Revolt of the professors


In September Russia’s parliament votes on a highly controversial law to reform the Russian Academy of Sciences. As Aleksandr Chuikov reports, its supporters call it a bitter pill for the 21st century; its opponents, the kiss of death, and an attempt to curb academic freedoms.

Aleksandr Chuikov
3 September 2013

The Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) was founded 300 years ago by Tsar Peter the Great. It was set up along the lines of similar bodies in Western Europe, but differs in that it has always had closer links to its country’s rulers. And unlike in western countries, where most scientific research is carried out at universities, in Russia it has always taken place in specialist institutes under the auspices of the RAS – there are more than 400 of these today, employing nearly 100,000 scientific staff. 

In the Soviet period it became the USSR Academy of Sciences, and a kind of oasis of free thinking – academicians could refuse entry into their select ranks to ‘eminent Party and government figures’ and elected their own president by secret ballot. Even Stalin was loath to touch academicians, since their benefit to the USSR’s defence capability was much greater than any harm caused by their ideological nonconformism. Later, the famous dissident Andrei Sakharov remained a member of the Academy even during his internal exile in Gorky. During Perestroika, however, the Academy lost most of its state funding, with a resulting brain drain to the west, and some of its buildings had to be rented out to pay scientists’ salaries. 

Today, the special position of the RAS looks likely to be eroded further. The bill as presented today more or less removes the academicians’ right to select their own members, and transfers the management of Academy property to an agency whose head will be appointed by the government. Officials will also decide on research priorities and the allocation of funding. So the RAN will be left as a token scientists’ club with, at most, an advisory role. 


.Ministry for Education and Science Dmitry Livanov with Deputy Prime Minister for Social Affairs Olga Golodets. Their joint bill to reform the influential Academy of Sciences has made them target of academic fury.  Photo (cc) Wikimedia Commons/Government.ru 

Most academicians are outraged by the developments. Some internationally known scientists opposed to the reorganisation — calling themselves the 1st July Club — have announced that if the bill goes through they will publicly dissociate themselves from the new Academy. They argue the project ‘will kill pure science in Russia’. 

Inefficient and unsustainable?

The main official supporter of the bill is Dmitry Livanov, head of the Ministry for Education and Science, who considers the RAS an inefficient and unsustainable institution that receives a large amount of state funding with little world class research to show for it. It may well be that he is a little biased, however. A few years ago Academy members voted against this aspiring physicist of genius’s application to become a corresponding member. Aleksandr Kuleshov, an academician and director of the Academy’s Institute for Information Transmission Problems, calls Livanov’s claims ‘a combination of economy with the truth and outright conscious and unconscious lying’, and says that there is little basis for them. Supporters of the bill argue that universities should take on a larger research role, which, they believe, would speed the transfer of new knowledge to practical applications, and that billions of roubles should be channelled in their direction. And its opponents agree, but point out that Russian pure science is being forced into a flawed, and intrinsically American, model of development, where there is always a ‘single possible’ outcome. Kuleshov also disputes the claim that in the West all science happens at universities. ‘Each developed country has its own model, depending on its history and national characteristics’, he says. 

'Supporters of the bill argue that universities should take on a larger research role, which, they believe, would speed the transfer of new knowledge to practical applications'

Deputy PM Olga Golodets, another enthusiastic supporter of the reorganization, has spoken about considerable savings to be made, given the sums at present ‘squandered’ by academicians on their own pet projects (incidentally, those academicians who accept the new order will see their monthly ‘stipends’ rise to 100,000 roubles [£2,000]). According to mathematician Kuleshov, ‘the rise in stipends alone will cost the government 600 million roubles a year – that’s the figure the officials themselves quote. The Russian Foundation for Basic Research’s entire annual funding is only 8 billion roubles. If there’s money to spare, that’s where it should go, and the researchers will be grateful for it. And into the rubbish bin with the new law!’ 


