My more than 40 years of experience in science in various positions from intern researcher to director general of the National Nuclear Center have given me conclusions on the principles of the organisation of scientific work that can contribute to solving the main problems in the development of Kazakhstan’s science.
The first principle is to develop the gradation of problems, identifying a key problem to solve and giving it absolute, overriding priority.
The technological progress of the country through the all-round development of science is the main leverage for solution of the problems identified by President Nursultan Nazarbayev in the Kazakhstan 2050 strategy.
Looking back at the recent past of our country it may be noted that the 1940s and 1950s were the period of most rapid development of science and education in the Soviet Union. The need to create an atomic bomb quickly, harness nuclear energy and begin space exploration required the solution of a set of problems unprecedented in the history of humankind in mathematics, physics, chemistry and the material sciences. Thus, the need for the education of scientists and engineers who would do it all, emerged.
A whole generation of the scientific elite, world-class professionals in the most difficult sectors and sub-sectors of science, methods and technology, was produced. They made the 20th century the century of space and the atom.
At a regular session of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), the then-president of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR Anatoly Alexandrov, remembering that turbulent time, said: “We have not made a fundamental or applied science, we have made a bomb and at the same time we solved the problem regardless of whether it was mathematics, physics or chemistry.”As a result, there was an unprecedented development of dozens of new branches of science, producing ultra-modern equipment and unique technology for its time.
The second principle is to create a unique theoretical foundation and material resource to make a fundamental breakthrough.
The Ulugbek observatory allowed us to measure stars’ positions, and even calculate them 300 and 500 years in advance. At present, an interesting model for the accelerated development of science in physics has been announced in Russia. An authoritative commission of scientists and statesmen, headed by then-Prime Minister (and current President) Vladimir Putin has chosen seven or eight large projects to construct world-class physical facilities at great costs. These will make it possible to obtain fundamentally new results and make a breakthrough in science. It was decided to create these so-called mega-projects despite the heavy expenses and to do it so at accelerated pace.
Russia has been forced to take this step. It has become apparent that the science of our northern neighbour has fallen behind the world level. This is just one example of this new policy in the field of fundamental physics. The NICA Large Haldron Collider (LHC) is being constructed at the order of President Putin at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna outside Moscow at a cost of several hundred million dollars. This will allow Russian scientists to continue and update the results obtained in the LHC European Nuclear Centre (CERN).
This is especially significant because the key event in science in 2012 was the discovery of the new Higgs boson particle at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. This discovery was of comparable scientific importance to the discovery of the electron and neutron in the 20th century. Therefore, it was decided in Russia, despite the heavy expenses, to create such a huge facility, it was impossible to fall behind Europe in the field of fundamental physics.
President Nazarbayev has confirmed that the government is ready to allocate 3 percent to 4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) for science. Therefore, scientists should offer large and important projects that will provide significant results. But they should not spend money on inconsiderable subjects without fundamental prospects for success.
It is necessary to identify priority areas at the national level and to provide them with the most modern equipment. This should be done regardless the price but remaining within the framework of the committed share of the national budget. It is clear that there will be not a lot of such projects. It is also clear that such a choice of problems does not hinder the way for geniuses, who make their discoveries with a pencil on a piece of paper. This approach is fully consistent with the new Law on Science.
The third principle is to define clearly the importance, theoretical and practical significance of resolving the problem, and its scale.
The average age of the scientists and technicians in the Mission Control Center (MCC) in Houston, Texas who worked on the American Apollo program and successfully landed 12 astronauts on the surface of the Moon was less than 27 years. That was an overriding priority programme too: The United States remains indebted to President John Kennedy for the birth of the programme. It was he who insisted on the fact that Americans did not have to simply follow in the Russian footsteps but that it was necessary to overtake them and head directly to the conquest of the Moon.
The enormous financial expenses for the programme paid off in less than 12 years. One benefit of the U.S. space programme is the personal computer that today can be found on every desktop.
The solution of such complex problems as the flight control of the spacecraft from Earth to the Moon and back was entrusted to young professionals who were recent graduates of American universities. The challenge of solving such problems incredibly stimulated them to lifetimes of further achievements. I think that the most interesting thing is that the creator of Soviet space technology, Sergei Korolev, had the same impetus.
The fourth principle is to provide and maintain the necessary qualified human resources for research development.
Two decades ago, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian scientists and engineers retired from the National Nuclear Center of Kazakhstan in Kurchatov and from the unique nuclear facilities of the Semipalatinsk test site. If they had all left, there could have been very severe consequences. I would like to pay tribute to those Russian professionals who remained in the cold and hungry town and kept the situation under control.
However, professionals continued to leave and grow old. It was necessary to solve the problem immediately, so a new generation of technicians had to be trained initially in high schools located near Semipalatinsk and Ust-Kamenogorsk. Over these years, these educational institutions of average level have turned into full-fledged universities. For this purpose the staff of these institutions and the National Nuclear Center organized lectures and seminars of the best professors from Tomsk, Novosibirsk, Moscow, Almaty, and abroad for their students. The students practiced and worked in the real nuclear reactors of Kurchatov, gaining experience in highly complex and demanding procedures.
Thus, the personnel problem in the NNC was solved. Yet, working in the NNC for many years, I have not met a single Bolashak programme graduate. And graduates from universities in Almaty and Astana do not favour Kurchatov as well. It was the training of local staff that solved the personnel problem.
The Lev Gumilyov Eurasian National University is developing a similar approach on a larger scale. Leading experts from around the world are invited to teach physics students, and they do practical work in the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research and the CERN.
The Eurasian National University has a modern, very interesting DC-60 accelerator. The students and young scientists operate it. They are involved in the research process and in the creation of new technologies. I think this will bear fruit over the years.
Communication with today’s students shows that our country continues to give birth to talented young people. Statistics shows that the number of people wishing to engage in the sciences is not shrinking. Those whom God has created to practice math and physics will deal with it. The level of training of many graduates of schools leaves much to be desired, but at the same time, there are also winners of competitions at the most prestigious level.
Today’s legal and legislative environment creates all the necessary conditions for the full development of science in Kazakhstan. The most important thing left for scientists is the assignment of strategic tasks in science and their solution will really boost our economy. It will be necessary to provide the top scientific institutions and universities with modern technology to assure success in specific scientific fields. This will also lead to the training of young open-minded scientists who understand that they will have the opportunity to solve a fundamental problem on unique equipment, carrying out the most important work for the country.
Great scientists and great research institutions have emerged like that at all times.
The author is a PhD in Physics and Mathematics, professor and advisor to the rector of the Lev Gumilyov Eurasian National University. He was director of the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the National Nuclear Center of Kazakhstan and later director general of the National Nuclear Center. He is an academician of the National Academy of Engineering, the International Engineering Academy and the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences and a laureate of the State Prize of the Republic of Kazakhstan.