ESOF 2010: The view of a young Russian journalist

This June, I found out that I was going to ESOF 2010 – I was lucky to get a EuroScience travel grant as a young science journalist. I was eager to attend this forum, because I felt it was a great example of science communication, as well as an interesting event aimed at young people to further inspire them with science. Inspiring young people with science is exactly what I am trying to do in the science section of my newspaper (which is a general interest publication aimed at young people), Akzia.

The very first session I attended at ESOF in Turin was the Career programme opening session at which the Portuguese Minister of Science, Technology and Higher Education, Mariano Gago, talked about the future of science in Europe. He was very pessimistic, saying that there were not enough students in Europe, the students were not motivated enough to stay in science, the political constituency and political ideology were not supportive of science and technology, and the European economy was not strong enough to finance research.

I was surprised to hear this assessment, and I immediately thought about Russia. Of course, things are much worse in Russia than in Europe, and it was interesting to look at it from such a different perspective…

We have a lot of students in Russia, but the quality of higher education is generally low, especially in social sciences and the humanities. Young people don’t want to go into science: since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the prestige of the scientific profession has fallen and still hasn’t fully recovered. Even today, researchers earn very low salaries, and young people often prefer to use their knowledge in spheres other than science, working in big companies and moving away from the field in which they received their education. Those who choose to go into science anyway usually aspire to go abroad – Europe being a very favorable destination.

Now, speaking about political ideology, the situation in Russia is also much worse than in Europe. Putting aside the fact that there is no political pluralism and there aren’t enough parties to choose from, even those parties that do exist don’t put science on top of their agenda, and often don’t mention it at all. Although it should be said that the ruling party, “United Russia”, has recently started to talk about modernisation, proclaiming that Russia should build an innovation economy as soon as possible. They have decided to create a Russian “Silicon Valley” (“Skol­kovo”), they are trying to bring Russian scientists who moved to other countries back home, and they are taking some steps to involve young people in innovation activities.

Unfortunately, many of these endeavours seem not to be effective enough: good intentions and great plans drown in the morass of bureaucracy, bad implementation, and the lack of real understanding of the goals by the officials. One illustration of this might be seen here: the Russian Minister of Education and Science, Andrey Fur­senko, considers it to be OK to walk around in a sweatshirt with the words “Russian bikers. God is with us” written on it. I can hardly imagine Minister Gago doing something like this, so I guess political ideology is much more straightforwardly inclined towards science in Europe than in Russia.

As for the economy, it goes without saying that the European economy is stronger than the Russian one. Today, Russia spends only 0.3 – 0.4% of its GDP on science, while in Europe it is almost 2%. Of course, there is always space to grow: in the US it’s 2.5%, and in Japan it’s over 3%…

While I was thinking all this, Mariano Gago was finishing his speech with a plea: “Scientists should unite and act to save science in Europe”. I was wondering what one can do to save science in Russia.

Obviously, Russian scientists may need to act and unite, too – and not only with themselves, but together with the European researchers. In this respect, I was especially glad to see two young Russian scientists from Saint Petersburg – Ivan Sudakov and Dubrava Kirievskaya – among the EuroScience grantees at ESOF 2010. I’ve just agreed to have an interview with them soon for my newspaper – to find out their views on research, life, and – the future of science in Europe and Russia.

And as for Mariano Gago’s speech, I was trying to look at things from his perspective for the rest of the Forum. But in vain: usually, I only saw how different things were in my own country.

(To be continued.)

Karina Nazaretyan
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