Nazarbayev University: Creating Innovations and Innovators

By Dmitry Lee

nazarbayev University for Edge september storyKazakhstan is a young nation that is fortunate to be blessed in many ways and with many resources. It is among the world’s top 20 oil and gas producers, is the world’s leading uranium supplier, it’s the breadbasket agriculturally to many in the region and people around the world speak on cell phones with rare earth metals that came out of ground in the territory of Kazakhstan.

But for a nation to truly succeed, not only domestically, but eventually to make an impact on the global stage, it needs more than raw materials. It needs human capital. Luckily, Kazakhstan is blessed with that too.

“Based on my observations, I can state that young Kazakh people are smart, hard-working, bold and respectful. They have bright hopes for their future and they love their country,” Ph.D. and associate professor of the Department of Robotics and Mechatronics, School of Science and Technology at Nazarbayev University, Huseyin Atakan Varol told EdgeKz.

And it is the very university where Varol teaches – Nazarbayev University – that is leading the newly independent country’s efforts to tap into Kazakhstan’s human capital to create the next generation of innovators and innovations.

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union and Kazakhstan’s subsequent independence, the country needed to craft a new educational and research model that would be different from the old Soviet system that was geared primarily toward the military and space. It needed to be a model that would meet the needs of the country, while at the same time adopting and progressing modern, global scientific and technological advancements.

So in 2006, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev charged his government with a new task: “to create a unique academic environment in Astana … a prestigious [university and] the first research and world-class university in Kazakhstan.”

Construction on the university began in 2007 and the university opened in 2010. Today, Nazarbayev University has the status of an autonomous research university. cropped researchThe university’s stated mission is “to be a model for higher education reform and modern research in Kazakhstan and to contribute to establishing Astana as an international innovation and education hub.” Its long-term vision is to “give Kazakhstan and the world the scientists, academics, managers and entrepreneurs they need to prosper and develop,” according to information from the university.

And it does this by offering degrees ranging from undergraduate to Ph.D. programs across the educational spectrum, including degrees in engineering, the humanities and social sciences, business, public policy, education and, coming in 2015, a school of medicine. A school of mining is also being considered. Most students at Nazarbayev University are initially admitted to the Center for Preparatory Studies, a one-year programme operated by University College London. Later, students may apply to undergraduate programmes.

It also works in coordination with the country’s series of Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools and the Nazarbayev Endowment Fund, all of which are dedicated to promoting educational reform in Kazakhstan.

Dr. Kanat A. Baigarin

Dr. Kanat A. Baigarin, General Director of the Nazarbayev University Research and Innovation System (NURIS)

“There have been a few attempts to reform the educational system and science in Kazakhstan throughout the last 20 years (after the collapse of the Soviet Union),” said Dr. Kanat A. Baigarin, a managing director of Nazarbayev University since 2009 and now general director of the Nazarbayev University Research and Innovation System (NURIS).

“At first, there was no understanding of how to reform; secondly, we didn’t have the resources and means to do it. After some time we realized that involving [the old model of] scientific research into the new market economy wouldn’t be successful. Therefore, it was decided to build a new university with new fundamentals and base. The previous scientific research (centers) functioned fine as a business, but not as science. It is important to note that the new scientific research (centers) need to target the market’s needs, as opposed to the state’s needs as back in the USSR that consisted only of military research.”

Baigarin was a researcher at Igor V. Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in Moscow from 1975-1996 and received a Ph.D. in physics and mathematics in 1989. Since 1990, he has been the head of the same institute’s laboratory and Baigarin’s main research has been in the field of nuclear fusion, high current relativistic beams and intensity X-ray beams. He has more than 60 scientific publications and has been awarded a state letter of commendation and medal for Chernobyl explosion elimination. Baigarin holds an Associate in the International LEAD (Leadership for Environment and Development) Program (1992 – 1994) and the Harvard University Training Programme on Energy and the Environment (1999).

To achieve this more modern, market-based research approach, Nazarbayev University has established three research centers, including the Center for Life Sciences, Interdisciplinary Instrumentation Center and Center for Energy Research. The latter, which Baigarin heads, was renamed NURIS in 2012.

According to Baigarin, one of the toughest challenges for NURIS is commercialisation – bringing innovations to market.

“Today, we have about 160 scientific projects, but in the world practice this is not an impressive number because out of this number, only one might come close to actual commercialisation and out of those near it, maybe only five or six really have a chance to impact the economy. These are rough numbers, just to give an idea,” Baigarin explained.

