Saturday, October 31, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russian Academy of Sciences Losing Staff to Foreign Institutions, Commercial Structures

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 31 – The Russian Academy of Sciences, long the intellectual center of the country, has been rapidly losing researchers to institutions abroad and to commercial structures in Russia itself that are in a position to pay far higher salaries than the academy and that do not involve some of the restrictions the government is now imposing.
Earlier this month, a group of Russian scholars who went abroad to pursue their careers wrote to the Russian leadership decrying what they described as “the impoverished position of fundamental science” in Russia. Now, 407 scholars at the institutions of the Russian Academy have added their voices to this lament (
If anything, those working in Russia are even gloomier about the future of basic science in that country than are those abroad. They warn that if the government does not increase funding over the next five to seven years, the best young people will not work in the Academy and Russia “will have to forget about plans for the construction of an innovation-based economy.”
Three of the signatories shared their concerns with “Novaya gazeta” journalist Irina Timofeyeva. Viktor Supyan, deputy director of the Academy’s Institute of the USA and Canada, said there is “no absolutely exact information about the extent of the real ‘brain drain’ from Russia,” but that the numbers likely range upwards of 200,000 over the last 20 years.
The main cause is the difference in pay. While salaries at the Russian Academy have risen from 60 to 100 US dollars a month in 2002 to 1,000 US dollars a month now, “in the United States, the average pay for a worker in science is 5,000 to 7,000 US dollars a month,” a gap many find hard to ignore.
Valery Kozlov, the Academy’s vice president and director of the Steklov Mathematics Institute, said that any discussion of the problem should focus on concrete situations. His institute, Kozlov continued, has 120 scholarly employees. “Over the last 15-20 years, 30 have left,” with 20 going abroad and 10 now working in commercial structures in Russia.
He suggested that these percentages were typical of the Academy of Sciences as a whole. But it is not just the overall figures that matter, he continued. The Academy has been losing people in their 40s and 50s, typically the most productive age groups in scientific work. And it also faces a problem in that older scholars refuse to retire because pensions are too low.
It may be, he said, that Russia will have to copy the approach of Ukraine, “where each worker in science and education who retires is given a pension equal to 80 percent of his monthly salary. Then [the Russian Academy’s] senior scholars will be more willing to leave the walls of the Academy and free up places for younger people.”
The Academy has had some success in attracting people to return, Kozlov continued, but many who are thinking about it complain about limited resources and bureaucratic arrangements which limit their activity. Although Kozlov did not mention it, government moves to limit international scholarly contacts may also play a role (
And finally, Boris Kyzuk, who heads the Academy’s Institute of Economic Strategies, underscored just how dire the economic situation of Russian science now is. “Expenditures on research in Russian science have contracted by a factor of five over the last 18 years and now are at the level of those in developing countries,” he said.
Indeed, as Irina Timofeyeva of “Novaya gazeta” pointed out, the annual budget of the Russian Academy of Sciences is now approximately the same as the annual budget of Harvard, admittedly the richest university in the United States but only one among many academic centers there.
But she added, while most senior scholars at the Academy view the problem as being about financing, younger scholars who have worked abroad point to “ineffective management by the upper reaches of the Russian Academy of Science and the bureaucratization of the scientific process” in Russia.
Money alone, she suggests, will not solve the Academy’s problems, although she expressed the hope that all its current difficulties will be resolved “if the Russian economy begins in fact and not only in words to move onto innovative paths,” something that a revived Academy would not only promote but benefit from.

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