Azerbaijan International

Winter 2003 (11.4)

The Money Issue
Why Azerbaijani 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.

Low Salaries
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

And 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 expensive.

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 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 children.

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 field.

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 done?
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 most money.

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 economically.

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 relationships.

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 fine scholars.

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 for more than 30 articles published in Azerbaijan International.

From Azerbaijan International (11.4) Winter 2003.

© Azerbaijan International 2004. All rights reserved.