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How to Improve Scientific Cooperation in Central Asia?

«Scientific collaboration at the regional level is essential to study and solve many problems in Central Asia. Currently, collaborative work is done in few areas only», – notes Kazakhstan-based researcher Kairat Moldashev in his special article for CABAR.asia.


Brief description of the article:

  • Integration into the global scientific community is an urgent need for a person deeply involved in research activities;
  • Scientific cooperation in Central Asia exists in certain areas only. However, the general level of cooperation is low;
  • In Central Asian states, science is underfunded unlike in other countries of the world;
  • Along with low funding, one of the reasons of poor cooperation between researchers in Central Asia is the established culture of mistrust. 

Since 2017, the cooperation between Central Asian states shows significant progress. Highest level meetings have been held, new air and railway routes have been launched between the countries, visa regime agreements have been signed between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.[1] The progress in these and other issues contributes to the solution of economic and social problems, and also has positive effect on peacekeeping in the region. However, there are a lot of areas that need further cooperation. One of such areas is scientific collaboration.

In general, science recognises neither territorial borders nor language barriers. Integration into the global scientific community is an urgent need for a person deeply involved in research activities. There’s not only global, but also regional level of cooperation, which also needs to be developed for more effective study and understanding of natural and social phenomena in the region.

For example, at least two countries, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, should provide data for full study of some species in Zailiysky Alatau, which are unavailable due to the lack of cooperation and difficulties with finding colleagues who are ready for cooperation. There are a lot of areas that need collaborative work. Kanat Baigarin, a vice president for innovations, in his presentation at the Nazarbayev University emphasised the following areas: ground and surface waters, water-efficient technologies of irrigation, water for energy storage instead of batteries, prevention of natural disasters, joint use of supercomputers and satellites.[2]

More things could be added to this list, including the need for collaborative studies and creation of a database in other exact sciences, as well as in social and liberal sciences. Social studies in border areas and in countries need to be implemented in order to ensure human security and state security. The shared history of the peoples of Central Asia also requires regional cooperation between scientists in liberal sciences.

The article assesses the existing level of scientific collaboration in the region, discusses the problems of collaborative work of scientists in Central Asia, and suggests possible solutions.

Areas with developing scientific cooperation

Intergovernmental agreements in the area of sciences and technologies have already been signed between the governments of Central Asia.[3] However, these agreements are only a frame and need actions of particular scientific organisations or scientists themselves. The following areas with existing or prospective progress in scientific cooperation can be highlighted today in Central Asia:

As to social sciences in the region, there a few institutes and centres for Central Asia studies, projects and activities that lead to closer contacts between scientists within and beyond Central Asia. The Central Asia studies centre at KIMEP university, Central Asian Studies Institute (CASI) at AUCA, Central Asian Institute for Strategic Studies (CAISS) could be listed as an example. These institutes and centres work mainly in the field of political science and international relations.

There are also projects funded by one government only, as well as researches carried out jointly with scientists of Central Asian states. One of such initiatives is the study of the historical and cultural heritage of Turkic peoples by the Turkic Academy. The purpose of the project is to review the Turkic civilisation and the cities of the Great Silk Road, including archaeological excavations, study of the literary heritage and ethnographic details.[4] The project is funded under the Rukhani Zhangyru programme of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

International conference “Joint actions on mitigating the consequences of the Aral catastrophe: new approaches, innovative solutions, investments.” Photo: uza.uz
Another sphere, where collaborative study of the problems in the region is in progress, is the saving of the Aral Sea. The International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (IFAS) coordinates operations of national IFAS agencies that carry out various studies related to the situation monitoring and study of the Aral Sea. In June 2018, Tashkent held international conference “Joint actions on mitigating the consequences of the Aral catastrophe: new approaches, innovative solutions, investments.” The conference gathered representatives of science, governmental bodies and international organisations in order to join efforts and solve the problems of the Aral Sea.

These examples show scientific cooperation in Central Asia in particular areas.  In general, the level of cooperation is rather low given plenty of issues that need to be solved jointly. The next section discusses main barriers to scientific collaboration.

