Young Russian scientists rally against bureaucracy

October 13, 2011

Frustrated by a bureaucracy that they say makes research here almost impossible, several hundred scientists staged a protest Thursday and demanded more control over their work.

“We need to liberate our scientists,” said Alexander Zinoviev, a physicist at the Ioffe Institute in St. Petersburg.

“Don’t push us from our country!” the mostly young crowd chanted while a cold rain washed over Pushkin Square.

The protesters were not asking for more money (for the most part) but more discretion over how they can spend what they get now. Russian budget figures show a fivefold increase in spending for science over the past decade, but with that have come rules that make purchasing of even the most basic equipment a nightmare. And while overall spending has gone up, a fund that dispenses the grants that are a lifeline to many researchers has seen its share of budget money halved.

As a consequence, the number of published papers by Russian scientists — a standard measure of productivity — has been virtually stagnant over the past 10 years. “They’re pouring in money, and basically getting no result,” said Mikhail Gelfand, a biologist at the Research and Training Center on Bioinfomatics in Moscow. “There are huge funds that are basically wasted.”

And scientists — especially young ones — continue to seek opportunities at institutions abroad, which tend to pick the brightest minds. “It’s very difficult for them,” said Anton Konushin, a computer scientist at Moscow State University and one of the organizers of the rally. As brilliant young researchers hit their prime years, he and others said, they are stifled by bureaucratic delay, rampant cronyism and a strong reluctance among older scientists to retire and make way for them because pensions are so small.

They can get more done in the United States, Konushin said, and get a better salary at the same time.

Zinoviev said it took him two months to buy a new computer because of the onerous tender process. But the hardest-hit specialties are chemistry and, especially, biology. Scientists complain, for instance, that they can buy only generic reagents, rather than specify those from a firm that they know to be of good quality. Biologists can’t import cell lines or mice or any other living things, because they will die while held up in customs.

“It makes doing experimental research essentially impossible,” Gelfand said.

Most of the problems, said Georgy Bazykin, a colleague of Gelfand’s, arise not out of evil or mendacity, but out of stupidity.

Russian science is riven by deep feuds, as the old Soviet infrastructure contends with pressure from above — from the government, that is — and from below, among scientists with a more independent bent.

“Lots of people here can’t stand each other,” Gelfand said as he addressed the crowd. “But we’ve come together today.”

The organizers said they hope that with parliamentary elections coming in December they might for once get a hearing.

“This is some kind of absurd situation,” Konushin said. “We just want to draw attention to something that should be done — and fast.”

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