Friday, May 7, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Russian Scholars Call on Medvedev to Block New Wave of ‘Lysenkoism’

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 7 – A group of Russian scholars working both in that country and abroad have called on President Dmitry Medvedev to come to the defense of scientific research against the demands of politicians and businessmen who in some cases have been promoting “scientific charlatanism” and even a new wave of “’Lysenkoism.’”
In an open letter to Medvedev and to Yuri Osipov, the head of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the letter, which has attracted nearly 40 signatures so far, says that “a situation has arisen at present in Russia in which the importance of science and education is not understood by the majority of the population and even by a significant portion of government employees.”
This ignorance of what science is about, the authors say, “has led to the flowering, in fact financed by the government of scientific charlatanism, ‘Lysenkoism,’ the conduct of pseudo-scientific conferences and the appearance of an enormous number of ‘innovation’ projects and ‘inventions,’” that specialists have serious doubts about and that have generated criticism abroad.
(The letter itself is available at Those who want to add their signatures to it are encouraged to email For a discussion in the Russian media of this letter, see among others, the article published online today at
In recent months, the authors note, “there has been aggressive pressure on the Russian Academy of Sciences from the side of a number of politician figures and there have been calls to liquidate the Academy’s Commission on the Struggle with Pseudo-Science and of Falsification of Scientific Research. We consider the situation that has arisen to be critical.”
If such safeguards are eliminated or overridden, their appeal continues, then the government and people of Russia risk wasting enormous sums on scientifically problematic and even harmful programs much like the notorious Lysenko projects of Soviet times. Consequently, the authors of the appeal say, they feel compelled to bring this to the attention of the president.
Judging from the text of the appeal, the proximate cause behind this effort is Moscow’s new “Pure Water” Project, an effort that the signatories suggest entails steps which will harm the health of Russian citizens. At present, they argue, the Academy’s Commission on the Struggle with Pseudo-Science is almost the only body standing in the way of this project.
Appeals like this one reflect growing concerns inside the Russian scholarly community that the older system of reviewing projects is breaking down and that individuals and groups which stand to profit from exploiting state efforts at “modernization” are winning out over pure and applied peer-reviewed science.
And such appeals are also an indication of something else: the way in which Russian scholars working in the Russian Federation and those working abroad are able to use the Internet not only to cooperate in their scientific work but also to form their own lobby to protect and promote science.
Consequently, even if this appeal falls short – and the forces that these scientists are up against are very large and very powerful – it is likely to serve as a model for others in the future, something that could help promote the genuine modernization that President Medvedev says he wants rather than the project-style approach that other leaders in Moscow seem committed to.

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