How EU helps Ukrainian scientists make world-class discoveries

As you know, to reach the horizon, an imaginary line of the earth touching the sky, is physically impossible. Since the earth is round, as much as we try to get closer to it, it gets farther anyways. However, some people sometimes manage to prove that impossible is nothing. Physicists of Uzhhorod National University, for example, managed to achieve almost a fantastic result: to be recognized by the leading European research centers, and get a significant financial “bonus” with it.

Our scientists became participants of the European Horizon 2020 programme and now thanks to it they are arranging one of the most modern laboratories in Ukraine, conduct experiments in Europe and make real scientific discoveries. They managed to reach the horizon, albeit in a somewhat a figurative sense.

 

Horizon 2020: a chance for scientists to expand the frontiers of opportunities

When in 2015 Ukraine became an associate member of the European Horizon 2020 programme with a total funding of EUR 80 billion, a lot of illusions about the future joint research with the Europeans and the big money would flow into our science arose in the domestic scientific environment. After all, this program allows involving European funds in financing the work of Ukrainian scientific institutions and scientists stay to work in our country.

In fact, illusions have not become reality. There are projects and money, but they will be won by the most worthy scholars and teams of scientists who are doing the research that is really important to science. We told about the successful history of the UzhNU professor Nadiia Boiko, who, within the framework of the Horizon 2020 programme, together with European partners from 14 countries, was working on implementing an interesting project in the field of food safety. And today, we want to tell another story of the success of UzhNU scholars.

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Vasyl Rizak is the professor and Head of Solid-state Electronics and Information Security Department at the Faculty of Physics. He is in charge of a team of scientists, which has recently become a member of СЕRІС-ЕRІС, an international consortium of universities, and a member of the Horizon 2020 programme. Moreover, it is in the most complex area of the so-called perfect science, where studies of the literally pre-Nobel level are conducted.

Starting from 2014, Ukraine has hosted a series of iconic events on its way to the European integration, which could significantly improve the state of domestic science and technology. First of all, it is about signing of the Association Agreement with the EU and the Agreement between Ukraine and the EU on participation of our state in the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme. As a result, we have become a member state of the European Research Area (ERA), having received a number of opportunities for the development of scientific and innovation fields.

So, the Association Agreement provides for in-depth scientific integration with the European Union. After signing it, domestic scientists, dreaming of the Brussels money, were extremely enthusiastic about the elaboration of projects. However, the reality quickly chilled the passion of many people. As it turned out, there are a lot of nuances and complexities in this case.

“The problem with academic institutions is that they first tried the Horizon 2020 segment, which is called excellente science (perfect science). This is a small segment, which deals with a purely fundamental science. But it is actually at least about the results of the pre-Nobel level. For sure, there is a very high competition, and not every team from the leading European scientific centers can have a chance to win,” said the Deputy Minister of Education and Science of Ukraine, Professor Maksym Strykha in an interview to the Dzerkalo Tyzhnia newspaper.

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On the background of this explanation, the success of UzhNU’s physicists, who are not only one of the first in Ukraine to become participants of Horizon 2020, but also work in the most difficult area, in particular the perfect science, whose sub-paragraph is the creation of a world-class scientific infrastructure, seems to be almost a fantastic. Such countries as Italy, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Germany and Great Britain were the partners of scientists from Uzhhorod in the implementation of the project.

Nowadays, due to the high level of competition, part of Ukrainian scientists loses hope for a successful participation in the Horizon 2020 competitions. Difficulties arise, in particular because of the fact that the vast majority of infrastructures acquire a form of the European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC). And Ukrainian scientists very rarely become participants in such consortia. However, it does not mean that it is unrealistic.

On the contrary, the experience of physicists from UzhNU confirms that it is possible.

 

From Uzhhorod to Europe – through Prague

No matter how ambiguous it sounds, but the integration of the UzhNU’s Faculty of Physics into the European scientific space began a long time ago – decades ago, when its graduates began to leave abroad. A powerful school of physics of Uzhhorod State, and now National University, has raised hundreds of scientists, some of whom have left Ukraine for the best life in the most difficult and poorest times in the country. Today, there is practically no country on the European map where graduates of the UzhNU’s Faculty of Physics do not perform scientific work.

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However, Prague itself, the capital of the Czech Republic, which is historically closely connected with Transcarpathia and is geographically located close to it, has become the place with the largest number of our scientists. Currently, Charles University, the undisputed leader among the universities of Central and Eastern Europe, has a good dozen of physicists who have received education in Uzhhorod. And they are led by Vladimir Matolin, Professor, Head of the Surface and Plasma Physics Department, Doctor of Physics and Mathematics. By the way, he also has Transcarpathian roots.

Vasyl Rizak cites an email from a Czech colleague when the latter wrote: “Dear Professor, I have a group of “little Uzhhorod” already working in Prague.”

“Professor Matolin saw that our graduates were very skilled and that they could be relied on,” says Vasyl Rizak. “He realized that Uzhhorod had a serious school. Professor Matolin is a member of the board of directors of the CERIC-ERIC European consortium of universities, which has been actively expanding over the past few years. First, with Romania’s accession to the EU, Romanian physicists joined it, and literally three years ago – those of Polland joined it too. Vladimir Matolin had an idea to involve Ukraine, and to create a consortium outpost at UzhNU itself, at our department.”

Of course, such offers are not denied. In 2015, Professor Rizak and the rector of UzhNU Volodymyr Smolanka travelled to the Italian Trieste, where the coordination center СЕRІС-ЕRІС is located, and the rector represented our university at the meeting of the consortium’s board of directors.

