A fix for Russian science isn’t taking hold

December 21, 2011

For the past decade, Russia has been pouring money into scientific research, trying to make up for the collapse of the 1990s, but innovation is losing out to exhaustion, corruption and cronyism.

In a rut and out of favor, the labs are barely wheezing here at Pushchino, once one of the brimming engines of Soviet science, a special closed city devoted to prestigious biological research. The government has turned its focus to newer ventures.

But the result has been like a great deal else in this country: expensive, flashy and largely hollow. Shot through with back-scratching and favoritism, the government’s science program has tripled its spending in the past 10 years — and achieved very little. The number of papers published in scientific journals is the same as it was in 2000 and as it was in 1990, even while the rest of the world’s output has exploded.

The impact could extend even to the United States, which depends on Russian rockets, troubled by engineering failures, to carry astronauts to the international space station.

Twenty years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, a generation of scientists has been lost, young scientists say, and another is on the way out. Many are lining up to escape abroad, just as in the dark, poverty-stricken 1990s.

Science had prestige and plenty of support in the U.S.S.R. The Soviets wielded a formidable nuclear arsenal, put the first satellite into space, then the first man into space. Dedicated biologists nurtured what may have been the world’s foremost seed bank, ensuring its survival even through the 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad. Nine Nobel Prizes for physics and one for chemistry acknowledged Soviet achievements.

Pushchino, founded in 1966 in a woodsy spot along the Oka River, about 75 miles south of Moscow, was one of several dozen special science cities built across the Soviet Union, owned and governed by the Soviet Academy of Sciences. With more than a million workers nationwide in its heyday, the self-governing academy — rather than the universities — ran the institutes that conducted research, many in special-purpose cities like this one. The academy dispensed apartments, ran hospitals, paid for nurseries — all to coddle its star scientists.

Today its Russian successor, exhausted and bedraggled as it is, still runs these cities. The academy remains a giant and sprawling organization, and employs the majority of Russian researchers even now. To visit Pushchino today is to visit a tattered remnant of the Soviet way of life.

‘Why am I doing all this?’

Twenty years after the Soviet breakup, the academy is described by its legions of critics as an ossified, geriatric organization, hidebound and hierarchical. Labs are ill-equipped, and pay is skeletal. At the Institute of Biochemistry and Physiology of Microorganisms here, 70 percent of the researchers are older than 50. The director is 73. He makes about $800 a month.

“In 20 years,” says Natalia Desherevskaya, a biologist at the institute, “all the positive things that existed in Soviet times have been destroyed, and replaced by nothing.”

At 37, Desherevskaya is torn between her desire to leave Russia and the inertia, family issues and, as she admits, diminishing ambition that keep her here. Her eyes light up when she talks about her research. But the conditions of her work, and the inflexible authority of the academy’s top ranks, leave her fuming. “Why am I doing all this, just to hit my head against the door yet again?” she asks herself.

Strolling along the town’s broad boulevards of classic 1960s Soviet urban design, she mentions
that more than half her univer­­-
sity classmates from Nizhny Novgorod are now living abroad. Here in Pushchino, as throughout the country, the cohort of those in their most productive years, from 35 to 50, has emptied. Most have left science or left Russia.

Desherevskaya used to share a desk with a woman who’s now in Japan. Her best friend went to Australia. Another colleague works in Scotland.

Hopes for new Silicon Valley

Though under pressure from the government, the Academy of Sciences has been resolute in resisting reform. So the government has decided to work around it.

Under President Dmitry Medvedev’s direction, billions have been budgeted for a high-tech center called Skolkovo, an attempt to create a Russian Silicon Valley. The Kurchatov Institute, which developed the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons, is an independent center that is in great favor and has branched out into a whole variety of fields. Once the workplace of physicist-turned-dissident Andrei Sakharov, it is now run by the brother of one of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s closest cronies.

At the same time the Ministry of Education and Science is trying to create research centers at Russia’s universities, on the Western model — though the universities themselves are cumbersome, bureaucratic monoliths.

So far, the money hasn’t bought much prowess. In 1998, Russian scientists published about 27,000 articles in international journals; since then, the number has remained stagnant. That means that Russia’s share of global articles has dropped by 30 percent. (The head of the Kurchatov Institute, Mikhail Kovalchuk, scoffs at this, and says the answer is to start up more Russian journals to publish Russian research.)

In 1994, there were more than 1.1 million people working in research and development here. In 2008, the last year for which there are good figures, there were 761,000.

Russia has two universities among the top 500 worldwide, according to a ranking performed every year by a group at Shanghai Jiao Tong University; the United States has 156. Moscow State University, the leader here, has seen its overall ranking slip from 66th place to 74th between 2004 and 2010. In science, specifically, it has been on a decline compared with the rest of the world, dropping more than 10 places since 2007, even as the government has been trying to turn it into a leading research center.

