Tuesday, 20 August

Armenia’s EcoCenter: An Underfunded Scientific Institution Competes on the World Stage

The Center for Ecological-Noosphere Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia is located at 68 Abovyan street, Yerevan. Employees call it the EcoCenter.

The building housing the institute, made of black tuff stone, is one of the most prestigious buildings in Yerevan. It was built in 1895.

Doctor of Sciences in Geology & Geochemistry, Professor Armen Saghatelyan is the director of the center. He recalls the poor condition of the building in 1993, when the scientific institution moved here. The building conditions gradually improved with the help of the institute, friends, and donors. There is even a room where staff can rest in the basement.

The Ecocenter is an interdisciplinary research organization. Chemists, biologists, geologists and geographers work here. According to Saghatelyan, it’s a fine mix.

Operating since 1989, the Center currently employs 70 -  52 are researchers, and the rest, members of the technical team. Of the 52 researchers, 23 are candidates of science, and four are doctors.

Armen Saghatelyan says that human capital is the most important. All the researchers have excellent education. He prefers to buy less equipment and go on fewer trips to ensure that employees can be educated and trained abroad. Three of the employees are in Italy at the moment. According to the director, there has been no outflow of staff. About 70 percent of the staff, including most of the managers, are young people. The average age of the staff is 36.

When the government doesn’t care about science 

Saghatelyan says that apart from the basic funding received from the state (the main part of the basic funding are maintenance and development costs for infrastructure), another 60-100% of that amount is received from contracts and grants. According to the director, salaries here are relatively high, compared to those of the National Academy of Sciences. The minimum net salary is 55,000 drams (gross - 79,321 drams), paid to the 18 employees of the technical staff.

The highest net salary is 547,040 drams (gross - 740,000 drams), including bonuses. The bonuses come not only from grants, but also from local and international contracts signed with the Center, for conducting researches for mining and energy companies, food security and agriculture spheres.

"If an institute doesn’t engage in commercial activities and doesn’t receive grants, it will not survive," says Saghatelyan. In Armenia, the sciences are funded by 0.25 percent of GDP, which, according to the scientist, does not even cover maintenance costs. He considers it a “degrading percentage". "If you give 0.25% financing to science, and it’s the Catholicos who comes to the annual meetings, it's unclear whether he comes to bless or sing a farewell song for the dying," says Saghatelyan

"If a country wants to have a future, money should be invested in education and culture, and science is a part of culture. Our society today is degrading," says the professor. He believes the solution is to have the political will, to avoid corruption, to make money wisely, to implement the main principle of the country’s independence - to make resources the property of the people and have them serve the prosperity of the nation, not some individuals.

Scientists’ projects remain on paper

Saghatelyan says that there is a general misunderstanding about innovation in Armenia. Innovation is not when scientists invent a new device or a super weapon, but when knowledge corresponds to market demand.

Saghatelyan says that today’s government is unable to understand and use the opportunities provided by knowledge and science. After Prime Minister Karapetyan called for scientists with proposals to meet with ministers and try to work together, they met with the head of the Food Security Service, the ministers of agriculture, nature protection and health, and presented their proposals, but they have not received any response. Saghatelyan notes that Armenia’s government prefers to sign contracts with foreign institutions and organizations, but if we estimate their effectiveness, then it is zero.

Teamwork and staff are the key

"We are a high-class institute, we are published in the most reputable scientific magazines, we have partners in international prestigious platforms," ​​says Armen Saghatelyan, adding that he doesn’t rely on anybody except his staff.

The building of the Ecocenter doesn’t have a natural gas network installed yet, though the gas pipeline reached the yard in the 90s. According to the director, all other institutions have gas installed and theirs is the only one for which no money has been allocated for this purpose. Nevertheless, he doesn’t complain. They heat the building by electric power, and use air conditioners in summer.

They started renovating the building 15 years ago, now they have reached the floor. The roof has also been repaired, but it leaks from time to time. "We solve our problems on our own," he says. 

Tenders are bad for science

Armen Saghatelyan says it’s the fourth year that he’s raising the issue of making amendments to the Law on Procurement, which creates problems for scientists.

"We do a project with our partners and justify that we need to buy a device of this kind, though expensive. We are told to announce a tender and buy the cheapest instead. But there is no equipment manufacturer in Armenia. We have to buy from resellers who bring the worst and sell to us. We had to buy dozens of computers out of one tender, which were the cheapest. Half a year later they broke down. I called this company and asked why. The reply was that we got what we paid for. It is wrong to apply this law in science. It can be used in road construction or other major public procurement spheres. But science is a very complex system, and this law makes the work harder and wastes money," Saghatelyan says. He says he is willing to pay the tax on imported equipment, but the system of tenders should be invalidated for scientific institutions.

A scientific institution in the International Champions League

Shushanik Asmaryan is a candidate of geographical sciences and Head of the GIS and Remote Sensing Department. She has been working at the Institute for nearly 20 years. In May, her project was approved by the EU's Horizon 2020 program. The staff of the center compares this victory with making it to the Champions League in international football. According to Asmaryan, this is the first Armenian scientific project in Horizon 2020.

The project will be implemented within five years. It focuses on the introduction of innovative technologies in sustainable urban development and management. The goal is to find ecological solutions that will be directed to the sustainable development of urban areas. Yerevan has been involved in the list of 15 European cities. They will explore the soil-water-plant system - which type of plant is more sustainable to pollution, their dust-carrying functions. The goal is to reduce the amount of soil pollution to some extent, due to the metallic properties of the plants. The scientist says that they have experience, and have implemented such a program for the Yerevan Municipality, and when Europeans learnt about it, they were surprised.

"We have another drafted project that is waiting for a decision. It deals with Lake Sevan. If we succeed, Sevan will be listed among the water objects where a very interesting infrastructure will be created to monitor the ecological situation. We'll get the answer in July, we’ve waited for six months. It'll be good for Sevan, " says Asmaryan.

She says there is a lot of money for science abroad, they just need to bring it to Armenia. For this, teamwork is one of the most important factors. Nothing is impossible, one just needs great desire and dedication.

Unfair competition

Davit Pipoyan, Head of Informational Analytical Center Assessing Risks in the Food Chain, believes that the scientific sphere is not limited to Armenia, and adds that in this respect, the state of the Ecocenter is the best in our country. Armenia is currently participating in numerous scientific projects due to the Ecocenter.

"On the one hand, Armenia has been allowed to participate as a member, but on the other hand, we are competing in the champions league, where we deal with countries whose scholars receive tremendous funding from the state for scientific research and publications, while our resources are limited. I think the competition is somewhat unfair. We compete with France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, " says David.

He says there is another issue in foreign projects. Scientists are paid an amount equal to how much they are valued in their countries. "Let's take, for example, the Horizon 2020. There is a strong requirement here –a scientist’s salary is based on the base salary that scientist receives in their native country. If we live in Armenia and have to sell our work to the European Union, say, for $200, the French do it for $4,000, the Germans are more expensive, even though we all do the same work. We’ve discussed it many times, and I think it is quite unfair. But the EU has the following approach -if you are valued that much in your country, then I pay you accordingly, " Pipoyan says.

Photos: Narek Aleksanyan

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