Wetenschap - 26 oktober 1995

East European scientists cannot live by passion alone

East European scientists cannot live by passion alone

Many departments at Wageningen Agricultural University attract East European scientists on a temporary basis. A combination of charity and cheap, highly skilled labour? Irene Davidova: Of course I'm cheap labour here. I will be cheap everywhere. It is probably not as bad as in Russia, but young Dutch scientists do not earn very much either."

There is a discrepancy between the level of skills of scientists in Eastern Europe and the opportunities for them to use these skills," explains Dr Bicanic. Bicanic, of the department of Agrotechnology and Physics first started establishing contacts with East European scientists in 1987. This has resulted in a very productive group of top researchers from Hungary, Rumania and Slovenia. He points out: I regard it as an exchange of knowledge and multidisciplinary cooperation. All parties benefit." Bicanic explains that he does not act out of reasons of charity but he admits that he, originally from former Yugoslavia, is committed to improving the difficult position scientists in Eastern Europe face. Eugene Norikov, working at the department of Molecular Physics relates: At home I work at the Byelorussian State University in Minsk. During the communist regime the huge and prestigious buildings of the scientific institutes and universities were hives of activity. I
f you look now, you will find mainly emptiness and only a few people working there."

The collapse of the communist regimes in East and Central Europe, and the disintegration of the USSR and Yugoslavia brought about major changes for scientists working there. According to Norikov the communist regimes had a great influence on scientific practice. Most research in the natural sciences was related to space and military programmes, and the finances came directly from Moscow. After independence this cash flow stopped. Many scientists were fired and others went into business or found jobs elsewhere. Norikov continues: I still see my future as a scientist but it is extremely difficult. Our salaries back home are barely enough to buy food, and at the university it is a real struggle to find funds for equipment, even for books and computers." Norikov is very happy with this opportunity to come to Wageningen but is determined to go back. David Topar, a Molecular Physicist from Slovenia recognises these changes. Topar explains that originally many Slovenian scientists mo
ved abroad as well, but that most of them have now returned home. Topar states: There is still a gap, but I believe that our University is already reasonably competitive compared with Western universities."

Big Money

If you want to be a scientist you have to give up the idea of earning big money in the first place," says Topar laughing. The fact that many scientists in Eastern Europe turn their backs upon science to make a living in other businesses means you have to be passionate and committed in order to remain a scientist under difficult conditions. Norikov continues to explain that under the former communist regimes education was a prerequisite in order to get a better paid job. A PhD degree was certainly a help in furthering one's career. As is the case in Western Europe, this is no longer an automatic guarantee of work.

Irene Davidova is a research scientist at the Institute of Microbiology at the Russian Academy of Science in Moscow, and currently working at the department of microbiology at WAU. She does not agree with the contention that science can only survive if there are passionate and committed people available. She elaborates: Science needs more than just a bunch of passionate people. It is an industry and therefore it needs money for facilities and equipment, as well as for salaries. Science is the responsibility of society." Davidova admits that her position at her institute in Moscow is difficult. In her own words: I can not say anything definite about my future. I have other invitations to work abroad, and I will probably accept some of these."

Capital Intensive

What is striking is the fact that most East European scientists working temporarily at WAU are mainly engaged in experimental research in natural science departments. The most important reason for this is the fact that research in these areas is very capital intensive. The availability of facilities such as laboratories is an important factor which makes WAU attractive. Davidova endorses this statement: If I only needed a typewriter, brains and passion in my branch of science then there would have been no reason for me to come to Wageningen."

However, after a while, Davidova admits that, We could learn a lot on the level of economics for instance." Tini Backus of the Office for Foreign Affairs echoes this: There is a tendency for East European scientists to become increasingly interested in social sciences such as economics and extension science while they are here." Backus believes that part of the reason that these sciences were slow to catch on was because they were politically too sensitive in former communist regimes.