Winter 2003 (11.4)
The Money Issue
Youth Steer Clear of Science
by Farid Alakbarov
Who needs science?
Do small countries need highly trained specialists to guarantee
the development of their nations? Farid Alakbarov suggests that
science is in trouble in Azerbaijan, and it won't be an easy
to attract youth to dedicate their lives to academic research
unless serious reforms are undertaken.
In Soviet times, Azerbaijan
had reached quite a high level of scientific development. Our
little Republic with only 7 million citizens at the time had
a huge Academy of Sciences with thousands of students who had
completed graduate work and earned their Master and Doctorate
degrees. Some had gone on and been appointed as professors and
academicians. There were hundreds of scientific research institutions,
educational scientific centers and universities, which existed
primarily in the capital Baku, although there were a few centers
in Ganja [known as Kirovabad during the Soviet period], Sumgayit
and various other cities.
However, Soviet science had many serious drawbacks. Today, these
shortcomings further compound the troubles that we are facing
during this transition period, which began in late 1991 with
the collapse of the Soviet Union. The old system no longer works;
the new one has yet to be established. That's the reason why
so few youth are entering the field of scientific investigation
today. It's especially true of young men: they simply are not
pursuing careers in science. And there are many reasons why.
The primary deterrent is that salaries are far too low. One simply
cannot live on the paltry monthly salary of about US $20-25 per
month. It's impossible to survive on so little. I'm not talking
about being able to enjoy a normal standard of living with any
semblance of dignity; I'm talking about mere survival.
Consider how little $25 can buy. If you take a bus to work everyday
for a month, it would cost you at least $10. Then there's electricity
and other communal services related to shelter that cost another
$15-20, at least. So, $25 disappears even before you've even
put a single bite of food into your mouth.
Dinner at the very cheapest café might cost about $1.
So, for $30 per month, you could have the cheapest dinner (forget
about breakfast or lunch!). For other meals prepared at home,
if you wanted to add nourishing products, such as fruit, milk
products and meat, you would need to add another $100 per month
per person. Poor people often buy a big sack of potatoes at about
20 cents a kilo. But such a diet soon leads to vitamin deficiency
and general overall weakness.
Consider the price of a newspaper. Buying just one newspaper
- the cheapest - would cost you about $8 per month. Naturally,
it would be impossible to think about buying books and clothes.
And visiting a doctor is out of the question. A scientist with
a family and children soon finds his situation unbearable. To
support his family, he needs at least $300-400 per month.
Below: "Love of Learning" by Eldar
Babazade. Contact Eldar in Baku, mobile (994-50) 353-1293, or
home (994-12) 71-18-15. Visit AZgallery.org.
any scientist who has achieved a titled position such as professor
in our society has a certain dignity to maintain-a normal appearance
and lifestyle. Therefore, individuals who opt to make a career
out of science have little choice but to take on several jobs,
in addition to their official ones. Unfortunately, some professors
take the easy route and resort to making their students bribe
them for good grades. This is a great shame and totally undermines
the educational process, cheating youth of knowledge they will
need to succeed in life. Furthermore, it sets the wrong example,
making them to become lazy and disillusioned, thinking that money
can solve all of their problems. It's just another sample of
the great shortcomings of a system that pays so poorly.
Some of our scientists offer private tutorial courses for students,
preparing for university entrance exams. But there are other
scientists and teachers who are reduced to working in the homes
of wealthy Azerbaijanis or foreigners as laborers, drivers, repairmen,
cooks and cleaning ladies. The result is that many of our researchers
who have spent their lives preparing for serious careers have
abandoned science altogether.
What kind of science can you pursue if you can't devote yourself
completely and wholeheartedly to your research? How can you carry
out serious studies if you must work as a shop owner and spend
all day, worrying about how much money you will earn from selling
hamburgers and whether it will be sufficient to support your
family? If you are living on the edge like that, how can you
concentrate on science? What serious discoveries can we expect
from such "science" if scientists have no time and
no mental energy and no inspiration to carry out research. What
can we expect from employees who stop by the scientific institution
once a week just to pick up their pittance of a salary?
The Soviet Scientist
Compare the situation today with what was going on in the past.
