Physicist Anton Senenko: “Science is a big bowl of soup. But how can it stew if our scientific environment is dissolving?”

During its construction in Soviet times, the Institute of Physics of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences (NASU) was “camouflaged” as a psychiatric institution, complete with robed orderlies walking through the back yard. Maybe it's this Soviet heritage that has passed on to the Ukrainian scientists, they're slightly crazy people: with no financing, in an unheated lab, they still press on with exploring the natural world and making world-class scientific discoveries. If they're missing some piece of equipment, they print it on a 3D printer. If they lack funds for reagents, the crowdfund for them on Facebook. If their buildings need repairs, they pitch in together from out-of-pocket. If they have to choose between relocating for a lucrative job and upholding Ukrainian science in extreme circumstances, they choose the latter. The senior researcher of the Institute, physicist Anton Senenko works with nanotechnologies, studying how the qualities of substances change depending on their structure: he literally observes atoms and molecules under the microscope. This type of research is the foundation for many modern technologies, such as organic-based electronics (for example - liquid crystal displays). AIN.UA interviewed Anton to talk about the current state of Ukrainian science, the Nobel prize and the scientific method, about introvert scientists and Richard Feynman, about critical thinking, charlatans and reptiloid aliens. We also managed to sneak a peek on the work of several of the Institute's labs.

Tell us about the direction and methods of some of your research

Scanning tunneling microscopy is a method that allows humans to see a separate molecule or atom in a direct space. Regular microscopes help us observe objects through a system of optical lenses and refracting light. You can see single-celled organisms this way, but molecule-size objects remain invisible to the naked eye. Their size is smaller than the length of a light wave. A tunneling microscope uses a special edge that seemingly “bombards” a substance with a stream of electrons, allowing us to “see” and photograph the structure of a molecule, as well as the separate atoms.

Why is this important to observe? The electronics that we use today are predominantly non-organic. But we’re stepping into the age of organic electronics. A prominent example are the displays of mobile phones that work on organic substances, among them – liquid crystals. So, studying how exactly organic molecules settle onto a surface and how they change their qualities based on location is vitally important.

A scanning tunneling microscope in Anton’s laboratory. This kind of equipment costs hundreds of thousands of euros.

We study the molecules of various substances, for example: alkanes, arachidic acid and others. They all vary based on just one group in the “tail” of the molecule. If you change these groups, the molecules rearrange themselves in different ways. Consequently, “playing around” with these substances allows us to create surfaces that have radically different qualities: in terms of light refraction, friction, etc. The photo below shows an alkane molecule on a sheet of highly oriented pyrolithic graphite. Each white dot is a group of CH2 or CH3 from the “tail” of the molecule. The size of the frame is 6×6 nm (nanometers). To compare, the width of a human hair is 75 000 nm.

We are able to show how the world is built on a nano-level. Some scientists create nanotechnologies, we visualize them.

Your tunneling microscope seems to be quite expensive. What can you say about the financial support of Ukrainian scientists and the supply of necessary equipment?

Modern equipment really is quite expensive, hundreds of thousands and sometimes – millions of euros. Everything that could have been discovered using copper wire and glass vials has already been discovered. Our microscope was bought in 2004-2006, when at least some funding was allocated to our scientific sphere. Since then, this microscope has allowed us to write several serious scientific papers.

Artem Vasko, a postgraduate student of the department of physical electronics, doesn’t let the lack of equipment get him down: he printed the levitation tribometer necessary for his experiments on a 3D printer. He built the 3D printer himself.

The issue is that the equipment isn’t only expensive but when scientists import it into the country, we have to pay customs fees. The result is absurd: non-profit organizations have to (de-facto) return money to the government for fulfilling their primary, government-dictated functions. The customs code obviously needs to be amended so that scientific equipment shouldn’t be taxed this way. We submitted a proposal for this to the Ministry of Finances.

The levitation tribometer requires extraordinary precision in its construction and is used to measure friction between two substances.