Barriers to scientific collaboration in Central Asia

If we consider scientific collaboration at the global level, we will identify scientific communities divided on a language basis.  The English-speaking scientific community is the greatest and fast-growing community, while the representatives of the Russian, Chinese-speaking and other communities have to adapt and publish in English. Linguistic barrier in Central Asia is not essential for collaborative work at the regional level as many scientists are fluent in Russian and the number of English-speaking scientists is growing.

The main barriers to scientific collaboration are low funding of science throughout the region and the established social and cultural norms of academic communities in Central Asian states.
Scientific cooperation at the global level often takes place as joint projects. Researches, round tables and conferences at the regional level require funding of scientific projects. Joint use of laboratories by scientists from various countries implies investments to expensive equipment and long-term trips of researchers.

See also: Central Asian Experts: We Need to Carry out Joint Researches
The large hadron collider is one of the examples of the experimental facility, which combines efforts of scientists all over the world. In the European Union, the ERASMUS+ programme encourages regional networking of scientific organisations for grant-funded collaborative studies.

In Central Asian states, science is underfunded unlike in other countries of the world. If the world spends generally more than 2 per cent of GDP on research and development, Central Asian states spend in average 0.1-0.22 per cent of GDP. Figure 1 based on the 2015 data shows that South Korea is one of the leaders in investments to research and development in terms of GDP ratio. China, despite lower GDP per capita compared to the developed countries of Europe and the United States, has the global-level indicators.

Figure 1. Research and development costs as a percentage of GDP and comparison with per capita GDP in 2015

Source: prepared by the author based on http://data.uis.unesco.org; https://data.worldbank.org
Detailed analysis of research and development costs in Central Asian states shows that indicators in Uzbekistan are slightly higher than in neighbouring countries and growing (Figure 2). However, in terms of absolute values, Kazakhstan is the leader with 638 million dollars (including purchasing power), Uzbekistan takes the 2nd place with 459 million dollars (including purchasing power), while Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan don’t spend more than 30 million dollars.[5] In Turkmenistan, this kind of statistics in unavailable.

Figure 2. Research and development funding in Central Asian states as a percentage of GDP

Source: prepared by the author based on http://data.uis.unesco.org
The research and development data stated above include state and private sources. If we don’t consider investments to research and development but government expenditures on scientific activity, Kazakhstan leaves other countries in the region behind. One of the indicators of scientific productivity is the number of publications in academic journals. Figure 3 shows the number of publications in the Scopus journals. Since 2011, the number of publications by scientists affiliated with universities and research organisations of Kazakhstan seems to increase significantly. This quick growth has occurred in response to a few factors.

First of all, the ministry of education and science of the Republic of Kazakhstan has introduced requirements to scientific publications published to achieve an academic degree (Order No. 127 dated March 31, 2011) and academic title (Order No. 128 dated March 31, 2011).[6] Second, universities have introduced rewards sometimes amounting to a few thousand dollars for publications in the Scopus and Web of Science Core Collection (hereinafter referred to as WoS) journals, as the number of such publications affects the world university rankings. Third, a system of grant-based funding of scientific projects has been established with the involvement of international experts for the purpose of request evaluation. Research activity monitoring and evaluation under the projects take into account the availability of publications in international peer-reviewed journals.

Figure 3. A number of publications in the Scopus journals.

Source: Prepared by the author based on scimagojr.com
It must be admitted that new requirements to publications in Kazakhstan have caused the increased imitation of scientific activity and more publications in the so-called predatory journals, which publish unchecked articles for a fee. However, if we compare it to the data of Uzbekistan, where such strict requirements have not been introduced and the number of publications in predatory journals has not increased, the indicators don’t differ much in the average number of citations.[7]

Along with low funding, one of the reasons of poor cooperation between researchers in Central Asia is the established culture of mistrust. Mistrust and competition for low financial resources lead to poor cooperation even within a university, among departments and divisions. Focus group results of the university teaching staff obtained during a scientific project show that there are certain fears of ‘stealing ideas’ and mistrust.[8] These fears must be justified in the scientific community, where plagiarism is not so shameful and sufficient measures have not been taken against it. However, it should be understood that the limitation cannot stop plagiarism in any way. Vice versa, the openness and constant exchange of knowledge contribute to copyright and recognition of a scientist as an expert in a particular sphere.