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“Volodymyr Ivanovych prepared a very sound presentation of the university and performed brilliantly,” says Professor Rizak. “At that time, I had the impression that Europeans did not expect our university to be so powerful. After the speech of the rector no one had any doubts and objections; the agreement between СЕRІС-ЕRІС and UzhNU was signed and the process was launched. So we got to the category of heavyweights of European science, became members of one of the most powerful consortia in Europe.”  

It is worth noting here that СЕRІС-ЕRІС is an international scientific research institution whose founders are the governments of the Czech Republic, Italy, Austria, Slovenia, Serbia and Romania. Its objective is fundamental and applied research in the field of physical material science, biomaterials and nanotechnology.

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Literally a few months after the signing of the agreement between UzhNU and СЕRІС-ЕRІС, the Agreement between Ukraine and the EU on the participation of our state in the EU’s Horizon-2020 programme was signed. According to it, Ukrainians could already be included in international projects funded by the EU Framework Programme, not as individual scholars, but as teams of scientists. And the UzhNU’s physicists became one of the first teams of Ukrainian scientists who entered Horizon 2020.

 

Dream laboratory

In general, the project, which won the СЕRІС-ЕRІС consortium and which our physicists joined, receives funding exceeding EUR 3 million. What is the share of UzhNU in it? It is relatively small compared to the total project budget. However, according to Vasyl Rizak, for example, the university will receive about EUR 40 thousand (which is already more than a million Ukrainian hryvnias) only for business trips and salaries of our scientists.

Equipment represents a separate cost item. The creation of the laboratory for auger electron spectroscopy and magnetron sputtering of films in a single complex is being finalized now. At the end of last year, equipment and installations manufactured in the USA were shipped to Uzhhorod, and professionals of the СЕRІС-ЕRІС consortium, who had arrived from Prague, set up and prepared them for operation these days. According to Professor Rizak, this equipment, which the university received free of charge as humanitarian aid, is estimated at around EUR 800,000 in the market.

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“This is an extraordinary achievement for us. A few years ago, we did not even dream of such a laboratory, but now it is already becoming a reality,” says Vasyl Mykhailovych. “Although, it is not the end. The next stage is the atomic force microscope, which we also expect to get within the framework of the project. Then we will have one of the most powerful laboratories in Ukraine and a very serious modern level of scientific research.”

In addition, thanks to the Horizon 2020 project, Uzhhorod scientists at least twice a year organize international scientific conferences in Uzhhorod. And together with the students visit the leading European research institutions. Prague, Amsterdam, Munich, Hamburg, Trieste and Budapest – all these centers of the science of physics are now available to UzhNU’s representatives.

“For example, my candidate for the master’s degree went with us to Trieste to work on a synchrotron two times. Five students and postgraduates took part in a scientific school in Austria.” Talented students and young scientists of the Faculty of Physics at UzhNU now have such opportunities,” summarizes Vasyl Mykhailovych.

 

Titanic experiment as a scientific breakthrough

Acceleration and deepening of Ukraine’s integration into European scientific space should help modernize domestic science. Professor Vasyl Rizak sees a positive perspective not only in terms of updating the material and technical base (new laboratory) and the possibility of access to European scientific equipment and information bases. Human factor is important too.

“Definitely, this will help keep talented youth in Ukraine. Participation in such projects is a great incentive because you have the same access to equipment as your European colleagues. It is very important. If a scientist does not have access to equipment and information, then he does not realize himself in science.”

After these words of the professor, a formula used by the well-known German Max Planck Society comes back to the memory: The best science is done by the best scientists who have access to the best research infrastructure and the resources needed to attract talented youth.

It looks like now the physicists from UzhNU are almost ready to implement this formula as effectively as possible. In other words, to do better science.

“I can say now that we are well-known in Europe, we are trusted, and today we can go to any European university and work on modern equipment. Access is unlimited. I’ll say even more: we do not yet have time to analyze and process the data array that has already been obtained within those 2 or 3 projects under which scientific experiments were conducted in Europe. We have many results, practical things, which now need to be presented in the form of scientific articles,” tells Professor Rizak.

For example, in the near future, the thesis can be defended by the postgraduate student Adalbert Barta, who works on studying the interaction of information biomolecules with the surface of titanium oxide products. In simple words, thanks to the opportunity to work on modern equipment in the Italian Trieste, the Uzhhorod scientist conducted a successful experiment and discovered what can safely be characterized as a serious scientific breakthrough.

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Briefly about its essence… Most implants or, for example, prostheses that are used in modern medicine are made of titanium oxide (TiO2). Adalbert Bart, a native of Uzhhorod, proved that in this case the chemical bond of the DNA molecule with titanium is formed. And this means that our DNA can change under the influence of a chemical element. Even easier: foreign elements in the human body result in changes at the genetic level!

It is literally impossible to overestimate the practical benefit of such a discovery.

 

 Instead of concluding

In general, the Horizon 2020 Framework Programme has one main goal, which is to extend knowledge and innovation to production. The idea embodied in the life by Europeans through Horizon 2020 is to reduce the so-called “valley of death”, or in other words – to reduce the time from the implementation of a scientific discovery to its practical implementation.

And for Ukraine, Horizon 2020 is also a good chance to reduce the significant lagging of domestic science behind the achievements of scientists from the leading European states. And maybe even in the near future to keep pace with them.

 

This publication (article, analytical report, etc.) was prepared within the framework of the Regions for Reforms Project with the assistance of the European Union (http://ec.europa.eu/europeaid). The content of this publication is the exclusive responsibility of Zakarpattia Information Center PE and in no way reflects the point of view of the European Union.

 

By Yaroslav Svitlyk

Source – ProZahid