The NURIS commercialisation office currently administers seven projects approved for financing by the national government. They are being carried out in coordination with a pilot technopark at Nazarbayev University. The projects are:

– Solar water pumping system for remote, rural areas in Kazakhstan.
– Enhanced object manipulation using a multi-grasp robotic hand for intelligent industrial automation.
– Pilot production of the flat solar thermal collector.
– New generation of interactive advertising.
– Development of custom peptide synthesis facilities.
– Acquisition of a technology platform for the core laboratory of DNA synthesis at Nazarbayev University.

Another approach used effectively at the university is ensuring that a broad range of perspectives are brought to bear on research projects. Baigarin notes the presence of those from the country’s Bolashak program, which sends students to study at top universities abroad who then bring their expertise back to Kazakhstan, as well as scientists imported from around the globe and those from the immediate area.

“So first of all, the main group of Nazarbayev University workers is those who studied in the West and have adopted its scientific and educational systems. Secondly, our workers are foreign professors who taught in the West – this group of workers should be the majority as our university has a Western model of education. The third part is the local scientists and those from the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States),” Baigarin said.

Zinetula Insepov for edge naz university story

Dr. Zinetula Insepov, head of the Nano Synergy Lab of the Nazarbayev University Research and Innovation System.

Among those leading scientists brought in from around the world is Zinetula Insepov. He is a Ph.D. and chief scientist and head of the Nano Synergy Lab of Nazarbayev University Research and Innovation System, D.Sc.

Professor Insepov taught physics at Freiburg University in Germany in 1991, later relocating to head the New Materials Department at Kyoto University, Japan, from 1992–2000, then continuing his career as manager of research and development at Epion Japan from 2000-2003. He is still involved with the Japanese subsidiary of TEL Epion in Billerica, Massachusetts, United States and the computer science divisions of Argonne National Laboratory, University of Chicago-Argonne LLC in Chicago.

“I relocated to (Kazakhstan) because there’s a decline in the U.S. and the budget for breakthrough technologies is becoming smaller and smaller, while global projects are still being well funded. So it is really hard to get a budget,” Insepov explained. “For instance, I arrived in the U.S. in 2003 and got a job at a large state laboratory. We offered a few projects in nano-technologies and we have been asking for a budget for six years and didn’t receive it. When I was offered (the opportunity) to relocate to Kazakhstan, I was told right away that I wouldn’t have any problems with the budgeting of my projects.”

Insepov believes that thanks to proper budgeting, working at Nazarbayev University is an opportunity for all the work that was done in the U.S. to be implemented in Kazakhstan.

“While the interest in research in the world is declining, in Kazakhstan this interest, on the contrary, is growing,” Insepov said.

Varol, the associate professor of the Department of Robotics and Mechatronics, School of Science and Technology at Nazarbayev University, another leading scientist who has come to Kazakhstan and the university.

“I knew that Kazakhstan was a rapidly-developing country with a bold agenda for modernization under the leadership of President Nazarbayev. Once I started reading more about Nazarbayev University, I realized that it was a very serious project and also had a robotics and mechatronics programme,” Varol said.

“Nazarbayev University is a huge investment for Kazakhstan. Is it worth it? My answer would be definitely that it is. When we look at the rapidly developed countries in recent decades, such as Taiwan, Korea and Singapore, the general pattern is that they invested in education and in people,” Varol continued.

“In my opinion, Nazarbayev University is the pillar of educational reform in Kazakhstan, and creating a world-class university, which will be an example for the other higher education institutions, is very important. If this university and other universities modeled after it produce high-quality specialists and translate the research results into real high-tech products and services, this would be a very strong engine for growth,” Atakan said.

Kazakhstan’s economic, energy and natural resources are growing and developing. Nazarbayev University is helping ensure its human resources do the same.

University Preparatory Certificate Program
School of Science and Technology
School of Engineering
School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Graduate School of Business
Graduate School of Public Policy
Graduate School of Education
Graduate School of Medicine (Coming in 2015)

Nazarbayev University Partners
– University College London (UCL), UK – partner for the School of Engineering
– University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA – partner for the School of Humanities and Social Sciences
– Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore – partner for the Graduate School of Public Policy
– University of Cambridge, UK – partner for the Graduate School of Education
– University of Pennsylvania, USA – partner for the Graduate School of Education
– University of Pittsburgh, USA – partner for the Graduate School of Medicine
– Fuqua Business School (Duke University), USA – partner for the Graduate School of Business
– Colorado School of Mines, USA – partner for the School of Mining and Earth Science Institute (2015)
– Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, USA – partner for Nazarbayev University Research and Innovation System
– Argonne National Laboratory, USA – partner for Nazarbayev University Research and Innovation System

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