As far as we are aware, this provision has been entered into the mid-term agenda of the government that should be completed by 2020. Meanwhile, we have to find creative solutions for our problems. In other countries, scientific equipment is changed or updated every 5 to 15 years. Sometimes we manage to get used equipment through our personal connections.

How is Ukrainian science financed at the moment?

The financing of science in Ukraine currently amounts to 0.18% of the GDP. The average for Europe is 1%, the optimal level is around 2%. UNESCO 2015 statistics place Ukraine second to last in Europe in terms of the number of scientists. Only Romania is below us in this rating. 2016 has further worsened this decline: 6000 people left their jobs just at the Academy of Sciences.

The walls of the Institute have been decorated by artist Daria Marchenko, the author of the famous “Face of war” project – the face of Putin made from bullet shells gathered in the Donbas region. Later on, the colored background will be covered with drawn formulae of the basic laws of physics.

The country’s scientific budget for next year mirrors the current one. But considering the changes in state financial standards, we’ll still have to lay off people. We usually pay for repairs from our own personal funds. Due to a lack of resources, most of our infrastructure is in a horrible state. A pipe burst recently on the fourth floor, ruining the recent renovation. The utility bills are also quite depressing. Heating costs eat through most of our humble budget. We’ve already been forced to shift to a 4-day work week due to this.

Alexander Marchenko (PhD in physics and mathematics, associate member of the Academy of Sciences, specialist in physics of surface phenomena): “Ukrainian science is currently being exterminated. Everything that’s achieved is done based on bare enthusiasm. If this continues, science here will die and we’ll get a country of pseudo-scientists. This is the opinion of a professional physicist.”

The NASU is often accused of doing “god knows what”. But we often don’t even have the right to talk about the things we’re working on. The Academy, for example, develops measurement devices for anti-rocket defense systems, as well as technologies for extending the life of nuclear reactors. This is extremely pragmatic work, without it – we would have had to import electricity from Russia years ago. I published a list of 473 useful Ukrainian inventions. There was simply no financing to implement a large number of them.

How do Ukrainian scientists survive? From time to time they go abroad to earn a little money, to bring back some equipment and reagents. I’m not kidding. For example, the gold sheet for the tunneling microscope is used by French researchers once, but we cut it into 9 pieces, since every sheet costs 60 euros.

When I was teaching an American student to work with the tunneling microscope in Paris, he asked me once how much I earned. I said: “$200”. He clarified: “Per week?”. Usually, though, we don’t talk about wages, it’s unethical.

There was a story recently with the biologist Oksana Piven. She does research on heart problems and received a grant to continue her work. But the grant didn’t specify that she had to transport research components from abroad. The Germans gave her some expensive certified lab mice as a gift. Due to bureaucratic provisions, she couldn’t take money from the grant fund to bring the mice to Ukraine. We needed 1000 euros, so, we had to crowdfund it all through Facebook.

My academic adviser could tell you how Kyiv scientists lived in the 90s. How they would bring one loaf of bread for the whole lab team and everyone would be over the moon because they had food. And every evening they would work a shift on a construction site to earn additional money. It’s not that different today. Many of our colleagues become private tutors for the same reasons. My neighbor, a professional botanist, loads wooden planks during the weekends. A scientist shouldn’t have to do that!

How many scientists leave Ukraine?

Government officials tell us: “Look for Western grants.” But Western universities would rather bring our scientists to their own country than financially support the infrastructure here. It’s just cheaper, it makes more sense. By most estimates, science can support itself, create an intellectual environment in the country, combat pseudoscience and support labs if the field is financed by the government at around 0.5% GDP. We have only 0.18%. A young researcher receives a salary of 3000 UAH [around $120], this is the wage standard for a pizza delivery person or a cleaner. People just can’t survive on that money here. And they leave.

Financing for science is growing globally, as is the number of scientists, but Ukraine had 1200 researchers per one million citizens in 2015. One of our young scientists left for Switzerland this February. Another one left to work in IT, a female colleague went to Turkey on December 30th.

