Russian science oscillating between progress and backlash

Last year, Russia’s president Putin took away all the assets of the Russian Academy of Science (RAS). Putin has also created a sort of Mega-Academy, merging the academies of Sciences, Agricultural Sciences and Medical Sciences. However, its control was not bestowed upon the forward thinking chairman of the RAS, Vladimir Fortov. Instead, it was attributed to one of Putin’s finance manager, creating fierce controversy in the country and abroad.

These events have come to disrupt parallel attempts to put Russian science back on the world map. For example, through initiatives such as the creation of a Russian Silicon Valley and the support of a mega-grant programme to reverse the brain drain. Meanwhile, some initiatives in key areas of research such as nuclear physics and space engineering are forging ahead, despite some the difficulties associated with the new science deal in Russia.

Changes on the Russian science scene

To understand the current context of Russian science, it is worth looking back in time. When Stalin was in power, someone returning from the USA at the time, showed him a picture of the skyscrapers in Chicago. Stalin liked them so much that he pointed at the pictures, saying: “I want some of these in Moscow!” Whether this urban legend is true or not, what are known as the “Seven Sisters”—the seven characteristic soviet skyscrapers on the Moscow skyline, one of which is the Lomonosov Moscow State University—are no longer the only features giving some American flavour to the city.

Indeed, Moscow has undergone a lot of changes since my last visit about 24 years ago. The buildings from the 1950s—nowadays considered as ‘noble buildings’—have been cleaned up and their ornaments are now lit. Combined together the type of colours, the sizes, the expensive cars and the dense traffic found on campus, they all give somewhat of an America flavour to the place. Next to the old communist block of flats, giant buildings of a minimum of 20 floors are emerging at an unbelievable pace. Malls and advertisements are now everywhere too.

Three years ago emerged at the same rapid pace what is dubbed the Russian Silicon Valley, on the outskirts of Moscow. The promoters of this project dreamed of having high-tech start-up companies, an English university and research institutes in collaboration with MIT in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. This project is located in the town of Skolkovo, south of Moscow. It was intended to present the country’s innovation renaissance as the ‘spiritual child’ of former president Dmitry Medvedev.

However, out of all the 400-hectare of futuristic buildings, only a few have been built. President Putin seems to be less interested about the plan than his predecessor. And there are more and more controversial news regarding of the project recently. An inspection showed that the project was affected by corruption. And even the chairman of the Scientific Council of the Ministry of Culture, Aleksei Hohlov, described the situation of the project as extremely chaotic.

Missing generation

And this is not the only opaque issue in the backyard of Russian science. There is a consensus among people I met during my visit at the Lomonosov Moscow State University and at various research institutes that an entire generation of scientists is missing to have sustainable supply of researchers in carry Russian science forward. Between the time of the Perestroika and the end of the 1990’s, many Russian scientists and engineers went to the West. Nowadays, North-American and Western-European institutes are full of these talented Russian researchers in their forties and fifties; they are typically experts in mathematics, particle physics or space engineering.

However, in the last decade, a strong recovery has started. The best Russian universities are placed around the top 30 in the world. Nevertheless, in technical and scientific areas, they remain placed within the top 100.

Two years ago, Putin has promised, during his election campaign, to deliver universities recognised on the world stage by 2020. However, this requires money. The investment in research and development is at 1.27% of GDP. This compares with an EU average of 2.06% in 2012, and 3% in the more research-intensive EU countries. Today, in the Western model, a significant proportion of this investment comes from industry and not from the government.

Another initiative to re-establish Russian science on the world stage, was the creation of a new program called Mega-grant. It was launched two years ago to reverse the brain drain. Under this program, researchers from all over the world can receive up to $5 million to set up a laboratory and a research team, if they spend at least four months of the year in Russia, for two years. The program has attracted mainly Russian scientists working abroad. But it has also benefited some researchers from Germany, USA, France and Holland.

Controversial RAS reform

Two things have, however, disturbed these positive changes. First, Putin’s regulations that took away all the assets of the Russian Academy of Sciences, founded by Peter the Great, together with all its academic property and research institutes. They were entrusted to a newly created government agency, called the Federal Agency for Scientific Organisations (FASO).

In addition, Putin merged the Academies of Sciences, Agricultural Sciences and Medical Sciences into a Mega-Academy. Despite Putin’s earlier promises, the leadership of this new academy was not attributed to the head of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vladimir Fortov, who was elected last year, but to a financial manager instead. The outcry against this move was massive both at home and abroad. As a result the process was temporarily suspended in December 2013.

This reform was undoubtedly necessary, according to Aleksei Hohlov, who is also an academician and vice-rector of the Lomonosov Moscow State University. He explains the move as an attempt to modernise what had become a stagnant, rigid structure. As a result, all the research institutes are now under direct State control. And the Academy itself has become a public body. At the end of negotiations between the academies and the government, it was agreed that the professional decisions related to science will be made by a scientific council, which has not been set up yet. And because a financial bureaucrat is now in charge, at least payments arrive on time now, noted Hohlov, ironically. But the director of the Vavilov Institute of Genetics, Nick Jankovsky, admitted that since then all developments and major decisions related to research have been suspended or postponed.

