In recent months, Serhiy Kvit, Ukraine’s education and science minister, has had the stressful task of overseeing the hurried relocation of 25 science-related institutions, including 11 universities, from separatist-controlled enclaves in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, or Donbas. The crisis, which began after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula last March, has overshadowed ambitious attempts that Kvit is helping orchestrate to reform Ukraine’s higher education and science. The latest move on this front is a draft science law promising sweeping changes, including a new competitive grants body similar to the U.S. National Science Foundation, that’s expected to be introduced into parliament in March or April.
A literary critic and journalist by training and former president of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Kvit, 49, has won high marks from reform-minded scientists since his appointment as minister in February 2014. On the sidelines of the AAAS meeting in San Jose, Kvit spoke with ScienceInsider about the strain of dealing with the crisis in Donbas and the challenges of reforming the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, which has been led since 1962 by 96-year-old metallurgist Boris Paton. This transcript was edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: The relocation of institutions from Donbas has been piecemeal: Many scientists and professors chose to remain in the separatist areas. Why?
A: We didn’t move whole universities, just motivated students and teachers. Some people thought that if they left their labs in Donbas, they would have no opportunity to continue to be researchers. For others, they did not want to leave their apartments or their relatives behind. Very few are on the side of the Russians and the terrorists.
Q: Until a fragile cease-fire took hold on 15 February, the fighting had spread to other cities in the region, including Mariupol [a strategic coastal city between rebel-controlled areas of Donbas and Crimea]. Are more universities and research institutions threatened?
A: Mariupol is a culturally important part of Ukraine—it is the center of the Greek community of Ukraine. I will go there in early March, to visit Mariupol State University. I’m interested in learning the mood of the people there. And next week I will go to Sievierodonetsk, the center of Donetsk region under Ukrainian control, to visit displaced university personnel. It’s important to show support to the students and professors there. Their struggle is our struggle.
Q: The conflict in Donbas has been a huge strain on the government’s resources. Is it sapping your efforts to overhaul Ukrainian science?
A: Our system is a Soviet model, with most research done in institutions of the academy of sciences and teaching done in the universities. We have to overcome this gap and create modern research institutions. Under the new law on science and research, academic institutions will be obliged to merge or establish mutual master's and Ph.D. programs with universities. They must do it.
Q: Since Ukraine’s independence [in 1991], scientists have been calling for reform of the academy of sciences. Paton has long resisted those calls. What makes you think you will succeed this time?
A: Boris Paton is a brilliant man and still very sharp-minded. It’s quite unpredictable how he will react when the law is introduced in parliament. Two vice-presidents of the academy have cooperated in drafting the law. But all important academy decisions depend on Paton. There is no doubt that we must be forceful, and we must provide deep changes.
Q: The Ukrainian government is nearly broke. How will you pay for the reforms?
A: Money is very important, of course. But we’re living in a time of continued revolution, which means that money will have to come later. Today is the best time for changing the rules.