Why does UNESCO emphasize the ratio of scientists to citizens? It’s because science needs a stable environment. The community will always have unproductive “fringes” and a productive “core”. It’s specifically this core that makes the breakthroughs and creates the scientific environment. Science is a big bowl of soup, a brewing ecosystem: researchers communicate, share ideas. But how can it stew if our scientific environment is dissolving?

I spoke to Natalie Jaresko when she was still the Minister of Finances. She said: “we created a harsh financial environment so that the ineffective employees would be filtered out and the effective ones would be left.” But it doesn’t work that way. Scientists are the people that are in love with their research. They’re willing to endure hardships. But they also need basic things like equipment. If the government doesn’t provide it, the scientists will go where it’s available. You can’t do research with a shovel.

The result is that many accomplished and motivated people just leave. We end up with a negative selection system. I recently heard a poignant joke: “Dad, what’s a botanist? A botanist, son, is someone who works two-three jobs so that he can study plants in his free time.”

When Ukraine becomes a strong country, it will need a strong scientific community. To catch up with Western technologies, at the very least.

Why haven’t you immigrated, personally? You’ve already worked in Paris.

Yes, in 2013 I had an internship at the Pierre-and-Marie-Curie University and was later invited as an independent researcher. When the events of the Maidan happened, I came back to Ukraine. The tent of our scientist-colleagues was one of the first ones to appear on the Maidan. It stood right in the empty fountain.

I remember after the slaughter in Mariinsky Park, Sasha (Alexander Skorokhod – head of the Young Scientists’ Council) and myself were sitting in the dorm and he showed me his helmet. It had a huge dent from a rebar strike. A pseudo-protestor backed by the Yanukovych government had hit him. I sat there and though about the differences between the Maidan and the Anti-Maidan [a minority movement set up in response to the Maidan, largely believed to have been composed of petty criminals paid by Yanukovych’s government]. I came to the conclusion that it was a battle of civilizational approaches. It was a time when a criminal could kill a scientist. And the scientists were there for a peaceful protest. In moments like this, you can’t just stand by and watch.

By the way, I had an interesting experience in 2014: I came back to Paris and some people (EU citizens, mostly) asked me how things were going in Ukraine. I told them how Russia had invaded, Crimea was annexed, a war had broken out. And as I relayed this story, I realized that it was met largely with indifference. But things changed drastically when the MH17 Boeing was shot down. All my European colleagues came to my lab and asked: “Anton, what’s going on in your country?”. In all honesty, it was a fairly unpleasant, almost hurtful experience.

After the tragedy, Ukrainian flags sprung up all over the university, but the shift in perception from our European colleagues really shocked me at the time.

Going back to the question of immigration, by then I had already started working in the field of popularizing science with a civil activist group. Â They were pushing a progressive law to support scientific and technical activities. I realized that I couldn’t just leave and watch it all from the sidelines. You can’t build a country from the outside, even though we’re always thankful for any sort of help. But you need people working “on the spot”. Our community, the scientific junta [a humorous/sarcastic play of words on the term used by Russian propaganda against Ukraine], as we used to call ourselves, along with the passionate citizens that supported us.

My general stance on immigration is a harsh one: no more retreating, no more backing down. But I can sympathize with the scientists that leave. If the cure for cancer can be discovered by a Ukrainian researcher in the U.S., where he/she will have the necessary equipment, then it’s only right to go. The brain drain is what leads to people complaining that we don’t get any Nobel prizes.

When will Ukrainian scientists get a Nobel prize?

Nobel-worthy research takes decades. The first seeds of the research that was recently awarded a Nobel prize in physics were planted by a Kyiv scientist in the 1960s and 1970s. If he was alive today, he would have received the award. However, as far as I’m aware, there have already been several Nobel prize winners that were Ukrainians by birth or ancestry.

I think that the next Nobel prize might be awarded for the confirmation of gravitational waves. But just imagine how many years it took to develop the equipment to prove this theory. Look at Ukraine in this regard: if we take our relatively new independence as a starting point, 25 years is a very small period of time (for science in general). If we had received around 1% GDP worth of financing constantly since 1991, then the question of “where are all the Nobel prizes?” could be legitimate. Sadly, that isn’t the case.

