Professor Kanat Baigarin, vice-president of Nazarbayev University (NU), is also director general of Nazarbayev University Research and Innovation System (NURIS). In an interview with The Astana Times, Baigarin spoke about the development of the NU innovative cluster, the most advanced centre in the country designed to solve the task set by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
What is NURIS and how does it structure its work?
With the creation of NU, a series of research centres was organised two years ago by combining the facilities into an innovative cluster.
Overseas individuals and companies feel the benefits of investment in science and they are not afraid of the risks. The Kazakh attitude toward science remains at the same level and an attempt to change the situation will fail as long as the mentality of the scientists does not change.
NURIS became the first centre which conducts research and runs the selection of promising projects in terms of the possibility of commercialisation. We started from scratch: set the task of the development of the technological process from the fast passage of scientific development to the stage of commercialisation and introduction. From approximately 200 NU research projects for subsequent commercialisation, 30 projects have applied for funding, 16 of which were later selected. These 16 works were sent abroad for an independent assessment. As a result of examination, seven projects of economic prospects have been approved for funding. These projects are in the areas of IT, renewable energy and technology transfer and are currently being implemented in the newly-opened NU Technopark.
In the Technopark laboratories, Kazakhstan scientists work on the creation of environmentally-friendly batteries and in areas of engineering, biology, etc.
When will the NU-innovative products come to market?
It’s already happening. For example, energy efficiency projects are used by some domestic enterprises. Also, we have developed a technology that allows reuse of the substance that remains after gold leaching (usually, the substance is discarded).
In the future, NURIS intends to attract scientists from different countries as it is accepted abroad. Foreign organisations engaged in scientific research compete with each other to see who will “steal” a talented scientist. If out of 100 projects one will be truly be a breakthrough, all costs will be repaid many times over.
The NASA-based Singularity University operates in the California Silicon Valley. It is the centre which selects “the best of the best” on a competitive basis from all over the world. They should be on the Singularity University campus constantly for ten weeks, where they study and work for 16-18 hours a day. In 2014, our young NU scientist Damel Mektepbayeva won the competition. As part of the international team of four people, she has become one of the founders of Hoope diagnostic ring, which is now being introduced for use in various medical centres. The invention entered the five best in the world at the international competition of startups.
This year we will hold the second competition to send our scientist to Singularity University.
One of the distinguishing features of NU is the involvement of the teaching staff in research. Foreign NU professors also work on the projects for Kazakhstan.
Don’t other leading universities in the country have such an approach to innovation?
Of course, they have their own talents, but we were the first who approached this issue systematically. We also have a special office of commercialisation which evaluates projects from the material point of view. We want to introduce such a practice everywhere in the country.
Has NURIS achieved a complete understanding with the government in terms of funding?
Of course; we would not have evolved without support. With regard to Kazakhstan, major innovative research is only possible with the direct involvement of the state.
There is such a definition as academic freedom. However, national necessity exists with it. At NU, we try to find the right balance between these two principles. We have academic freedom, but we also have tasks from the state. The very creation of our innovation cluster is a direct government order.
The next step is creating conditions for the emergence of research centres such as ours. Work in this direction is already underway; the Ministry of Education and Science announced plans to open ten leading research institutes in the country.
Does NURIS receive sufficient funding from the state?
Over the next five years, Kazakhstan plans to increase funding for science tenfold. As far as I know, science now gets 0.2 percent of the GDP. When it reaches 3 percent, it will be enough. Not only NU, but the whole science of Kazakhstan should receive good material support.
Only 15 scientists worked in the research centres of our university at the time of creation. Now the number is 200. We offer an opportunity to work both in the scientific processes and with students.
Does NURIS research fall under the State Programme of Accelerated Industrial and Innovative Development?
Of course; in particular, energy-saving projects. Due to the small population in Kazakhstan, the market for high-tech products is very small. We also need to focus on foreign markets. Membership in the [Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) should positively affect us in terms of promotion of innovative technologies.
With which foreign universities and research centres do NU research centres collaborate?
There are several, in particular, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (CA) and the Argonne National Laboratory (Chicago). Through them we have access to their partners. Collaboration with the Berkeley centre in the IT field will bear fruit in the near future.
Returning to the Kazakhstan scientists of NURIS, do you face bureaucratic obstacles while attracting young talent?
We do not limit ourselves to the NU staff; a few people came to our cluster from the outside. We are open to all and if the project is interesting, we will not hinder it. We attract scientists from the regions. Of course we have certain requirements, such as a candidate’s knowledge of English. But if the work is interesting from a commercial point of view, generally it has no barriers.
How are things for your scientists with material support and social issues?
If professors from abroad come, everything is on the level. Our compatriots, who have already worked in foreign scientific centres, find NU attractive.
The material side of things is very important, but a scientist obsessed only with it is not a scientist. He should primarily assess the scientific prospects for implementing ideas. NU provides this opportunity.
We have almost nothing to complain about, except for one thing – the Kazakhstan-adopted system of procurement, particularly state procurement, which is absolutely not suited for modern science. Scientists in Europe and the U.S. get reagents in a week and the equipment is purchased within a period of one to six months, depending on its type. We wait for the same reagents for three months, equipment – for one year, at best.
First, existing orders negatively influence our competitiveness And secondly, push off the people we would like to bring to our studies.
The current public procurement law needs to be changed drastically, at least in terms of science.
We do not need to catch up with Western science and innovation processes; the time for that has passed. But we are able to make breakthrough projects that will work in the future.