Friday, October 2, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russian Scholars Working Abroad Call on Medvedev to Save Basic Science in Russia

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 2 – More than 40 senior Russian scientists working in leading universities and research enters in Europe and the United States are calling on President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to take immediate steps to prevent the collapse of basic science in the Russian Federation.
Their open letter, published first on an English scholarly site and today in “Vedomosti” and other Russian news outlets, says that they consider it their “responsibility to call the attention” of Russia’s leaders “to the catastrophic situation of basic science in Russia” at the present time (
“The level of financing of Russian science,” they write, is now significantly lower than in other “developed countries,” and this disparity has led not only to “a massive outflow of scholars abroad” but also to the collapse of the “powerful scientific-technical base” created in Soviet times that “in the final analysis guaranteed the independence of Russia.”
The scholars add that “the continuing coming apart of this fabric will lead in the near future to the complete breakdown between the generations of scientific workers, the disappearance of world-class science in Russia, and the loss of knowledge in catastrophic proportions.”
The authors of this open letter point to four especially “sharp” problems of basic science and science education: the lag of Russian science compared to international levels, the lack of strategic planning in basic science, “the inadequacy of financing” of scientists and “a sharp fall in the prestige of the science professions, and “a serious decline in standards” in teaching.
These problems, the Russian scientists working abroad, require the immediate attention of the government and scholarly community and the adoption of a long-term program to stabilize the situation and ultimately promote the development of basic science and natural scientific education in Russia.”
Specifically, the letter calls for the following: first, an increase in financing of basic science; second, the identification and support of “the most important directions of scientific and technical progress;” third, an active effort to get international support for “world-class” scientific projects in Russia.
Fourth, it calls for ensuring “the absolute transparency of financial flows” in funding for all scientific work; fifth, “a significant improvement of the integration of Russian science into world science;” sixth, the introduction of international standards of evaluation of scientific work in Russia; and seventh, the establishment of an institute of advanced study on Russian soil.
In making their case for immediate action, the authors of this letter stress that “they are not connected to any political or corporative interests in the Russian Federation” but rather are “led by a single unifying feeling of deep concern about the fate of Russia” and of Russian basic science.
The problems the authors of this open letter point to, the solutions they suggest, and their own earlier decisions to work not in their homeland but rather in leading academic and research centers abroad highlight the problems of Russian science and especially the failure of Moscow to make the necessary investment in the infrastructure as it inherited from Soviet times.
In commenting on the open letter, Anatoly Vershik, a professor at St. Petersburg State University and a leading scholar at the St. Petersburg Division of the Academy of Sciences Mathematics Institute, said he shared their concerns and their fears that Russian science is in a terrible state (
Scholars should feel free to travel back and forth, he said; that is “the norm for any civilized country.” But problems arise for a country when its scholars leave primarily because they conclude they have no future there and then do not return and when a country is not able to attract scientists from other countries to work in its institutions.
At present, as list of authors of the open letter shows, many Russian scientists have decided to remain abroad even though they maintain ties with their homeland, but Vershik pointed to two other aspects of this situation which may have the effect of making Russia’s scientific situation even worse and even more quickly than the authors of the letter suggest.
On the one hand, Russian officials are increasingly making it difficult for Russian scholars to travel abroad for work or to combine work in a foreign institution with work in a Russian one, thus undermining the very cooperative relationships on which the development of science is based.
And on the other, Vershik pointed out, the Russian government is doing little to make Russia an attractive place for foreign scholars to work – “shamefully” there is no Russian equivalent of the Institute for Advanced Study – and even working hard to limit the number of foreign scholars who want to come by imposing ever tighter visa restrictions.
Many in Russia have been focusing on Moscow’s failure over the last decade to invest in physical infrastructure – Moscow now builds fewer kilometers of roads each year than China does every ten days – but the regime’s failure to invest in basic science, including in areas where the Soviet system had a lead, seems certain to cast an even darker shadow on Russia’s future.

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