Kazakhstan taps scholars to change how research grants are awarded

(Researchers working at Nazarbayev University on products to help the economy. Courtesy photo.)

(Hal Foster appears in the Baltimore Post-Examiner under a partnership with Tengrinews of Kazakhstan. )

President Nursultan Nazarbayev has long wanted more of Kazakhstan’s scientific research turned into products that spur the economy and create good jobs.

A new center in Astana is helping the country realize that goal by introducing an international system for evaluating research proposals.

One of the aims of the National Center of Science and Technology Evaluation is ensuring that applied-science proposals – those that can be converted into products – receive major consideration.

Kazakhstan has traditionally funded pure science, or research that simply expands knowledge.

Minister of Education Bakhytzhan Zhumagulov expressed the leadership’s disappointment with the pure-science focus by saying in October 2010: “Science remains one of the fields of activity that is not building the economy and society of Kazakhstan.”

His determination to change that is a key reason the new research evaluation center was founded, according to center Director Assanbay Jumabekov.

Although the government will continue to fund pure science, it’s a safe bet there will be an increase in the funding of applied-science projects.

Besides ensuring that applied-science projects get more consideration, another objective of the center is ensuring that research grants are awarded on merit and not cronyism — or whom a researcher knows. To help achieve that goal, the new evaluation system requires that two of the three experts analyzing any request for government-funded research be from outside Kazakhstan.

A third center goal is helping Kazakhstan scholars understand how to get their research into the world’s top academic journals. Scholars from the West and Asia dominate those journals, with researchers from the former Soviet Union lagging far behind.

Publications in such journals boost the reputations of both the scholars submitting the research and the scholars’ home countries.

Most of the research that Kazakhstan’s academics did during Soviet times was pure research – or work that simply increased scientific knowledge.

Kazakhstan’s shift from a Soviet republic to an independent country in 1992 left it in economic disaster. Some of the manifestations of the disaster were the closing of hundreds of industries unable to stand on their own, the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and inflation that reached 1,700 percent.

President Nazarbayev’s team scrambled to convert the country from a planned to a free-market economy while also trying to maintain people’s livelihoods.

His administration generated hundreds of initiatives over the years that led to Kazakhstan having one of the world’s highest economic growth rates – nearly 10 percent a year during most of the decade between 2000 and 2010.

But much of the growth was based on tapping natural resources such as oil, gas and minerals. More than a decade ago, Kazakhstan began moving to diversify its economy.

The Nazarbayev administration called for Kazakhstan’s research community to help in this effort by doing more applied science.  Whether scientists didn’t know how to make the shift, or simply didn’t want to, it failed to materialize.

The government established the National Center of Science and Technology Evaluation both to bring about the shift and create a new mindset about research funding.

It hasn’t been an easy job for Assanbay, whose friends know him as Assan, because key players in the powerful research community have opposed it.

Those players know that the stakes are high: The government funds the vast majority of research in Kazakhstan, so a new approach to selecting proposals can threaten the influence of researchers who fail to obtain funding.

Assan is pushing transparency in awarding research grants.

Until the center was set up last year, only one expert in a field would review a proposal for government-funded research.

“Most of the applicants knew the reviewer, however,” Assan said. “So this was a conflict of interest.”

More often than not, a reviewer would approve a proposal from someone he knew with little consideration of its merits.

Another shortcoming of the old system was that a researcher whose proposal was rejected never learned why.

“In an effort to be transparent,” Assan said, the center now informs all researchers whose proposals were unable to obtain funding the reason why. The feedback should help researchers craft a more appropriate proposal next time around.

Kazakhstan’s Parliament passed a law in 2011 aimed at ensuring that society would get the best use of the research money the government awarded.

That law:

  • Required the research that government agencies fund to be strategic – that is, aimed at achieving priority national objectives.
  • Created the National Center of Science and Technology Evaluation to assure objective reviews of research proposals.
  • Created five National Research Councils to make final decisions on proposals to be funded, using experts’ reviews as the basis for the decision-making.

One council focuses on energy, another on processing raw materials into finished products, a third on information and technology, and a fourth on medicine and other life sciences. The fifth council, the Intellectual Potential Council, considers research that doesn’t fit the other categories, including natural sciences, art and humanities disciplines such as sociology.

Assan said scholars who submit proposals for research that could yield “commercial results” must include strategies for obtaining patents and other intellectual-property protections.

Changing the research-funding awards process from one Kazakhstan reviewer per proposal to two international reviewers and one Kazakh reviewer has been daunting, Assan said.

“My staff literally worked around the clock to line up the foreign experts,” he said.

To help it locate the overseas scholars, the center subscribed to databases that analyze the content of scientific journals and patents, including Thomson Reuters’ Web of Knowledge, Elsevier’s Scopus, Scival Solutions and Science Direct, and Springer’s Springerlink.

A spin-off benefit of the subscriptions is that “now every Kazakh scientist and researcher has access to the world’s best scientific information,” Assan said.

Kazakhstan scholars submitted 1,990 research proposals in the latest round of the government’s funding competition.

Because the new law requires three reviewers per proposal, the center had to line up 5,970 sets of eyes for the 1,990 funding requests submitted.

Some reviewer screened several proposals, so the center was able to complete the work with 1,021 scholars. Two-thirds of them – or 659 – had to been from outside Kazakhstan.

Using the reviewers’ recommendations, the five National Research Councils awarded top scores to 12 percent of the 1,990 proposals submitted – or about 224. The councils also recommended funding 950 proposals in the “good” and “high-average” ranges.

That translated into 1,174 proposals obtaining funding – about 59 percent of the total.

Fifty-four percent of the international scholars who reviewed the 1,990 proposals were from Europe, 22 percent from Asia and 17 percent from the United States and Canada combined.

Because the reviewers were from different parts of the world, Assan’s staff had to contact them at different time zones, meaning they were lining up reviewers morning, noon and night.

“We worked at night for the U.S., in the morning for Japan and the afternoon for Europe,” Assan said.

A key to obtaining an international reviewer’s recommendation for proposal funding is how well a proposal is put together, he noted.

So part of the center’s work involves helping Kazakhstan scholars write research proposals to international standards.

A seminar on proposal writing that the center held at Nazarbayev University in May showed how interested Kazakhstan scholars are in developing this skill: The event attracted an impressive 340 participants over its three days.

A whopping 900 scholars have committed to coming to a similar seminar in Almaty from July 23 to 25. The higher numbers reflect the fact that Kazakhstan’s largest city is also home to 60 percent of its scholars.

One reason for the good turnout in Astana was the quality of the speakers, Assan said. They included researchers from Oxford University and the Imperial College in England, the University of California at Berkeley and the Harvard Medical School in the United States, and the Academy of Finland.

“Most of the younger academics at the seminar were really excited about it,” Assan said.

Some of their older colleagues also acknowledged the need to get in step with the rest of the world, he said, although others questioned the need for international scholars to be involved in choosing who obtains domestic research grants.

Those at the Astana conference who gave the center’s new approach a vote of confidence included university presidents, Assan said.

Despite taking heat for trying to implement the research-evaluation changes the government wants, Assan said he’s committed to it.

“Scientific knowledge is the best thing a society can get,” he said.