Marina Viazovskaya, a Ukrainian scientist, recently received the Salem award. This is the second-to-last step before the Fields award, the Nobel prize counterpart in mathematics. Marina is a Ukrainian, why did she leave to work abroad? Probably because the temperature in the Institute of theoretical physics in Ukraine rarely goes above 5 degrees Celsius [41 Fahrenheit]. Marina Rodnina, a biochemist who works in a German research facility, is Ukrainian as well. She received the Leibniz award. Why did she leave? Likely due to the fact that scientists were paid literally several dollars per month in the 1990s.

It’s a similar reason to why our army couldn’t defend Crimea from Russia in 2014. The army was being dismantled and robbed for 25 years. How is Crimea different from the Nobel prize in this regard? For some reason, a harsh cost-cutting environment didn’t make the armed forces better. The unproductive weren’t filtered out and the productive people weren’t the ones left. It was the exact opposite. How is the issue of financing science any different? It isn’t.

Same story with the police back in the day. During the Maidan, citizens formed self-defense brigades to protect our neighborhoods. We knew that Yanukovych-backed criminals were being shuttled from other cities to Kyiv to fight for his government. So, we took up Ukrainian flags and any sort of improvised weapons and defense we could find. When we passed the police precincts, we saw the law enforcement hiding in the building, looking out with frightened eyes. The police in general just disappeared from the city during the Maidan revolution, they weren’t protecting anyone. Why? Negative selection, just as in all the other scenarios I described. It was the unproductive ones that were left.

There’s a social contract: professionals receive their financing and then they produce results. So far, Ukrainian science is striving to produce results without any decent support.

Tell us about the new science bill. What does it change?

It’s a progressive reform bill that cost a lot of sweat and blood to put forward. It implements transparency in financing. It creates the National Research Fund which will accumulate money both from the government and from private investors. The fund will work similarly to ProZorro [the award-winning Ukrainian e-government system, focused on transparency of state procurement]. We’re very supportive of this model. Scientists will apply to the Fund for grants. The latter will be provided based on impartial and independent analysis. This is good as well, since we’re not always happy with the level of transparency and objectivity within the current grant selection process.

Scientific groups from the Institute sometimes manage to secure grants for the purchase of modern equipment. For example, Yelena Fesenko, head of the Surface-enhanced spectroscopy lab, succeeded in purchasing a micro-Raman spectrometer thanks to international funding. The device is equipped with a microscope and allows for the spectral analysis of objects. It enables research on even separate cell or their components, the identification of carbon substances – telling the difference between graphene and oxide graphene and much more.

The law also has a provision for the creation of a scientific committee that will include world-class researchers. It will define the long-term strategy of scientific development in the country. All this was supposed to start working last January but it drowned in red tape. Now we’re hoping that the Fund will start functioning in 2018.

Do scientists turn to businesses for financial support?

Scientific developments that provide billion-dollar profits need multimillion dollar investments and decades of work. But our businesses are used to short-term timelines and outrageous profit margins. If you mention a clinical trial that takes 10 years, you get blank stares from the other side of the table. For example, our researchers are working on anti-burn bandages for the frontlines. They did a presentation of the product. They were praised for it but nobody gave any money.

Furthermore, even IT companies are pressured by law enforcement. If the police storms in with no reason and shoves everybody in the office face-down into the ground what sort of high-tech business environment are we talking about? Clinical trials need sterile labs with a controlled temperature level and so on. And in Ukraine, even the automotive industry doesn’t communicate with scientists.

Dmitriy Balakin, senior researcher at the department of absorption phenomena, tells us about super-vacuum lamps. With the help of these devices, physicists have been studying the behavior of ultra-thin membranes on surfaces for over a century. But the manufacturing of these lamps was done by hand, day and night, from 5 to 10 years, with an extreme level of accuracy. There’s a story about a scientist that worked on a similar lamp for 5 years and when it accidentally broke, he literally couldn’t live through the tragedy… The Institute is currently planning on creating a museum to show young physicists what kind of equipment was used by their predecessors in the past.

