Putin overhaul of science risks final blow to Soviet-era machine

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Jan 15, 2014 - 19:34
  • Updated : Jan 15, 2014 - 19:34

Russian President Vladimir Putin (AP-Yonhap News)
Yulia Nelyubina is an internationally recognized chemist at the Russian Academy of Sciences. An overhaul of the academy pushed through by President Vladimir Putin may leave her homeless and further damage the country’s already bruised science establishment.

The changes mean the academy will lose control of billions of dollars worth of real estate, which may cost Nelyubina her one-bedroom, rent-free apartment in a Moscow suburb. The perk, a vestige of the Soviet era, allows her and her scientist husband to get by even on the academy’s average salary of 38,000 rubles ($1,150) a month, the same as Russia’s prison guards.

“I’m worried that they could just cancel my housing contract and I’d end up on the street,” said Nelyubina, 27, who studies molecular interactions in crystals and last year won a L’Oreal-UNESCO “Women in Science” fellowship. “With our salaries, we can’t take a mortgage or buy an apartment. Young scientists may be forced to choose between leaving science and staying in Russia or leaving Russia and keep being scientists.”

While top scientists in the Soviet Union were respected and given city-center housing and even a dacha in the countryside, Russian researchers today are poorly paid and leaving for jobs in the West.

The departure of young talent that started as the country opened up two decades ago may worsen with Putin’s overhaul, which took effect Jan. 1. It imposes new oversight, dilutes the academy’s membership and seizes its property. Critics say the decline of the academy, a scientific powerhouse during the Soviet era, will now accelerate, stifling innovation and increasing the country’s dependence on raw materials.

“I would expect a much bigger exodus of young scientists from Russia,” said Roald Sagdeev, a physicist at the University of Maryland who headed the Soviet Union’s space agency and served as the science adviser to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. “This new reform will put research institutes in an even more difficult position. It would put them under a bureaucracy of cronies and dilettantes.”

In the Soviet era, science thrived because the state gave it top priority, said Sagdeev, 81, who emigrated more than 20 years ago.

“The social ranking of scientists within that regime was quite high,” he said. Now “the social status is much lower than a taxi driver in Moscow, or even a janitor, in terms of salary. It’s particularly true for young scientists.”

Overhauling the academy is necessary to improve the quality of science in Russia, said Andrey Fursenko, a former education and science minister and now an adviser to Putin. “We have a lot of unrealized potential,” he said. “This is going to be a consistent, serious and strategic reform.”

In 1997, Russian scholars published about 32,000 journal articles ― comparable with their Chinese peers ― according to Scopus, a citation database owned by Reed Elsevier Plc.

By 2012, China had increased its output to 386,152 articles, making it second in the world behind the U.S., with 527,549, while Russia published only 38,102.

The Russian Academy of Sciences has 511 full members, who are elected for life based on the strength of their research, and an additional 750 correspondent members. The academy, which receives about $2 billion from the government annually, oversees the work of 450 research institutes across the country. They employ 50,000 scientists, among them Nelyubina. Those institutes will now be among 1,007 units under the newly formed Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations.

Putin’s overhaul merges the academy of sciences with the medical and agricultural academies. It also transfers control of its real estate, including prime properties in downtown Moscow, to the new state agency headed by a former deputy finance minister.

The plan follows the academy’s spurning of Mikhail Kovalchuk, a physicist and Putin associate, said Mikhail Gelfand, a biologist in Moscow and deputy director of the Institute for Information Transmission Problems at the academy. (Bloomberg)