SCIENCE  of  LATVIA: Policy. Documents ________________________________________


Speech delivered at the World Science Conference in Budapest (26 June - 1 July 1999)

 Professor Janis Stradins,
President of the Latvian Academy of Sciences

 In the 20th century, the “big science” was born in the world, as it was defined by de Sola Derek Price, the American sociologist of science, in the sense that, instead of brilliant scientists, more and more often distinguished discoveries are made by major groups of scientists, and often it occurs in the form of international cooperation, since large and complicated equipment, large experiments and large technologies come into science. That was how the achievements of nuclear energy and gene technology appeared, I do not say - the basic ideas. So the big science and the little science, meaning the dimensions of the equipment and number of participants of the discoveries.

Yet the 20th century has brought also the small countries to Europe, and actually also to the whole planet. The number of the UNO member states approaches 200.  And also here we meet the problem “the big science” and “the small science”, yet only in other understanding - science in a super power and science in a small country. One understands that science is of international, cosmopolitan character, there is neither German physics, nor French chemistry, however, in each country, the development of science is individual. There are the national science centers and the local traditions in science. In this aspect, the science of a small country practically always is a loser. The country lacks resources for the development of science, especially for the basic one. It’s true, there is the development of the regional science that studies the local natural resources, also the purposefully oriented social and humanitarian sciences. However, there are little possibilities for the big science in small countries, hence it has no prestige and motivation, the brain drain takes place, especially to the USA. The prestige of science, however, is shaken not only of a small country, but to a certain respect in the world in general, which in the recent 10-20 years, with the détente and the end of the cold war, unfortunately falls.

There are probably three main ways to solve this problem: 1) international cooperation, a possibility to work in large joint science centers;  2) particular attention and support to the development of science in small countries, a special strategy of their science (and here I would like to mention a joint project of ALLEA for the strategies of science in small countries, proposed in 1998 by the three Baltic academies of sciences and managed by my colleague Professor Jüri Engelbrecht, the President of the Estonian Academy of Sciences); 3) maintaining contacts with former compatriots, the scientists who have emigrated to the super powers, if they preserve interest about their former  “small motherland”.

I come from Latvia, the country which many of the people present here perhaps even do not know. It is one of the three Baltic States, which appeared at the end of the First World War, was annexed and incorporated in the Soviet Union in 1940, and regained independence in 1991. When the Soviet Army entered Latvia in 1944, 60% of the teaching staff of the Latvian universities went to the West, and also there, in the emigration, the new generation of scientists grew up - in the USA, Canada and Australia, partly - in Sweden and Latin America. Their work was carried out in the centers of those advanced countries. On the other side, and it cannot be denied, the USSR used the intellectual potential of the Baltic to develop strong basic science there. The Academies of Sciences were formed in all three Baltic Republics. The studies of the sufficiently high level in the organic and physical chemistry, magnetohydrodynamics, mechanics of composite materials, low temperature plasma technology and other fields were carried out in Latvia, there appeared big institutes. About 20 scientific journals are published here and 4 of them are fully translated and printed in English by the Plenum Press Consultants Bureau in New York. This science in Latvia was the constituent part of the USSR science at those times. By regaining the independence, of what we all were very happy, the science moved aside in the small country, its funding decreased dramatically, even 10 times, the big institutes reduced their activities, many researchers got new occupations and became bankers and businessmen, or emigrated - not only to the USA and Israel, temporarily went to Japan and Taiwan; we say that it is the third intellectual “exodus” from the Baltic States, this time dictated by the economical motives, not the political ones.

The further existence of science is threatened in Latvia, since the young generation  doesn’t chose science because of the petty salaries, but the ruling political elite doesn’t understand the value of the science, doesn’t support it. Perhaps Estonia is in a little better situation, but in Latvia, the choice was made in favour of the economy of transit and services for the time being, but not in favour of the production. In this field, basic science, e. g., such traditional disciplines as chemistry, going back to the past activities in Riga of Wilhelm Ostwald, Paul Walden and others, in physical chemistry, stereo-chemistry, is of minor importance and the aging generation of scientists carries out a hopeless struggle for their existence.

The relatively high level of science, like it was here during the time of the Soviet Union, we can’t deny it, despite of the political conditions, is partly changed by  petty, epigonic, oldish studies, the young researchers go abroad. All this certainly cannot be generalized, science here undergoes restructuring, returns to universities, yet partially it’s true.

However, I would like to point out with pleasure that the Latvian Academy of Sciences has undergone transformation, trying to preserve its core as a corporation of individual scientists. It has made close contacts with ethnic Latvians in the big world centers, the LAS Overseas Department functions in New York, the USA. I have to admit that also in the emigration,  the interest about science disappears, the Americanized Latvian youth mostly chooses the career of lawyers, businessmen and practicing doctors, yet there still remain good possibilities. We cannot prevent the brain drain, but we, however, can make it take a more favourable course  not to lose the young ones for Latvia.

We see foreign investments coming to Latvia and take it with shared, but in whole, however, positive feelings. Yet there are few intellectual investments, and few are also the fields of industry, which would wish to be based on the resources of the local intellect. The small post-communist countries should put this problem into more favourable atmosphere so that in the sphere of science, the Eastern Europe does not stay in the gray zone, all the more so, because also in the neighbourhood, in Russia, science experiences quite a hard period.

And one more problem is the dissociation of the natural and humanitarian sciences. The Anglo-Americans place them in different categories even merely semantically - sciences and humanities. In Germany, the Northern Europe, as well as in the Central and Eastern Europe there, however, exists a common designation: “Wissenschaft”, “zinâtne”, “nauka”, “science” that, in my opinion, is more correct, since it emphasizes the community of two cultures that has already been mentioned by Charles Snow. It’s a bit pity that in this world congress of science and its documents, so little attention is devoted to the humanitarian and social sciences and that the Anglo-Saxon understanding of science is stressed too much, as if making this split even deeper.

The humanities are particularly important for the small countries and nations, since they are at the same time the national sciences, the constituent part of identity and the source of self-confidence. Right after the regaining of independence, after the years of oppression and concealed identity, the attention of the society was shifted from the natural sciences, which previously were the allowed sphere, to the humanities. If it sometimes seems that hypertrophical attention is devoted to them and the sphere of their studies seems to be too narrow - specific, ethnically national one, then, however, this tradition of Herder justifies itself in this period of history, and it admits, we hope, a transition to something more fundamental, more embracing in the future. For instance, the problems if ethnogenesis of the European nations and the problems of the transformation of the post-communist society come to the forefront, which may have also wider importance, the importance for the world of culture. The Eastern Europe may become perhaps the place, where the Naturwissenschaften get united with the human sciences - Geisteswissenschaften, in order to give the mankind more harmonic view into the future.