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Why Russia is falling behind in the science race

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The reform of the Russian Academy of Sciences is not popular with scientists. Especially in Siberia.  

 

Andrey Sobolevsky
6 August 2014

The Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences was founded in May 1957. The new scientific centre in the east of the country was intended as a counterweight to Moscow and Leningrad (St Petersburg). Fundamental and applied research were needed, closer to the Siberian region, because development there was proceeding apace: hydroelectric plants were being built on the Ob, Yenisei and Angara rivers; and oil and coal was being produced in western Siberia.

The Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences was founded in May 1957. The new scientific centre in the east of the country was intended as a counterweight to Moscow and Leningrad (St Petersburg). Fundamental and applied research were needed, closer to the Siberian region, because development there was proceeding apace: hydroelectric plants were being built on the Ob, Yenisei and Angara rivers; and oil and coal was being produced in western Siberia. It was the height of the Cold War, so keeping part of the scientific potential away from the capital cities was considered expedient; in the event of a 'hot' war, they would, inevitably have become the target of a nuclear attack. Novosibirsk University was set up at the same time, close to the new institutions: students were to be taught by the best scientists, moving subsequently as graduates to work in their laboratories. 

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An aerial view of Akhademgorodok in Novosibirsk. Image  CC: Elya

There were already Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) institutes in Siberia, but the so-called ‘Akademgorodok’ (academic village) was built near Novosibirsk especially for the new scientific centre. More than half the research organisations were housed there, and special conditions were created to attract prominent scientists: guest academicians were provided with university-owned cottages, and others were settled nearby in houses in the forest. The Botanic Garden was moved here from the big city, and landscaped by specialists. Today, Akademgorodok is very different from industrial Novosibirsk; it is no coincidence that property prices are significantly higher here. 

Some 30,000 people worked in the Siberian Branch of the RAS, all the way from Tyumen to Yakutsk.

By mid-2013, around 30,000 people worked in the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (SB RAS), not only in Novosibirsk but all the way from Tyumen to Yakutsk. Comparisons in the world of science are not easy, but by international standards the results were remarkable: 

• Employees of the Budker Institute of Nuclear Physics were among the discoverers of the Higgs Boson at the Large Hadron Collider, for the launch of which the Budker Institute supplied complex equipment worth over 200m euro. 

• The discovery of human remains in the Denisov Cave in Altai Krai by an expedition from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, and subsequent collaboration with German paleogeneticists from Svante Pääbo’s laboratory, resulted in a sensational conclusion about another ancestor of modern man, Homo Denisovan, who lived on Earth at the time of the Neanderthals, 40-35 thousand years ago. Articles by Siberian scientists and references to them have been published in Science, Nature and other authoritative international journals. 

• The discovery of oil and gas deposits in the Arctic and eastern Siberia by geologists of the SB RAS was of huge importance to the Russian economy. The engineering and technological development of theoretical projects developed by the Siberian Branch was provided by firms specialising in new technologies, for whom a special 'Technology Park' was built in Akademgorodok. The turnover of the resident companies in the Technopark for the year 2012 totalled around 14 billion rubles, which is close to the entire SB RAS budget. IT technology and services are progressing particularly quickly both within the Technopark and beyond its boundaries. One of the programming companies there, grew from 13 to 130 people in a year. 

FASO and the reforms

The Russian government unveiled the draft law reforming the Russian Academy of Sciences on 27 June 2013. This not only amalgamates it with the Academies of Medicine and Agriculture, but moves more than 1000 research institutions and infrastructure organisations (from power plants to nurseries) to a new management structure – the Federal Agency for Scientific Organisations (FASO). 

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A rally against the reform of the RAS held at the foot of the monument to Academician Koptyug. Image (c) Yulia Pozdnyakova.

The reforms have been implemented with incredible speed: it took just six months from the appearance of the draft bill for the institutes to be transferred from the RAS to FASO. The Siberian scientists protested (especially against the first draft of the bill, which stipulated the liquidation of the former Academy); young scientists of Akademgorodok organised flash mobs: people congregated on Lavrentyev Prospect in lab coats, and stood with their backs to the road, silently demonstrating against the objectionable reforms. Residents of all ages gathered for protest rallies, including one by the monument to Academician Valentin Koptyug, the head of the Siberian Branch during the difficult 1990s, who had managed to save it. 

'We have been shot down at take off!'

The reforms were nonetheless implemented: leading scientists are not able to openly criticise the federal authorities (because, on the whole, research is financed from the state budget), although they are sceptical about the changes. The SB RAS chairman, Academician Alexander Aseyev, said at a meeting with the head of FASO, Mikhail Kotyukov: 'we have been shot down at take off!' He showed how, for the last five years all the performance indicators of the Siberian Branch have been moving in a positive direction: budget and contract finance has increased, as have the number of scientific publications, and the construction of housing and special facilities.  

Aseyev’s deputy, Academician Nikolai Pokhilenko, heads the successful Institute of Geology and Mineralogy, and therefore sees the reform from two points of view: 'It is unclear how we will coordinate the interaction of different institutes in different directions. For example, for one project we worked with the Institute of Inorganic Chemistry; on another we worked with the Institute of Semiconductor Physics. It is difficult to imagine any collaboration on a single project because a system of integrated projects in FASO has yet to be organised; and grants are only allocated to one organisation.'

