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The permanent revolution

Journal name:






Date published:

(01 September 2011)



Published online

To rediscover its glorious scientific past and build a knowledge-driven economy, Russia must break old habits and loosen state control on research.

Russian science is recovering. After almost two decades of dire financial drought — and despite the casual disdain for all things intellectual shown by the profit-crazed oligarchy who have become Russia's elite — research is reclaiming its place as one of the country's most noble institutions.

Much of the credit for this improved situation must go to Andrei Fursenko, the science and education minister in the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Fursenko, a physicist trained at the prestigious Ioffe Institute in St Petersburg, understands how modern science works, and knows where and why the Russian research system is in disorder. Not everything he does pleases the Russian academic establishment. But this in itself can be considered an endorsement of Fursenko's approach, given the establishment's inclination to recycle the past rather than turn to modern conventions such as international peer review and scientific competition.

Among the most visible signs of the improved health of science in Russia, and of Fursenko's guiding hand, are the government programmes set up to establish cutting-edge research at Russia's long-neglected universities. These focus in particular on efforts to get experienced Western scientists to do research at Russian university labs through the 'mega-grant' programme, launched last year.

Russia being Russia, Fursenko's efforts have tended to get bogged down by the state's bureaucratic superstructure, to which science and the freedom to pursue it mean very little. As we report on page 17, the most recent example of this is the stalling of a prominent German–Russian mega-grant project to study carbon flux in the environment, which came to a halt on the command of Russia's security services. In this case, Fursenko seems to have won the battle — the project will go ahead, but institutional barriers to collaborative projects remain. Western scientists and companies are learning the hard way that over-regulation in Russia is a different beast to the red tape they encounter at home.

The purchase, import and export of equipment and samples require federal security approval that can be grindingly difficult to obtain. Federal security services need not justify nor explain their rulings. There is no formal way to appeal even obviously offhand decisions, and it is downright impossible for grant holders to communicate with local or federal officers in charge. At lower administrative levels, bribery is yet to be properly addressed, and officials' insistence that every piece of research equipment is purchased through designated Russian agencies (usually at inflated prices) borders on institutional corruption.

Faced with this situation, foreign scientists given mega-grant projects could be forgiven if they elected to do research and spend grant money in their home countries, rather than at the Russian host institutes. This undermines one of the programme's main aims — to bring Russian students and young scientists into contact with high-profile international science early on in their careers — and threatens to diminish its effect on the modernization of Russian science.

Fursenko cannot change the system alone, but must continue to do what he can. All scientists who are participating in the current round of the mega-grant programme, for example, will need clear instructions on deadlines and approval procedures for their projects. And there must be guidance on which formal responsibilities lie with the grant holder, and which ones lie with the host institute.

If Russia is serious in its ambition to develop a knowledge-driven economy, it must substantially reduce the level of state control on research and development. It has given science a helping hand, but — as Fursenko seems to know and as Putin must also understand — further progress needs freedom.


  1. Report this comment #26189

    A J said:

    Science and Technology in the erstwhile USSR was quite advanced in many fields.

    In the Soviet Union, science and technology served as an important part of national politics, practices, and identity. From the time of Lenin until the dissolution of the USSR in the early 1990s, both science and technology were intimately linked to the ideology and practical functioning of the Soviet state, and were pursued along paths both similar and distinct from models in other countries.

    Marked by a highly developed pure science and innovation at the theoretical level, interpretation and application fell short. Biology, chemistry, materials science, mathematics, and physics, were fields in which Soviet citizens have excelled. Science was emphasized at all levels of education, and very large numbers of engineers graduated every year.

    Soviet scientists won acclaim in several fields. They were at the cutting edge of science in fields such as mathematics and in several branches of physical science, notably theoretical nuclear physics, chemistry, and astronomy. The physical chemist and physicist Nikolay Semenov was the first Soviet citizen to win a Nobel Prize, in 1956 among several other Soviet Nobel Prize winners.

    Soviet technology was most highly developed in the fields of nuclear physics, where the arms race with the West convinced policy makers to set aside sufficient resources for research. Due to a crash program directed by Igor Kurchatov, the Soviet Union was the second nation to develop an atomic bomb, in 1949, four years after the United States. The Soviet Union detonated a hydrogen bomb in 1953, a mere ten months after the United States. Space exploration was also highly developed: in October 1957 the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit; in April 1961 a Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first man in space. The Soviets maintained a strong space program until economic problems led to cutbacks in the 1980s.

    Unlike some Western countries, most of the research work in the USSR was conducted not at universities, but at specially set up research institutes. The more prestigious of them were parts of the USSR Academy of Sciences; others were within the system of specialized academies, or the research arms of various government ministries.
    The core of fundamental science was the USSR Academy of Sciences, originally set up in 1725 and moved from Leningrad to Moscow in 1934. It consisted of 250 research institutes and 60,500 full-time researchers in 1987, a large percentage in the natural sciences such as biology.