During the Soviet period, scientists enjoyed the largest salaries
in the country. Academicians, professors and those who had earned
doctorate degrees were the highest paid specialists in the USSR.
Their salaries even exceeded those of Communist Party leaders.
For example, Heads of university departments as well as the Secretary
of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan received an official salary
of approximately 250-300 rubles per month, while the top Academicians
[the highest ranking scientists] had salaries of about 600-700
rubles. . At that time, the ruble was equal to about $1.
Compare this to the West where people have to spend a significant
portion of their wages for expensive communal services - water,
electricity, gas, home mortgage or rent, and health services.
A Soviet scholar's salary of 300-400 rubles had the buying power,
in fact, of about $3,000-$4,000 of a Western scholar and it would
have provided almost the same quality of life. Schools, libraries
and universities were completely free.
The Soviet scientist could spend his entire salary on consumable
goods - food, clothing, books and travel. A kilo of meat used
to cost about 1.5-2 rubles, and fruits were 0.20-2.0 rubles.
A good suit or pair of shoes was priced between 20-50 rubles.
Breakfast in a café used to cost 0.5-2 rubles. Excellent
scientific books were very cheap, starting from 0.10 rubles to
2-3 rubles! So, it was possible to buy from 5 to 10 interesting
books in any field for only 1-2 rubles. Newspapers used to cost
0.01-0.2 rubles. Many people liked to buy between 5-7 different
newspapers every day.
Bus fares were 0.05-0.10 rubles. A roundtrip airline ticket between
Baku to Moscow was 20rubles! For 80 rubles (about $80-$100),
you could fly to Moscow and stay three to five days in a sufficiently
good hotel, visit museums and libraries. Now, the same travel
arrangements cost about $500; the airfare alone will cost you
$200 and even bad hotels and meals in big modern cities are very
Left: Artist Eldar Babazade depicts the traditional
family where the man is responsible for the income while the
wife is oblivious to the pressures that he suffers to obtain
the family's needs. Visit AZgallery.org where the works of Babazade
and more than 160 Azerbaijani artists are on shown.
So, today, the $40-$60 salary of someone with a doctorate degree
would make it impossible for him to visit Moscow, Paris or London.
Such a person can't even manage to visit other cities within
the borders of Azerbaijan.
Due to hardships of the transition period, Azerbaijan and other
former republics of the USSR have not been able to finance science,
even to a minimally acceptable level. Many young scholars live
below the poverty line. Even ice cream and cigarette vendors
on Baku's streets or bus drivers earn six to eight times more
than a young scientist.
These are not normal times. Scientists are those rare people
who accumulate and analyze information, which is necessary for
the normal development of society. Often, intellectuals are referred
to as "the brain of the nation". As no human being
can live without a brain, is it possible for a nation to survive
without its scientists? The brain needs nutrition to function
properly. If the supply of blood to the brain is decreased, arteriosclerosis
sets in, and over time the memory will suffer and become very
poor. Intellectual ability will greatly diminish. The hardships
of this transitional period have created symptoms of arteriosclerosis
in Azerbaijan's science. If necessary measures are not taken
and science continues to starve, arteriosclerosis will develop
into something like Alzheimer's disease, which may result in
madness and the death of the entire nation.
Women, not men
If you visit many Azerbaijani scientific institutions, you might
think that you were in a cloister - surrounded by nuns. Enter
the building and you'll find mostly women; there are very few
men. In many scientific research institutions, it's impossible
to find even one young man - only women, women, women everywhere!
Does this mean that girls love science more than guys do? Of
course not! It simply means that the salary offered to scientists
is so low that married men who have the responsibilities of their
families can't even think about working there.
According to our Azerbaijani traditions, girls are not obliged
to earn money; they often depend upon their parents or their
husband. That's considered normal. Some parents are especially
keen to send their daughters to scientific research centers,
assuming that it's a kind of boarding house for privileged ladies
where they can rest, be entertained and, perhaps, do a little
work, especially if sitting at home would be boring. So the salaries
are not the decisive factor for women who work at these institutions
- at least, from our traditional point of view. The reality is,
however, that with the divorce rate rising, more and more women
have to seriously consider their wages so they can raise their
Tradition dictates that the man must provide the money; unfortunately,
the Academy of Sciences is not a good place to earn it. Nevertheless,
some young men still dream of establishing academic careers.
