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LATVIA

Address delivered during FORUM III

by Professor Janis Stradins,
President, Latvian Academy of Sciences

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In a book entitled ‘Little science, big science’ (1965), Solo Derek Price, an American historian of science, pointed out that in the 20th century ‘big science’ has been born in the world. ‘Big science’ in the sense that more and more often distinguished discoveries in natural sciences are made no more by brilliant individuals but mainly by major research groups, often in the course of interdisciplinary and international cooperation. That was how the achievements of nuclear energy and gene technology appeared, I dare not to say – the basic ideas. Hence, we have big science and little science, meaning the dimensions of the equipment and number of participants of the discoveries.

Yet the 20th century has brought us not only big science, but also the small countries to Europe and actually also to the whole planet. The number of United Nations member states approaches 200. And also here we can put the problem of big science and small science again, yet only in other understanding - science in a big power and science in a small country. Science is of an international, cosmopolitan character, there is neither German physics, nor French chemistry, of course; however, in each country, the development of science is individual. There are the national science centers and the local traditions in science. Unfortunately, the science of a small country is practically always a loser. There are few possibilities to develop big science in the small newly formed countries. The country lacks resources for the development of science, especially for basic science. It’s true, there is the development of regional science that studies the local natural resources, also the purposefully oriented social and human sciences. However, there are little possibilities for big science in small countries, hence it has less prestige and motivation, brain drain takes place, especially to the USA. I fear, these countries will be excluded from big science.

There are three main ways to include small countries into real science: 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, President of the Estonian Academy of Sciences); 3) maintaining contacts with former compatriots, the scientists who have emigrated to the large advanced countries, if they preserve interest in their former ‘small motherland’.

I come from Latvia, the country which many of the people present here perhaps do not even know. It is one of the three Baltic States, which appeared at the end of the First World War, was annexed and incorporated into 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 emigration, a new generation of scientists grew up - in the USA, Canada and Australia, partly - in Sweden and Germany. Their work was carried out in the centers of those advanced countries.

On the other hand, and it cannot be denied, the USSR used the intellectual potential of the Baltic based on rich local science traditions to develop strong basic science there. Academies of Sciences were formed in all three Baltic Republics. Studies of a sufficiently high level in organic and physical chemistry, magneto-hydrodynamics, 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 Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers in New York. This science in Latvia was an anonymous constituent part of USSR science in those days.

By regaining independence, which we were all very happy about and proud of, science moved aside in the small country, its funding decreased dramatically to 0,3% of GDP, the big institutes reduced their activities, many researchers got new occupations and became bankers and businessmen, or emigrated.

The further existence of science is threatened in Latvia, since the young generation doesn’t choose science because of the petty salaries and shortage of facilities, but the ruling political elite doesn’t understand the value of science, doesn’t support it. In Latvia, the choice was made to favour an economy in transition and services for the time being, but not in favour of 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 ageing generation of scientists carries out a hopeless struggle for their existence.

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

However, I would like to point out with pleasure that the Latvian Academy of Sciences (LAS) 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 Division functions in New York, USA. I have to admit that also in emigration the interest in science disappears, the americanized Latvian youth mostly chooses a career as lawyers, businessmen and practicing doctors, yet there still remain good possibilities. We cannot prevent brain drain, but we can, however, make it take a more favourable course, by regarding brain drain not as an evil, but ensuring mechanisms for an opposite reaction – brain return.

We would like especially to thank the Scandinavian countries for their financial and moral support, for advancing this region and regional studies – thus, small advanced countries can help small countries in transition. And we shall try to do the same when we become more wealthy.

We see foreign investments coming to Latvia and take it with positive feelings. Yet there are few intellectual investments and few fields of industry which would wish to be based on the resources of the local intellect. We try to do our best so that the small post-communist countries of Eastern Europe do not stay in the gray zone and lose their level of science.

Mr Chairman, we support the Conference’s Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge. However, it seems there is a certain neglect of the humanities. The Anglo-Americans place them in different categories even merely semantically - sciences and humanities. In most European countries, in Germany, in France, Northern Europe, as well as in Central and Eastern Europe there exists, however, a common designation: ‘Wissenschaft’, ‘zina???tne’, ‘nauka’, ‘science’ that, in my opinion, is more correct, since it emphasizes the common character of two cultures that has already been mentioned by Charles Snow. It’s a bit of a pity that at this World Conference on science and in its documents, so little attention is devoted to the human 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 their identity and the source of self-confidence. Right after the regaining of independence, after the years of oppression and concealed identity, the attention of society shifted from the natural sciences, which previously were the allowed sphere, to the humanities. If it sometimes seems that too much attention is devoted to them and the sphere of their studies seems to be too narrow - specific, an 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 of ethnogenesis of the European nations and the problems of the transformation of the post-communist society come to the forefront, which may also have wider importance, importance for the world of culture. Eastern Europe may become perhaps the place where the natural sciences Naturwissenschaften get united with the human sciences - Geisteswissenschaften, in order to give mankind a more harmonious view of the future. Science and cultural diversity – this motive raised here at the WCS seems to be acceptable not only for developing nations, but also for the small nations of Europe which have regained their independence.

So, my suggestions could be: 1) to regard sciences and the humanities as a whole, as a part of united human culture; 2) to create new suggestions concerning international cooperative regional support programs for science centers, sciences and humanities in small countries in transition; 3) for the international scientific community to support appeals from scientists of countries in transition to their national governments stressing the social mission of science and the necessity to advance it in a small country, too, in order for its people not to lose quality.

May I thank all the organizers of this most fascinating, fantastic Conference; we have sensed here the pulse of the entire planet, its global concerns and hopes, the necessity of a social-oriented science for the coming generations. It was a great honour for me, indeed, to adress this Conference.

 

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