Russian scientists fleeing stagnant state

22:02, Jan 20 2014

Yulia Nelyubina is an internationally recognised chemist at the Russian Academy of Sciences. An overhaul of the academy pushed through by President Vladimir Putin may leave her homeless and further damage the country's already bruised science establishment.

The changes mean the academy will lose control of billions of dollars worth of real estate, which may cost Nelyubina her one-bedroom, rent-free apartment in a Moscow suburb. The perk, a vestige of the Soviet era, allows her and her scientist husband to get by even on the academy's average salary of 38,000 rubles (NZ$1,367) a month, the same as Russia's prison guards.

"I'm worried that they could just cancel my housing contract and I'd end up on the street," said Nelyubina, 27, who studies molecular interactions in crystals and last year won a L'Oreal-UNESCO "Women in Science" fellowship. "With our salaries, we can't take a mortgage or buy an apartment. Young scientists may be forced to choose between leaving science and staying in Russia or leaving Russia and keep being scientists."

While top scientists in the Soviet Union were respected and given city-center housing and even a dacha in the countryside, Russian researchers today are poorly paid and leaving for jobs in the West.

The departure of young talent that started as the country opened up two decades ago may worsen with Putin's overhaul, which took effect January 1. It imposes new oversight, dilutes the academy's membership and seizes its property. Critics say the decline of the academy, a scientific powerhouse during the Soviet era, will now accelerate, stifling innovation and increasing the country's dependence on raw materials.

"I would expect a much bigger exodus of young scientists from Russia," said Roald Sagdeev, a physicist at the University of Maryland who headed the Soviet Union's space agency and served as the science adviser to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. "This new reform will put research institutes in an even more difficult position. It would put them under a bureaucracy of cronies and dilettantes."


In the Soviet era, science thrived because the state gave it top priority, said Sagdeev, 81, who emigrated more than 20 years ago.

"The social ranking of scientists within that regime was quite high," he said. Now "the social status is much lower than a taxi driver in Moscow, or even a janitor, in terms of salary. It's particularly true for young scientists."

Overhauling the academy is necessary to improve the quality of science in Russia, said Andrey Fursenko, a former education and science minister and now an adviser to Putin.

"We have a lot of unrealised potential," he said. "This is going to be a consistent, serious and strategic reform."

In 1997, Russian scholars published about 32,000 journal articles — comparable with their Chinese peers — according to Scopus, a citation database owned by Reed Elsevier. By 2012, China had increased its output to 386,152 articles, making it second in the world behind the United States, with 527,549, while Russia published only 38,102.

The Russian Academy of Sciences has 511 full members, who are elected for life based on the strength of their research, and an additional 750 correspondent members. The academy, which receives about NZ$2.4 billion from the government annually, oversees the work of 450 research institutes across the country. They employ 50,000 scientists, among them Nelyubina. Those institutes will now be among 1007 units under the newly formed Federal Agency for Scientific Organisations.

Putin's overhaul merges the academy of sciences with the medical and agricultural academies. It also transfers control of its real estate, including prime properties in downtown Moscow, to the new state agency headed by a former deputy finance minister.

The plan follows the academy's spurning of Mikhail Kovalchuk, a physicist and Putin associate, said Mikhail Gelfand, a biologist in Moscow and deputy director of the Institute for Information Transmission Problems at the academy.

Kovalchuk runs the Kurchatov Institute, a nuclear-science center, and according to the academy's bylaws, membership is reserved for scientists who have made groundbreaking discoveries, rather than administrators. Kovalchuk's brother Yury is a billionaire businessman who is close to Putin.

In 2008, Kovalchuk's bid to be elected a full member of the academy was rejected. In May, he failed to win re-election as head of the academy's Institute of Crystallography. Soon after, the lower house of parliament approved Putin's shakeup.

Kovalchuk's office didn't respond to emailed and phone requests for comment. A Putin spokesman declined to comment.

Vladimir Fortov, the academy's director, said that "the situation is a lot more complicated" than just retaliation for the Kovalchuk rebuffs.

Science in Russia has stagnated, partly because its economy is dominated by state-run oil and gas companies, which don't need to innovate to succeed, according to Sergei Guriev, an economist and critic of Putin.