Boris Bernaskoni's 'Hypercube', the underwhelming centerpiece of Skolokovo Technology Park. The state-engineered answer to Silicon Valley is, in fact, built on land taken from the Moscow Agricultural Research Institute. Critics of the Academy of Science reform plans claim that they have been introduced to make such appropriation easier.  Photo: gov.ru

The scientists opposing the law believe that its main attraction for the bureaucrats is financial (and especially the chance to get their paws on all that academic real estate). Until now it’s only the directors of the various institutes, elected by their colleagues, who have decided how many square metres were needed for laboratories and so on, and how much space could be rented out to cover utility bills and, crucially, expeditions. ‘We have a particular problem financing these,’ Dr Robert Nigmatulin, director of the Academy’s Oceanography Institute, told me. ‘We have the research ships, but we can only use them to a third of their potential. Optimum use – 300 days a year –comes to 700 million roubles annually. To cover part of those costs we have to hire the two largest of our nine ships to tourist companies, and this allows us to run expeditions to the north and south Atlantic.’  Professor Valery Rubakov, of the RAS’s Institute for Nuclear Research, spoke of similar funding issues: ‘The money we get from the Academy covers salaries and utility bills. There’s just 5-10% left over for the actual science. So it’s practically impossible to develop in any way.’ 

Bad for science, good for the bureaucrats

If the bill becomes law, science and the places where it happens will be managed not by scientists, but by bureaucrats. And events of the last years have shown that it’s only the bureaucrats that make profits out of managing plum city centre sites. The Skolkovo development, also known as Russia’s Silicon Valley, is a prime example. To create Dmitry Medvedev’s pet project as president, hundreds of hectares of fertile land were taken from the Moscow Agricultural Research Institute at Nemchinovka, on the outskirts of the capital, and the remainder of the site was bought from a firm whose CEO is the wife of a senior government official. 

'The scientists have been completely taken aback by the speed of this reorganisation. PM Dmitry Medvedev had only to mention the idea, for the draft law to be produced and pass its first two readings in a matter of days.'

Another example is the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics, which was taken from the state owned Rosatom Corporation, removed from the list of strategic research centres and transferred to the Kurchatov Institute National Research Centre. Now, according to scientists still working there, research has practically ceased and most of its staff, including internationally respected names, have been sacked. So the bill’s opponents see the new legislation as a pure example of a hostile takeover, not least because of its suddenness. It is as if it were some kind of FSB special operation.  

A reform or a lightning raid?

The scientists have been completely taken aback by the speed of this reorganisation. PM Dmitry Medvedev had only to mention the idea, for the draft law to be produced and pass its first two readings in a matter of days. This rapidity usually indicates that a bill has come down to parliament from the very top – not even from PM and United Russia leader Medvedev’s team, but from the president’s own men. Between the two votes, two scientific and political heavyweights, the Academy’s recently elected head, physicist Vladimir Fortov and economist and international relations expert, member of the RAS presidium and former PM, Yevgeny Primakov, had several meetings with Vladimir Putin. As a result, some cosmetic changes were made in the bill. For example, Fortov was offered, and accepted, the task of heading the agency that would manage the Academy’s multibillion real estate holdings. But given that Academy rules don’t allow its elected officers more than one five year term, Fortov will have to stand down as president in 2018, and likewise he can’t head the infamous agency for ever. And when he goes, compromised as he is, the chances are it won’t be another scientist who takes his place, but someone close to the Kremlin. 

'This latest attempt at reform has triggered a further brain drain among young Russian scientific talent – the human capital that the regime is so keen to preserve is leaving for the USA, western Europe and China.' 

In private, scientists say that the brain behind this cavalry raid on the RAS is the director of the Kurchatov Centre Mikhail Kovalchuk, who they feel harbours a grudge  against the Academy, having turned him down as director of its Institute of Crystallography, and so depriving him of the chance of standing for election as RAS president. But no one wants to talk about Kovalchuk openly. His brother Yury is believed to be a close associate of Vladimir Putin and after Mikhail’s appointment as director of the Kurchatov, the institute was suddenly awarded billions of roubles of investment capital, at the expense of other research bodies. 

This latest attempt at reform has triggered a further brain drain among young Russian scientific talent. The human capital that the regime is so keen to preserve is leaving for the USA, western Europe and China, which is actively recruiting scientists from around the globe. One young mathematician shared his thoughts with me. ‘It’s the speed and irrevocability of the changes, the fact that the different groups’ weathercocks were suddenly turning in the same direction. Someone’s getting his own back for not being voted in as an academician or has decided to make a fortune in real estate. Guys behind the scenes have finally stormed the last bastion of free elections; the last structure that wasn’t vertical. The real agents of the State Department must be hugging themselves with glee: having killed off Russian pure science they can now buy up talented young scientists on the cheap.’ The young mathematician also asked not to be named. And that is a clear signal that the bell is tolling for all of us.   

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