Scientists wonder where all the money goes — though they have an idea.

In the 1990s, after the Soviet collapse, Russia set about building an open and honest system to support science. It created two grant-making foundations, similar to the National Science Foundation in the United States, and invited labs to submit applications.

Stagnation, corruption

But in the past decade, even as Russia rebounded financially, Putin and Medvedev’s government cut back support for those foundations. Instead, ministries prefer to publish notices describing the research they want done — research that typically seems tailored to certain favored labs.

Kovalchuk and Andrei Fursenko, the minister of education and science, portray themselves as forward-looking modernizers doing battle with the creaky Academy of Sciences. (U.S. Embassy cables released by WikiLeaks glowed with praise for the two men.) Yet the Kurchatov Institute, still strong in nuclear physics, publishes very little for all the new types of research it says it supports. And a significant portion of the ministry’s budget — it’s impossible to gauge just how much — goes not to scientists but to companies set up by ministry officials for marketing and promotion of science.

In a country that has seen corruption grow to staggering proportions, scientists complain that grant recipients can be expected to kick back a proportion of the money to the bureaucrat who awards the contract. “Russian science is a replica of the society,” says Alexander Samokhin, a physicist at the Institute of General Physics.

Russia, in effect, now has two competing scientific systems: the moribund academy living out its Soviet legacy on the one hand, and a new, rotten, post-Soviet culture on the other.

Viktor Veselago, 82, is a physicist who did his most important work in the 1960s (involving the negative refraction of light). A member of the Academy of Sciences, he still runs a lab today but a bare-bones one. “I have no young people because I have no money,” he says. “I have no money because I am a product of the Soviet scientific system. I am not a businessman. Business is beyond me.”

Anna Kvitkina is a 28-year-old soil scientist here in Pushchino. She and her colleagues need high rubber boots to do their work, but rubber boots are not included in the list of allowed purchases under the contract they received. Even if boots were allowed, it would take six months to receive them through the legal purchasing channels. Across Russia, scientists struggle in frustration against thickets of bureaucratic regulations to obtain test tubes, reagents, cell lines, pipettes, even light bulbs. Their only recourse, typically, is to cut corners and pray that no one notices. Kvitkina, who is about to enter her most productive years, will be going to Munich next spring on a fellowship; she hopes she can win a permanent position there.

At Moscow State University, the new crop of scientists trying to build a university-based research system includes biologist Sergei Dmitriev, 34. His work involves viruses and protein synthesis, and it’s supported in part by a special presidential grant for promising scientists. He’s a rising star — and also one of the organizers of a protest movement among his colleagues nationwide.

Most of his university friends have gone abroad or gone into business. The way money is spent — and wasted — perplexes him. “It’s just a criminal situation,” he says. The scientists who are best at winning grants seem to be those who are least able to do good science, he says. The government will spend 323 billion rubles — about $11 billion — on civilian science next year, he says, “but most of this money is unavailable for people who actually make science.”

The organized protests, including a public letter to Medvedev and a demonstration in Moscow in October, seem to be persuading the government to allow researchers more flexibility in spending, he says. But Dmitriev and his colleagues argue that a few showy projects can’t sustain a national culture of science.

A system crumbles

The recent run of engineering failures in Russia’s space program mirrors the weaknesses of Russian science. The United States has a direct stake in this, because, since the retirement of the U.S. shuttle, Russian rockets now carry American astronauts to the international space station, from a launchpad in Kazakhstan. So far, the manned program has avoided major problems, but the rest of the system has been falling apart.

Over two decades, bad pay, neglect and low prestige emptied out the technicians who would now be in their 40s and 50s. “The losses were tremendous,” says Igor Marinin, editor of the News of Cosmonautics. And the consequences were real.

In November, the Phobus-Grunt probe to one of the Martian moons launched but was unable to leave Earth’s orbit. In August, the Progress cargo spacecraft failed, as did a rocket carrying a communications satellite. A geodesic satellite launch failed in February, and a rocket that was to put in place three satellites of Russia’s geo-positioning system, called Glonass, crashed a year ago. Medvedev has called for possible criminal penalties.

Marinin says the manned program is the last bastion of quality control, although in September the chief engineer of the cosmonaut training center was charged in a corruption scheme. The gaps in the Russian space program will take years to restore, even as the government plans to double its spending by 2014.

At Pushchino, as in the space program, pockets of quality persist, and more than a few scientists display a dedication that their employers neither deserve nor especially notice.

Desherevskaya, the biologist, was entitled to a free apartment as a young researcher when she came to Pushchino in 1996. She had to wait so long that when one finally became available, she was no longer eligible because she was no longer a young scientist.

She says she has no plans to leave: “In some ways we don’t have any choice. Our lives are inside the system.”

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