Some of them work at the Academy on a half-time basis. I know
one young man who is writing his doctoral dissertation while
working as a waiter at a restaurant. Though such practices are
common in the West, it's unusual for us here in Azerbaijan. This
youth does it to support his family. Some of our young scientists
are very hard-working and clever. They really love science and
are willing to sacrifice their lives to pursue careers in this
Computers and Internet
Many modern youth are quite computer literate. They know foreign
languages and the Internet. It would be possible to use their
knowledge to set up international relations with foreign scientific
centers and apply new computer technologies. Some research is
being done in this direction; however, the technical equipment
of our Academy, our shortage of funds and the outdated psychology
of some of our Soviet-minded scientists, who neither know computers
nor the Internet nor foreign languages, doesn't allow us to take
advantage of this great potential.
But if we were to use the experience of our older scholars and
combine it with the computer and language skills of our younger
generation, it would be possible to revolutionize our science
and raise it to world levels. Of course, some directors of research
institutions do understand how talented our youth are. However,
many Soviet-trained directors are egoists and jealous and don't
want give our youth a chance to shine. In fact, they create hindrances
for their activities. Sooner or later, though, they will understand
that only new generation, which has grown up since Azerbaijan
gained its independence (1991) and who knows modern technologies
can help us integrate into the international scientific environment.
They are the ones who can reorganize science in Azerbaijan. The
old generation must step aside and give youth a chance. Working
together, science can move forward.
It's all part of our Soviet heritage. That system sought to provide
"equality" and jobs for everybody, including scientists.
The Soviet directors chose not to fire scientists, even if they
did poor work or even if they hardly worked at all. The goal
was to provide work for everybody who graduated from the universities.
The Soviet Union always liked to boast that socialist states
were the only countries in the world where no one was without
a job and no one was poverty stricken.
In the Soviet times, all workers received the same salaries,
no matter if they were lazy or ambitious; whether they worked
hard or hardly worked at all. The projects in all scientific
institutions moved forward only because of the passion and driving
force of specific individuals. Therefore, if there were 250 employees
at a scientific institution, you could be sure that only 20-30
of them worked seriously, 30-40 worked more or less satisfactorily,
and 180-200 worked very poorly or hardly worked at all. The Soviet
state with its huge budget and endless inflow of money from the
natural resources of Siberia, Central Asia and the Caucasus was
able to afford to support this great crowd of lazy people - at
least for awhile. But today, Azerbaijan as a small country has
no economic cushion and can't support redundant workers without
threatening the survival and normal development of its state.
Necessity of Reforms
Soon, Azerbaijan anticipates a windfall from the oil projects
after the construction of the pipeline to Ceyhan (pronounced
Jeyhan), Turkey, is completed. By early 2005, oil is supposed
to begin to flow through the piepeline to Western markets. This
probably will result in an increase in the salaries of the state
workers, including scientists. Many scientists are anticipating
significant salary increases. However, even larger salaries will
not solve all the problems that we face in Azerbaijani science.
Simply financing the Academy without reforming its structure
will not result in increasing its effectiveness.
Although the level of theoretical science was high - both in
the USSR, as well as Soviet Azerbaijan, these ideas were rarely
implemented in any practical way that could generate money. The
ideas and discoveries remained merely theoretical concepts on
paper, providing no practical use. On occasion, these ideas were
even purchased and used by foreign technical enterprises. As
everyone knows, the only branch of economics that was intensively
developed in the USSR was the military industry.
Unfortunately, the Soviet Academy system has hardly changed during
this decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is
still the same heavy, burdensome bureaucracy with its many unnecessary
institutions and centers and no end of "researchers",
most of which are as necessary as a fifth wheel on a car. Even
if the government were to increase the financing of this system
by 10 or 20 times, it still would not function normally.
What should be
1. First of all, it's necessary to reorganize the
structure of the Academy, taking into account the experience
of advanced countries, which operate in the structure of a market
economy so that research can become more self-sustaining.