I talked to our colleagues in the Institute of metal physics: in the 90s, one of the most prominent global automotive brands placed orders with them for the development of shock absorbers. Our car manufacturers never bothered with such cooperation. There are rare cases when our oligarchs contract scientific facilities to work on various alloys for the railroad industry, but those are few and far between.

Science is picking up in popularity around the world. The Mars rover has a twitter account. NASA streams videos from the international space station. What about popularizing science in Ukraine?

There is some encouraging progress here. If we compare the level of public interest for science 3 years ago and now, the difference is staggering. My inbox is overflowing with invitations to read lectures or visit schools. Our scientists give speeches and visit science fairs. The NASU created a Facebook page a couple of years ago. Our researchers are a lot better known today, they often get asked to come on the radio, on TV, on Hromadske [An online news channel that rose to prominence during the Maidan].

Dmitriy Balakin prepares the equipment for his experiments. This device allows him to observe catalytic effects on the surfaces of refractory metals in super-vacuum conditions (10-9 Pa). Working with this equipment requires not only a knowledge of physics, but also actual physical effort. It gives Dmitriy the chance to research new types of catalysts. For example, in modern cars, catalysts based on palladium and other expensive elements are used to measure CO emissions. Dmitriy’s team is researching more stable and inexpensive options based on iridium, cerium, ruthenium.

We have “bastions” for science popularization. The chemist Gleb Repich has a popular science show on the 1+1 TV channel [one of the oldest and largest cable channels in Ukraine]. The Kunsht magazine is also active but it needs constant crowdfunding to stay afloat. There’s no stable system or network, though. There’s no “Discovery Channel”, so to speak. That’s what we should aim for.

Can this type of public popularization help science?

Definitely. That’s why we’re doing it. In reality, I’m always loathe to leave my work to give interviews, explain the intricacies of the field, analyze financial laws and so on. Looking into a microscope to discover something new is a lot more fascinating. And that’s one of the huge problems of communicating with scientists. Their brains are mostly wired to understand the world. They don’t do well in public speaking and PR activities.

As a rule of thumb, the stereotype of the shy introverted genius is based in reality. These are the people that usually reach astounding heights in science. Of course, there are people like Richard Feynman, who wrote a bunch of popular books for the general public and was also one of the brightest minds of the century. But these cases are exceptions.

As a result of this communication problem, you get the media writing absurd articles about black holes that will appear from the large hadron collider. Not to mention even more ridiculous stuff.

Yes, unfortunately, science isn’t regarded as a lucrative or popular subject by the media.

I wouldn’t say that’s exactly true in all situations. For example, the news about the confirmation of gravitational waves was quite resonant.

Not in our country. We have a “bug” in our communication with Ukrainian journalists. They either describe inexistent sensations or promote outright pseudo-science. Interestingly enough, not only journalists fall victim to sensationalism. Science often turns into some sort of commercial affair. Researchers start fighting over projects. If you didn’t produce some spectacular results based on your current grant, you likely won’t see another one. That’s why we see articles that embellish or exaggerate various research.

A lot of effort is put into discovering new things, but there are nearly no articles that re-check existing results. I recently saw the statistics for medical trials: 10 out of 100 are confirmed, only 1 out of 100 is implemented. Sometimes these results are even ascribed to statistical error. Unfortunately, the grant system is still the best one we have, even though it isn’t perfect.

[An elaboration from AIN.UA] There’s a famous humorous science story: at the beginning of the 20th century, the French physicist Prosper-Ren Blondlot announced the discovery of the so-called N-rays that had numerous fascinating properties. One of his experiments was as follows: N-rays, focused in a spectroscope through an aluminum prism, fell on a string covered in cadmium sulfide which would start to glow as a result. Approximately 120 scientists around the world confirmed that they had supposedly observed the glow. However, after one such demonstration, an English physicist named Robert Wood confessed that he had removed the prism from the spectroscope, yet the glow still persisted. The discovery was soon proven to be false. If the sensationalism that Anton describes continues to thrive, the amount of “N-rays” in science will constantly increase.

