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.