Issue 3, 2017. June-July

   

GEORGIA SEEKS A NEW GENERATION OF SCIENTISTS

The Georgian government is eager to reboot the country's scientific community, which suffered from brain drain and a lack of funding in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. With an eye on the new generation, the government and its Western partners are investing in education and innovative programs to attract young people and bolster the popularity of science-related professions.

Lika Jorjoliani

When Larisa Tsertsvadze graduated from high school in the early 1990s, she dreamed of becoming a physicist and researching the mysteries of the universe.

She studied hard, got good grades and graduated, only to discover the chaos that had permeated the country had eviscerated the science community in Georgia: those who could went abroad. Those who couldn't were working for a pittance or teaching.

Twenty-five years later, Larisa has taught herself through a myriad of new careers, everything from teaching to creating crossword puzzles to designing nail art.

And the government has decided it needs science.


Unpopular Profession

While the sciences were popular and prestigious when Larisa was studying, over the past two decades they have lost ground to other professions-especially business, law, international relations and languages.

But universities and the government are betting on new facilities and modern programs to attract a new generation of students.

Keso Katsitadze decided to study biochemistry after learning about the San Diego State University Georgia (SDSUG) program in Tbilisi.

Now a sophomore, Katsitadze said the new laboratories and U.S. specialists were a big selling point.

"Despite the fact that fashionable professions in Georgia are the faculties of management, law and economics, I decided to pass exams to enter the biochemistry faculty," she told Investor.ge.

"Special laboratories have been created for students; specialists from the U.S.A. often visit us and train students. Local lecturers passed special training on teaching methodologies. As for my plans for the future, after receiving a bachelor's degree, I am going to continue my education in the U.S.A. and improve my knowledge in biomedical engineering. I want to create new devices," she said.

Foreign Ties

Several Georgian universities are working to upgrade their science facilities and attract more students.

The San Diego State University program is one of the newest. Financed by a $30 million Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) grant, the program offers students several science-related diploma programs and partners with three local universities, Tbilisi State University (TSU), Georgian Technical University and Ilia State University (Iliauni).

"Studies have shown that human capital is a driver of economic growth for developing countries. Georgia has achieved significant progress after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, recent studies have identified inadequate quality of human capital as a significant constraint to economic growth. The lack of human capital is particularly acute in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields," noted Chief Executive Officer of MCA-Georgia Magda Magradze.

"To tackle this challenge, MCA-Georgia, with funding from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, is implementing projects in general, vocational, and higher education focusing on increasing the quality of education and developing Georgia's human capital in STEM fields," Magradze added.

As part of the effort to modernize the curriculum, U.S. professors, as well as Georgian professors who have undergone intensive training in the U.S., are teaching 200 students in the program, Elene Aladashvili, SDSUG Communications and Development Director, told Investor.ge.

Students can also participate in student exchange programs, studying for a semester or a year at the U.S. campus. The Tbilisi campus also hosts American students. Other Tbilisi-based universities have also unveiled new programs to attract students and increase interest in studying the sciences.

For instance, TSU offers students access to 85 different laboratories, and its physics program has been included in some international rankings.

The university has also partnered with 200 leading universities and several international organizations, which allows its students to participate in exchange programs-including with 12 European universities as part of Erasmus+-international research and projects, and to obtain foreign diplomas.

Tbilisi Free University is also actively promoting science careers. The head of the biology faculty at the university, Giorgi Muskhelishvili, told Investor.ge, that the school opened a genetics laboratory to help foster greater knowledge and interest in the field of genetic diagnostics in Georgia.

"Using innovative devices, students will have the possibility to learn new technologies. In fact, our laboratory will receive young and highly qualified students in Georgia, and new specialists will receive the possibility of employment," he said.

Georgian American University (GAU), Caucasus University (CU), International Black Sea University (IBSU) and University of Georgia (UG) all have successful and growing IT and Informatics programs to address the shortage of qualified IT professionals in Georgia.

Another unique concept for IT research and training is GeoLab, a collaboration between GAU, Georgian Innovation and Technology Agency (GITA), GeoCell and Leavingstone. Modeled after the 24/7 think tanks at Yahoo, Google, Facebook, etc., Georgians are being trained and new IT solutions developed round the clock.

Finding Work

Post-graduate employment in the science fields is a crucial part of the puzzle.
Larisa recalled that when she graduated, all the research positions were gone because the research facilities had all closed. What jobs were available paid next to nothing. Scientists, she said, were supposed to work out of "enthusiasm" for the job with little to no financial compensation.

The lack of sustainable employment with a decent wage added to the decline in interest in the sciences, she noted. Today, universities with science programs are trying to change that: some, like Georgian American University, have employment centers, and San Diego State University Georgia holds job fairs.

San Diego State University Georgia is also following the U.S. campus's successful experience of reaching out to the business community to make sure its graduates have the skills they need to find jobs.

The Executive Director of the Association of Employers of Georgia, Lasha Labadze, told Investor.ge that this is a crucial component.

"Today the Georgian market doesn't have local technical specialists, and all this impedes economic development. For example, take importing of equipment from abroad: if any manufacturing equipment is damaged, we have to invite specialists from another country [to repair it]. All this makes business more expensive," he said.

He noted that members of the Association, together with Deputy Education Minister Ketevan Natroshvili, have discussed changes to the law concerning professional education.

The talks, he said, are a chance for the Ministry to learn about the concerns of the business sector. The aim of the new law is to improve the quality of the system of professional education, establish links between professional and higher education, and create a system of training and retraining and other innovations.