    A renaissance is needed to bring Science and Technology to past glory in Russia. Being a part of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) Russia has glorious future in Science and Technology advances.

  2. Report this comment #26195

    Olga Khabarova said:

    It seems that the author of this extremely kind article have not investigated a real situation in Russia. Some doleful statistics can be found at the web-site of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics 1. Number of Russian scientists steady declines from year to year. In Russian statistical reports (see 2, pages 44 and 45) you can find information about an average age of PhD graduates, permanently working in science. It is 53.
    63% of such relatively ?young? researchers are older than 50; and 57% of scientists, who earned a very popular in Russia ?Doctor of Sciences? degree, are older than 60.
    Why? Because a new researchers? generation is absent. Russian science is not properly funded after the USSR fall in comparison with European countries (and especially with the USA).
    Just compare: Gross domestic expenditure for research and experimental development (GERD) in '000 PPP$ in 2009 was 33 368 083 (Russia), 47 953 451 (France) and 398 194 000 in the USA (in 2008) according to UNESCO data 3.
    Take into account that a huge part of that ?scientific-directed? money does not reach an ordinary researcher in Russia. For example, I am a full-time senior researcher with a salary ~18000 Roubles=622$=431Euros per month. Everybody who has ever been to Moscow knows that prices here are the same as in Europe. We are beggars.
    Fundamental science practically is not funded at all. It is impossible to survive here for young researcher with kids if he/she works in science only. Certainly, most of us look for an additional job or private sponsors (if you are from a reach family, you can spend your time as James Clerk Maxwell, without constant thoughts how to feed your children). All my former classmates – researchers are abroad for many years, and they look at me like at a madwoman: ?You are young, and you still work in Russia. Why?!?
    I am sincerely sorry, but Russian science is very far from recovering. Moreover, as I (and most of my colleagues) feel, it is worse and worse.
    In Russia, we accustom to regular ?Potemkin villages? in mass-media (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potemkin_village), but it was very strange to see such a biased article in a foreign respectable journal.

    2. http://www.gks.ru/doc_2009/nauka/ind_nauki2009.pdf
    3. http://stats.uis.unesco.org/unesco/TableViewer/document.aspx?ReportId=198&IF_Language=eng.

  3. Report this comment #26252

    Margarita Safonova said:

    My view of the situation with the researcher's life in Russia is even bleaker than the previous one. I live and work abroad in a country where I am happy to do my science-astrophysics, but this is out of necessity. I left biology because it fell apart as expensive experimental science in 90s. I earned my physics MSc precisely in the year of a putch, and couldn't get the job at my home town, Pushchino, as
    the RadioAstronomical Institute there did not want neither women nor theoreticians.

    I did my PhD in India and stayed there since. I was told by my relatives not to even try going back at some point as there is a non-written policy NOT to give a permanent high level job to a woman after 40! Though in India I am also not on a permanent job being a foreigner, there are many grants and relaxations for being a woman in science.

    I indeed have few friends scientists who are staying in Russia, but they do not enjoy that level of commitment to work as I do here. They are too busy to survive, doing several jobs, trying to get grants... I would have
    liked to go home and work for russian science but it is just plain impossible. I guess the only job I would manage to secure is a cleaning lady in same Institute I did my M.Sc. in.

  4. Report this comment #26276

    Olga Khabarova said:

    Dear Rita,
    You are always welcome to make your choice in Russia between a cleaning lady and a researcher. It is easy, because the Russian government does not see any difference between them (as judged by a salary). Moreover, my salary reached the cleaning lady level just several months ago.
    So, do not care about your position, they will hire you with pleasure if you come back. Any woman after 40 can be a cleaning lady, who writes some articles with affiliation of the "same Institute she did here M.Sc. in". She would have all rights to do that, because it would be absolute truth :-)

    I remember a period when my parents – researchers tried to reach a salary of a bus-driver (and my father got it just before perestroika!). Oh, a bus-driver now is so far from me that I even do not allow myself to dream to be compared with :-)

    I wish you all the best in India. You are right. Indian science is REALLY rising.

  5. Report this comment #26282

    Nikolay Pestov said:

    All of the credit for this must go to Vladimir V. Putin!
    Once upon a time something unusual happened to him and he remembered about Science in his kingd... country. His will was to resurrect Science and his bounty was endless ... almost: Science was given 10 times more gold! But the Kind Ki... had no time to control everything, and the Evil Minister waisted most of the money through so called FTP under a tricky law called 94-FZ. To deceive the Kind Ki... Vladimir V. Putin, the Evil Minister announced so called Program of Megagrants and using his Evil Magic Wand enchanted some foreign journals to publish a series of articles that praised the Program and the Minister. The trick was a complete success for the Evil Minister – one good-looking thing hid all his failures in the eyes of the Kind Ki...

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