'What the reforms were actually for is not very clear,' explains Academician Pokhilenko. 'They could have been for the purpose of separating scientific work from the business side, but only time will tell how effective that will be. To be honest, I don't feel particularly euphoric about it at the moment. Of course, a year ago, everything seemed far bleaker. Some of us were expecting the total collapse of the RAS, although the actual scenario has been rather gentler. I therefore do not want to say that FASO is attempting to kill off the Academy. FASO managers and specialists do the best they can to solve the many current and emerging problems. But they also have their hands tied.'

Akademgorodok

The future of Akademgorodok as a compact and comfortable centre of science, education and innovation is hanging in the balance. The draft federal law about the future of similar towns was presented to the State Duma, but was sent back to the drafters for revision. Experts consider that it did not have a sufficiently strong political lobby behind it, unlike the bill reforming the RAS. In the meantime, Academician Nikolai Lyakhov, director of the Institute of Solid State Chemistry and Mechanochemistry, and also a local Novosibirsk assembly deputy, has stated the obvious differences: 'The SB RAS has lost its function as the city's chief employer. Until 2014 it was the majority stakeholder: business people understood that government matters were dealt with by the municipal administration of the municipal region; anything to do with questions of administration or the infrastructure was referred to the Siberian Branch. Only a single manager can guarantee the integrity of Akademgorodok and its preservation.'

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Nikolai Pokhilenko speaking at Technoprom 2014.  Image (c) Yulia Pozdnyakova.

Nikolai Lyakhov explains that the changes related to the RAS reform have already caused problems: 'Recently, the keys for the university accommodation were distributed, to both employees of the institutes that fall under the jurisdiction of FASO, and officials directly employed by the Siberian Branch of RAS. The accommodation was acquired with SB RAS funds allocated under a special programme, and is under the control of SB RAS (or rather, its operational management, as with other federal property). And what happened? We received a letter from one of the deputy heads of FASO, Alexei Medvedev, in which was written large as life that, “… current legislation makes no provision for employees of FASO organisations to sign lease contracts for university accommodation.” This problem applies both to hostels and cottages: the SB RAS remains in charge of them but they are now inhabited by employees of institutes under FASO jurisdiction. This will have a serious effect on the housing chain, in which, for example, a person moves into official accommodation, freeing up a room in a hostel for a younger colleague. By and large these artificial barriers are the result of the ill-considered reforms to the Academy of Sciences.'

'These artificial barriers are the result of the ill-considered reforms to the Academy of Sciences.'Siberian scientists are not only criticising the reforms and pointing out their negative consequences. They are looking for ways to adapt to the new circumstances so as to keep the academic institutions working effectively; and not let Akademgorodok, in the words of Lyakhov, just 'dissolve' into a city of half a million people. He believes that an agreement should be drawn up between, at the very least, FASO (either head office or the local branch depending on their respective powers), the SB RAS, and the Novosibirsk City Administration, possibly also involving Novosibirsk State University and the Technopark. The aim of this multilateral instrument would be to create a federal-level management company for the scientific centre. 'A unique place needs unique solutions', says Lyakhov. 'Not all the Akademgorodok organisations may end up being part of this structure (private companies, for instance), but it will occupy an important position as a front runner, which for fifty years belonged to the Siberian Branch.' 

The sixth wave of innovation

Today, the majority of new organisational initiatives take as a starting point the fact that the changes are irreversible: the academicians (and their Siberian departments) are still together, but the finances and property of the institutions are controlled by FASO. At the general meeting of the SB RAS in June 2014, Academician Aseyev proposed to reduce bureaucratic procedures by organising a single operational (service) Centre to avoid duplication between RAS and FASO carrying out the same kind of work: financial services and accounting, human resource management, economic and legal support, and so on. 

'This operations centre will bring significant benefits and advantages, providing a new level of transparency for government expenditure in the scientific field and allowing budgetary savings of up to 20%,' says Aseyev. 'It will allow state management decisions to be implemented quickly throughout institutions within its jurisdiction.'

In Novosibirsk this summer a large forum, ‘Technoprom 2014’, took place. It was attended by deputy prime ministers Olga Golodets and Dmitry Rogozin. The main topic of discussion was Russia’s move to the sixth wave of innovation, as well as the necessity to accelerate high-technology import substitutions, given increasing sanctions from the West. Golodets actively promoted the RAS draft reform bill; Rogozin, for all his nationalist rhetoric, is regarded as a restrained critic. Behind the scenes at Technoprom, an influential representative of the Academy of Sciences (who wishes to remain anonymous), told me: 'You were just unlucky; had Maidan in Ukraine and all the commotion happened just one year earlier, nobody would have even dreamed of any kind of reform to the RAS'.

But history does not understand the conditional. The reform of the Russian Academy of Sciences has happened; and Siberian scientists, from academicians to students, are looking at their prospects in a difficult new reality. What options does Novosibirsk Akademgorodok have in the future; and what is the future for Russian scientists? 

At Technoprom 2014, Russian scientists were asked a question:

'What would have happened if graphene had been invented in Novosibirsk in June 2014?' The poll of participants revealed:

47% thought the discovery would have been lost in bureaucratic correspondence;

41% thought the scientists who discovered it would have quickly found fame and moved to Manchester;

12% thought that the development of this new industry in Russia would have begun quickly.

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