2. Institutions that are no longer necessary must
be closed. There are many such institutions that remain as part
of the legacy of our past. But since times have changed, they
have no function. The government spends a lot of money on these
centers, without receiving any essential scientific benefit.
Many of these institutions should be closed or converted into
small departments that could carry out the essential work.
Many of these existing institutions are very large and employ
hundreds of workers. This is the result of the megalomania of
the Soviet Union where everything was carried out on a grandiose
scale. In the West, a scientific institute with 30-60 employees
is considered quite large; but in Azerbaijan, we have scientific
organizations with 500 scientists, all of whom receive salaries,
although most of them don't produce anything.
3. Gradually fire employees in unnecessary positions
and those who do not perform satisfactorily. Then the government
can raise the salaries of productive scientists. Work will become
effective only if the institutions can keep strong professionals
at each institution. To do that, they must be paid in relationship
to the quality of their actual work. If such a re-organization
could be realized, we could increase salaries of scientists by
three to six times, even without getting additional funding from
the state budget.
4. Make salaries reflect the value of work produced.
The salary of each researcher employed at state scientific institutions
and funded by the state budget must not only depend upon the
scientific degree and position of the researcher, but upon the
quality of actual work that he does and his real intellectual
accomplishments. To work on a contractual basis might be a viable
option. Each research project must have its own terms, duration
and payment. The individual who carries out the most difficult
and important aspect of the job naturally should receive the
5. Research work at the universities must become
more active. In every country in the world, most researchers
teach sciences and conduct scientific inquiry at the same time.
This enables researchers to share their latest scientific achievements
with students - the new generation of scientists. As a result,
the educational level at universities becomes higher and much
more dynamic. In addition, in private universities, where salaries
are comparably higher, researchers can become more independent
6. Establish closer relationships between science,
the market, and consumers of intellectual production. Scientists
must have the right to sell their intellectual property and gain
significant income from it (books, discoveries, technical suggestions).
7. Major international companies, engaged in oil,
chemistry and the food industries, could benefit from research
by our specialists, especially those in natural science. They
could help to sponsor investigations in fields that these companies
are specifically interested in. The State should foster these
8. State and private businesses could both fund
competitions and grants for the best achievements in various
fields of science.
9. Our science must become connected to and integrated
into world science. We must actively participate in international
research, grants, award programs and symposiums. All these programs
provide significant sums for research in various fields all over
the world. This year, Azerbaijan finally has joined INTAS, an
independent international association formed by the European
Community, European Union member States and like-minded countries,
acting to preserve and promote the valuable scientific potential
of the NIS (Newly Independent States) partner countries through
East-West scientific cooperation. This is a good start, but there
is so much else that needs to be done.
10. State and private companies should help sponsor
the participation of our scholars to international scientific
meetings. Now, it is almost impossible for them to go because
of financial burdens. Therefore, our scholars are separated from
the world and don't know what their colleagues are doing in other
countries. Nor is the international community able to learn about
some of our great achievements and collaborate with some of our
11. New technology and research methods must replace the
old Soviet heritage. We need to update our equipment, especially
that which is related to computer technology and the Internet.
We need to understand how computers can strengthen our own work.
We must strengthen our foreign language skills so that we can
participate on a world scale.
Azerbaijan lives in the epoch of enormous changes in its economics
and culture. The times have changed and we have no choice but
to change as well, or to be left behind. The greatest achievement
of Azerbaijan is our independence and the honest, talented youth,
who have grown up in this era of freedom. I hope that our youth
commit themselves to transform Azerbaijan from being on the periphery
of a Socialist camp into a thriving, dynamic, advanced country,
which not only can strengthen the lives of our own people but
make a contribution to the world, as well.
Farid Alakbarov (b. 1964) works
at the Institute of Manuscripts in Baku, serving as Chair of
the Department of Information and Translation. He has a doctorate
in Historical Sciences, a Ph.D. in biology. His specialty is
History of Medicine, which he researches from medieval Azerbaijani
manuscripts in the Arabic script. Search "Farid Alakbarov"
at AZER.com for more than 30 articles published in Azerbaijan
From Azerbaijan International (11.4) Winter 2003.
© Azerbaijan International 2004. All rights reserved.