Moreover, limited exchange of knowledge and its problems lead to the degradation of science and scientists making no headway. Some scientists might present some well-known fact as a scientific discovery due to the limited participation in a scientific discussion in any sphere. Many articles in scientific journals of the region have only few sources in the list of works cited, while the majority of sources are national strategies or presidential addresses. It proves that such scientists don’t read previous scientific papers and generally don’t know their colleagues and their researches.


Scientific collaboration at the regional level is essential to study and solve many problems in Central Asia. At the moment, collaborative work is carried out in few areas, including the study of the problems of the Aral Sea, archaeology and regionalism. Of course, there are other areas, but in general, scientific cooperation in the region is very weak. There are many reasons for that, one of the main ones is low funding of science in all Central Asian states. Long-term grant-based funding of projects is much needed, where scientists may attract foreign colleagues, including colleagues from the region. In Kazakhstan, which allocates more funds to science, scandals over the distribution of grants are still on. The existing system allows financing the projects that have been scored very low by international and domestic experts. In addition to financial difficulties, the collaboration is hampered by an established culture of mistrust in the scientific community and the prevalence of such a phenomenon as imitation of scientific activity. When imitating a scientific activity, scientists publish for the sake of the publication itself, to observe formalities, and do not bother to assess the extent of previous study of the problem, or get to know the papers of colleagues and cite their work.

The mistrust and ethical issues are more serious and require more time to be solved. However, the funding problem is about the choice of priorities. For example, Kazakhstan allocated 28.6 billion tenges (about 80 million dollars) to grant-based funding of scientific projects in 2018-2020 (the main source of science funding for three years).[9] But 433 billion tenges of budget money (over a billion dollars) were spent in three years for the EXPO 2017 in Astana.[10] This choice of image-building projects instead of science financing is spread in all Central Asian states. The lack of established mechanisms of scientific activity support makes it difficult to speak about successful integration into the global scientific community or about effective regional cooperation.

One of the first measures to strengthen scientific collaboration at the regional level is to create a mutual fund to finance projects that need to attract scientists from more than one Central Asian state. It’s very important to finance the research process itself, not only conferences or other activities where outcomes would be presented. Kazakhstan, particularly the State Centre for Scientific and Technical Expertise, has experience in successful project assessment with the involvement of international experts, which can be used at the regional level as well. The following measure that needs to be regulated is decision-making based on expert findings. It can be done by establishing a commission of scientists from Central Asian states with vast experience in research activities to ensure transparent decision-making process.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.

[1] https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2018/11/16/kazakhstan/

[2] http://nauka.kz/upload/files/Kanat_Baigarin_Kazakhstan_October_28_2015.pdf

[3] Kazakhstan – Uzbekistan https://tengrinews.kz/zakon/pravitelstvo_respubliki_kazahstan_premer_ministr_rk/mejdunapodnyie_otnosheniya_respubliki_kazahstan/id-P060001154_/

Kazakhstan – Tajikistan https://tengrinews.kz/zakon/pravitelstvo_respubliki_kazahstan_premer_ministr_rk/mejdunapodnyie_otnosheniya_respubliki_kazahstan/id-P000001931_/

[4] https://kazakh-tv.kz/ru/view/culture/page_191361_ortalyk-aziya-halymdary-tyrki-elderinin-ortak-tarikhyn-

[5] http://data.uis.unesco.org

[6] Official internet resource of the Committee for education and science control. Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan [online resource]. – 2018. – URL: http://control.edu.gov.kz (date of visit: 18.06.2018)

[7] The number of citations is often seen as the indicator of publication quality.


[9] From bidding documentation available on https://is.ncste.kz/competition/archive

[10] https://forbes.kz/process/expertise/zatratyi_na_podgotovku_k_ekspo-2017_sostavili_433_mlrd_tenge_za_tri_goda/

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