model at the scale of a post-Soviet republic preserved all its features untouched. With increasing levels of corruption in academia, the incline of the hierarchical pyramid has become steeper and steeper. And with pyramids, there are often pharaohs.

The hierarchical pyramidal structure of the National Academy of Sciences has its “slaves” at the very bottom and its “pharaoh” at the top. The President of Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences, Borys Paton, will turn one hundred this year. Perhaps the oldest chief of a national academy in the world, Paton has ruled the Academy for well over half-a-century—fifty-six years, to be precise. He was appointed to this high post back in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Nikita Khrushchev was in power in the USSR. No doubt, he is one of the oldest men in Ukraine, a low-income country where the average life expectancy for males barely reaches sixty. Paton was re-appointed for another term in office in 2015 by the President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, at the age of ninety-six.

Then Minister of Education and Science, Serhiy Kvit, remarked, “It is incredible that the current president was born in 1918 on the same day that the Academy’s board met for the first time.” President Poroshenko clearly does not like to bring new faces into the old political establishment, although some fresh blood might be needed to reinvigorate the nation’s leadership, not only in politics, but in science as well.

The National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine is also an excellent example of nepotism. Prior to this post, Paton served as the Director of the Research Institute of Electric Welding, founded, directed, and later named after his father, Evgeny Paton. Born in France and educated in Germany, Evgeny Paton pioneered research on welding and served as a vice-president of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine during Joseph Stalin’s regime. Apparently, he served the tyrant well, as he was allowed to pass his position on to his son. Unlike his father, Borys Paton was educated in Kiev. Given the paramount priority of physics in the USSR during the 1950s and 1960s, this was the de facto inheritance of the country’s highest research office.

Borys Paton holds numerous awards, including Ukraine’s top state decorations, the Hero of Ukraine and the Order of Liberty. Paton received the Order of Liberty from Ukraine’s dictator, Victor Yanukovych, ousted from power by the Euromaidan people’s uprising. Others who have received the Order from Yanukovych are the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev. The former has ruled Kazakhstan since the Soviet era while the latter inherited the presidency from his father, a member of the communist political bureau. This might not be the best company for a top researcher of any nation, but in a country where status is valued over merit, the company one keeps is not of much concern.

The Academy owns vast properties including the facilities of the Research Institute of Electric Welding, and the disappearance of this organization would mean the loss of control over its property. Preservation of property and supporting its numerous employees are two major concerns for the Academy’s leadership. Preoccupation with the loss of property is warranted. In summer of 2017, police and state security services raided Electric Welding under a court order and seized two hundred computers and a lot of financial (and other) documents. The equipment was located in the abandoned swimming pool and used to illegally mine bitcoins. The use of abandoned recreational facilities at the Institute for illegal purposes with the goal of earning extra income can hardly be ignored.

As directors of research institutes acknowledge, many researchers are forced to go on leaves without pay, or have four-day and even three-day restricted work weeks. Others are part-timers, working only half-time or less. Many researchers show up to their work only once a week. Given the undeniable fact that researchers in developed nations tend to consider themselves full-time, these Ukrainian part-timers are barely researchers at all. But this is beyond the point, since the most capable and promising researchers left the country a long time ago, moving to universities, labs, and research centers in the US, EU, Canada and Israel. The brain drain of the 1990s is over now, for there are not many brains left in Ukraine’s research institutes. Many remaining employees barely make ends meet, while others move to Poland, Italy and other EU nations to offer slave labor for menial jobs in construction, agriculture, and housekeeping. The pharaoh is still sitting on his throne, at the top of the pyramid. But who knows, maybe this is the last pharaoh of Ukraine’s scientific establishment.


Ararat L. Osipian is Fellow of the Institute of International Education, United Nations Plaza, New York and Honorary Associate at the Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison. He authored, most recently, University Autonomy in Ukraine: Higher Education Corruption and the State, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 50(3), 2017.



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