"The economy isn't providing demand for the new generation of scientists," Guriev said. "Real innovation and real scientific research only prosper when there is competition, especially international competition."

State-controlled companies such as Rosneft, the world's largest publicly traded oil producer by output, account for more than 50 per cent of the Russian economy, up from 38 per cent in 2006, according to BNP Paribas SA's Moscow unit.

Russia, the world's biggest energy exporter, is becoming increasingly dependent on commodities and isn't prepared when oil output begins to fall in 20 years, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development said in December 2012. Oil and natural gas account for almost 70 percent of exports compared with less than half in the mid-1990s, according to the EBRD.

Russia, which put the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit in 1961, has also stumbled in space exploration. It fired the head of its space agency in October for the second time in two- and-a-half years after a series of botched launches. In 2011, it failed to launch a NZ$197m probe to Mars and lost its most powerful telecommunications satellite and a cargo-supply ship destined for the International Space Station.

Efforts to boost scientific innovation and wean Russia's economy from fossil fuels have been plagued by political infighting and charges of corruption. In 2009, then-President Dmitry Medvedev founded the 85 billion-ruble (NZ$3 billion) Skolkovo Innovation Center, a research campus outside Moscow.

After replacing Medvedev as president in 2012, Putin vetoed legislation that would have granted Skolkovo exemptions from red tape and overturned a Medvedev order that state-owned companies contribute to the endowment of a new university at the center.

Police raided the Moscow offices of the Skolkovo Foundation in April as part of a corruption probe. Two criminal cases against Skolkovo executives have been opened.

The government has also awarded grants to foreign scientists, expecting them to work at Russian institutions four months a year. Nobel Prize-winning Yale University biologist Sidney Altman received a grant worth about 90 million rubles (NZ$3.2m) over three years at the Institute of Chemical Biology and Fundamental Medicine, an academy institute in Novosibirsk.

Altman said he has yet to visit Novosibirsk, in Siberia, and doesn't intend to spend much time there. He applied for the grant at the request of Russian colleagues, who prepared his submission and are leveraging his name to attract badly needed resources, he said.

Sofya Kasatkaya, a master's student in immunology at Moscow State University, said she'll leave for Germany or elsewhere in Europe after earning her Ph.D. While she's pleased with the quality of instruction at the Moscow institute where she plans to pursue her doctorate, her pay and working conditions will be better abroad, she said.

"Russia doesn't give people any other choice," said Kasatkaya, 21.

The Russian Academy of Sciences was founded in 1724 by Tsar Peter the Great. Russians affiliated with the academy include Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a pioneer in rocketry and space science; Alexander Prokhorov, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work with lasers in 1964; and Andrei Sakharov, a physicist and dissident who later won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Fortov, the academy's director, said the changes will reduce the effectiveness of the academy's research.

"I see my role at this time to do everything I can to limit the damage to science in Russia," he said. "We have to salvage what can be salvaged."

The academy needs to adapt to reflect the changing priorities of Russia, from the study of physics that dominated in the Soviet era, to life sciences and food engineering, said Fursenko, Putin's science adviser. Imposing the overhaul became necessary after the academy refused to change itself, he said.

"All attempts to engage the Academy of Science in a process of reorganisation failed," Fursenko said. "During all my time as minister, I didn't once manage to get concrete proposals for reform from the academy."

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the academy missed an opportunity to remake itself into a modern institution, said Harley Balzer, who studies Russian education and social history at Georgetown University in Washington.

Instead, bright young researchers left the country, leaving behind older scientists with few incentives to innovate, Balzer said. Advancement historically was based on publication in academy journals instead of international, peer-reviewed publications and grants aren't awarded competitively, he said.

"The academy brought this on themselves," Balzer said. "I can't imagine any modern academic society employing tens of thousands of people without any serious accountability for what they do."

Anna Kropivnitskaya, 33, typifies Russia's brain drain. A post-doctorate researcher at the University of Florida, she works at the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva. When she worked at the Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics in Moscow, she earned between 300 and 400 euros (NZ$650 and NZ$900) a month. Now she makes 10 times that.

"If I stayed in Russia, I couldn't work in physics," she said. "I had to emigrate."