You mentioned pseudo-science. How popular is it in Ukraine?

When you tell people that you can cure cancer with some kind of wave technologies or “charged water”, this leads to the general population losing sight of the scientific truth: people refuse to vaccinate, they neglect their health. When “scientists” state publicly that leptons [a subatomic particle, such as an electron, muon, or neutrino] have a mind of their own, it has terrible consequences. As an individual, you have the right to believe in anything, even in the spaghetti monster, but when public scientists start spreading myths about the magical properties of water, it discredits science as a whole.

What defines the scientific method? The most complex effect can be reproduced and demonstrated through its components, observable by anyone. Even the large hadron collider is based on fundamental mathematics. But if people are trying to sell you a battery with some supposedly “unique” qualities that break the law of the conservation of energy… that means they’re charlatans.

How do you identify pseudo-scientific claims?

The promise of some fantastical results, a panacea, lack of comprehensive publications in respectable scientific journals. Stories of how “the government is hiding the truth from you”, of how “the intelligence services are hunting scientists”. Throw in some tales of the “pharmaceutical industry mafia” and “reptiloid aliens” and you’ve got a party.

On a more detailed level, these “inventions” often obviously contradict the laws of the conservation of energy or matter. A prominent example are the solar panels that the media has promoted so much lately. Their creators promised that the panels take 1 kilowatt of energy and produce 3 kilowatts. Ok then, why don’t we create a loop? We’ll get an infinite source of energy, apparently. That’s just utter nonsense.

I was at a meeting once between representatives of business and science. I remember a young man goes up on stage and says: this lamp over here, there’s cold nuclear synthesis going on inside it. I asked him: Where’s your Nobel prize then? This is clearly an astounding discovery. And he says: “Well, our invention contradicts official physics. We’re being persecuted for it.” You can’t be serious… It always boils down to conspiracy theories. These people love mystifying everything and are extremely afraid of direct questions and answers.

And this is one of the reasons that the brain drain of scientists is really bad: the number of people who can call out charlatans is diminishing.

You’re involved in the Prometheus online education project. What does that entail?

I’ve always dreamed of learning to code. Not knowing how to code nowadays is like not knowing how to read. I signed up for an online Python course taught by lecturers from the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. It was the first time in my life when I understood every single thing in an online program. I was so proud! 🙂 That was the moment I realized that online education really works. What I also love about it is that it completely negates the idea that “I can’t learn this because I have no money.” The main culprit behind ignorance is laziness. End of story.

I contacted Ivan [Ivan Primachenko, co-founder of Prometheus] and offered my help. I’m currently searching for lecturers, organizing online courses and many other things.

What about launching scientific classes for the general public? “Physics for students of humanities”, for example?

It’s in the works. We’re looking for teachers at the moment.

Which scientific discoveries really impressed you in recent years?

I’m less focused on discoveries and more on the equipment and research programs that are aimed at enabling them. The gravitational wave registration device – LIGO, the Curiosity rover, the Rosetta and Philae. Beyond that, I’m fascinated by everything that’s new.

The interview and tour of the Institute lasted for the entire day instead of the one-hour affair that we initially planned. Anton kept telling us stories about science and the people who move it forward. He even brought us beyond the security checkpoint in the research facility:

I remember during the events of the Maidan, when Yanukovych ran away, people were lighting candles for the Heavenly Hundred [the one hundred civil activists killed in the streets by pro-government forces during the Revolution of Dignity]. But there were also smiles and hopeful expressions: finally, Ukraine has stepped onto a new path, everything will be OK now. This absolute optimism led to disappointment down the road. Ukrainian science is similar in this regard. Many people left feeling dispirited. But we’re not giving up. While there’s still light in these windows, there’s hope.