Meanwhile, the government has puts so-called managers at the heads of Universities. The trouble, according to Hohlov, is that these people do not really have managerial skills. Rather, they are government bureaucrats. The Moscow and St. Petersburg universities enjoy, of course, a special status. And they have not been hugely affected, Hohlov added, even though no one can foresee the future.

Indeed, the planned developments of the Lomonosov Moscow State University have not been stopped. Every year, hundreds of thousands of square meters of new buildings are emerging within a two-hundred-acres area. For example, the development of a new supercomputer, called the Lomonosov machine, which will be seventeen times more powerful than existing ones, is going ahead. It will become the most powerful supercomputer in Eastern Europe.

In addition, a new satellite, developed at the University and named after Lomonosov, who is a Great Russian chemist, will be launched in 2018 from the new spaceport located in the Amur-region, called the Eastern Cosmodrome. This new location is designed to reduce the dependency of Russia on the spaceport of Baikonur, located in Kazakhstan, which has become too costly to Russia.

International cooperation overshadowed

Russian science, which is hungry for international—and particularly Western collaborations—is also threatened by the Ukrainian conflict. After the annexation of Crimea, the terrorism- and disaster-relief cooperation within NATO was stopped. This programmed aimed, among others, at developing technical detection of hidden bombs placed in major transport nodes.

Meanwhile, NASA has suspended all relations with the Russian Space Agency, the Roskosmos, except concerning the work on the International Space Station. This is mainly because there are Russian cosmonauts on the ISS. And the Soyuz spacecraft is used for replacing ISS crews. In response to the action of NASA, the Russian government threatened to withdraw its crew from the ISS from May 2020. But, during my visit, they just confirmed a $8.2 (€6.5) billion contribution to further the development of the ISS.

As for other scientific collaborations, it is business as usual. Lomonosov Moscow State (LMS) University recently organised both a nanotechnology and a space conference. In the first one, the American delegation was the second-largest, says Viktor Szadovnichi, rector of the LMS University. Meanwhile, Lev Zeleny, director of the Space Research Institute of the RAS, also reported that he recently met the deputy head of NASA and they discussed further joint programs.

Moreover, the Russian space program is now concentrating on the moon. The Space Research Institute’s current work is focusing on lunar polar region to perform frozen water mapping. Its scientists are intending to send a moon-walker to gather soil samples. By 2020, they are planning to bring these samples back with another spacecraft. And ten years later, they aim to bring people to the moon. They are working together with the European Space Agency on this project. And there is no break in their relationship at the moment.

Politics-free scientific collaboration

 Another place of interest in Russian research is the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, in Dubna, a town on the Volga river. Located about a hundred twenty kilometres from Moscow, the institute was established in 1956 and has 18 member states and six associate members. It was once the Eastern competitor of the European particle physics laboratory, CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. Its director, Victor Matveev, received the good news in September 2014, that his institute has just been granted the long-awaited observer status from CERN.

Scientists at the Dubna Institute are ageing. Young people are all going to Moscow. Yet, the science centre, which is also controlled by people around their seventies, is preparing for the future. Thanks to a large international collaboration and half-a-billion dollars (€400K), funded mostly by the Russian government, they are planning to build in a high-energy heavy-ion accelerator. The team is planning to complete its superconducting ring in two years. And they hope to have the linear particle accelerator and a detector along with the entire unit up and running by 2019. This centre is hosting Europe’s largest helium-liquefier with more than a thousand litres per hour capacity and they also plan to double its performance.

This research institute is an example of a tension-free and political-free cooperation. There, researchers from Azerbaijan and Armenia work together. It also employs Georgian scientists, even though Russia does not currently have diplomatic relations with their country. This year, the membership fee was waived for Ukraine as well, in order to ease the situation Ukrainian physicists working in Dubna. Despite of such move, the conflict with Ukraine continues to divide people in Russia, even in scientific circle.

When it comes to science, Russia is far from being a sleeping giant. The country definitely has an active research scene, even thought it has several thorns on its side. These include the strengthening State control, the missing generation of researchers and, more recently, its exposure to weakening international relations due to geopolitical issues. Hopefully, this will not hamper further international collaboration as Russian science needs partners and the World also needs the Russian grey matter.

István Palugyai

István is the science editor of the Hungarian daily broadsheet Népszabadság Rt and a member of the Editorial Board of EuroScientist and a member of the board of EuroScience.

This article is adapted from an original article published on the 11th October 2014 in Népszabadság Rt, and has been translated from Hungarian by Kitti Martina.

Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Anya Andreyeva

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