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From oil to Science

Presentation at 2nd Astana Investment Forum, May 4, 2011

Almaz Sharman

Professor of medicine

Deputy CEO, Nazarbayev University

Chairman of the Board, National Medical Holding

Several factors have helped Kazakhstan grow rapidly in the past two decades. Among them: abundant natural resources and proximity to large markets in Europe and Asia.

As a next step, the government of Kazakhstan wants to diversify the economy and develop high-value added goods and services.

As part of its modernization program, Kazakhstan has singled out institutional reforms in higher education and science as a priority to foster a new generation of world-class scientists, engineers and social scientists. A crucial element in this process is a new research university.

Nazarbayev University, which was established in Astana only last summer, aims to become a globally recognized teaching and research institution. Its primary goal is to equip the country`s students to compete globally by integrating teaching, research and the industrial application of science.

Two features set Nazarbayev University apart from other Kazakh institutions:

  • first, its academic freedom and institutional independence are legally enshrined; and
  • second, each of its schools and research centers will work with an international academic partner selected from leading universities and research institutions.

We are pleased to have established partnerships with several leading international educational institutions, including: 

  • University College London;
  • iCarnegie (which is a wholly owned arm of Carnegie Mellon University);
  • the University of Wisconsin-Madison;
  • Duke University`s School of Medicine
  • Duke University Fuqua School of Business;
  • the National University of Singapore`s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy;
  • the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory;
  • the Argonne National Laboratory;
  • the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; and
  • the University of Pennsylvania

In August, we will open three undergraduate schools: 

  • Science and Technology,
  • Engineering, and
  • Humanities

Next year, we will launch our graduate schools of Public Policy and of Business. A School of Medicine will follow in 2014, to be integrated with the university`s six state-of-the-art clinics, part of the National Medical Holding.

Research is the crucial component in our development strategy.

Current policy on research funding in Kazakhstan is focused on sustaining the existing institutions rather than the development of research and innovative mechanisms. Funding for research represents less than 1% GDP and there is insufficient funding for high quality research.

Few opportunities exist for research jobs in-country and intellectual property is not currently managed in a structured fashion.

Long-term venture-like funds are not currently established to help develop an industry.

Recently Kazakhstan adopted a new law on science that is expected to radically change the research environment in Kazakhstan. The new law prioritizes the following research areas: 

  • Energy
  • Innovative technologies in processing of raw materials
  • Information and telecommunication technologies
  • Life Sciences
  • Basic research in humanities and other fields

The new law establishes national research councils in the relevant priority areas as well as three streams of funding: 

  • Basic funding to support scientific infrastructure, property and salaries
  • Grant funding to support research programs and
  • Program-target funding to resolve strategic challenges.

In addition, the new law establishes a system for peer review of research grant applications. Within this new framework Nazarbayev University’s priority is to train world-class researchers. To this end, we have established the following research centers: 

  • Center for Life Sciences
  • National Medical Holding Clinical Research Centers
  • Center for Energy Research
  • Interdisciplinary Engineering center
  • Center for Educational Policy Research

At the heart of each center will be an enabling research environment that encompasses basic science, technological application, coordinated programs, and consulting and analytical services in high-priority development fields.

We intend to attract top-level scientists regardless of nationality by offering the opportunity to conduct advanced research in cutting-edge facilities.

The Center for Life Sciences will focus initially on the following areas of biomedical research:

Those research projects aim at increasing birth rate and child survival, alleviate disease burden, promote health, improve quality of life and extend life.

The goal is to translate innovative biomedical technologies into clinical practice and to help transform Astana into the regional healthcare leader and a global biomedical center.

Our long-term goal is to integrate medical research, education and clinical practice. We would like to create the world-class Integrated Academic Healthcare System to include the University Medical School, Center for Life Sciences, and the six hospitals of the National Medical Holding that belong to Nazarbayev University.

This will be accomplished in partnership with Duke Medicine and University of Pittsburgh, the world’s renowned academic medical centers.

Such integration is premised on the belief that research, teaching, and delivering care and services in an environment that values rigorous enquiry and evidence-based decisions leads to the best health care.

On a wider front, Integrated Academic Healthcare System has the potential to lead innovation in the health care sector and transfer that knowledge to the broader health care community in Astana, and after that to the rest of Kazakhstan and worldwide.

As a leading energy producer and exporter, Kazakhstan has a natural interest in energy-related research. The Center for Energy Research will explore energy and energy-saving technologies. The Center will focus on study, transfer and development of renewable energy, energy efficient technologies, as well as will conduct applied and fundamental research in natural sciences, climate change & environmental studies, computer science and modeling.

Strategic partner of the Center is the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California – one of the U.S. federal institutions conducting multidisciplinary research including state-funded priority projects.

The Center also is developing close cooperation with Argonne National Laboratory in the United States, as well as with the International Energy Agency and the other partners.

The Interdisciplinary Research Center will advance the scientific base in a range of cross-cutting fields and contribute to the development of Kazakhstan`s engineering technology.

In 2009, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization rated Kazakhstan first out of 129 countries in its education development index.

Nazarbayev University will contribute to maintaining this momentum and helping to make Kazakhstan one of the 50 most competitive countries in the world by 2015.

Graduates and researchers at Nazarbayev University will be pioneers in their fields. They are the core of a new generation of researchers in Kazakhstan and the former Soviet Union who will spearhead efforts to contribute to science and technology in Kazakhstan and around the world. Partnership with academic centers in the United States and the other countries are crucial in achieving this goal.

  • Gene therapy of mitochondrial mutations
  • Fetal surgery
  • Artificial lung
  • Artificial heart (Left ventricular assistance device)
  • Regenerative medicine
  • Organ transplantation
  • Clinical trials of drugs
  • Radiosurgery in cancer treatment
  • Personalized medicine and genomics
  • Anti-aging and longevity research