Russia Seeks More Control At Academy Of Sciences

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 13, 2007

MOSCOW -- The historic autonomy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which has pioneered fundamental research in Russia since its founding by Peter the Great three centuries ago, is under threat from government proposals to bring the institution under much tighter state control and end its academic freedom, according to academy members.

"This is really a war," Alexander Nekipelov, vice president of the academy, said in an interview at the institution's august administrative headquarters, a czarist palace on Moscow's Leninsky Prospekt. "I am sure we are going to win it, but of course we cannot help being worried by the situation."

Members of the academy, which in 1980 defied Soviet demands that it expel dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, view the plan as part of a broader trend of increased official control over key parts of Russian society. They contend that the effort is also driven, in part, by bureaucrats who are greedily eyeing the organization's rich portfolio of property, which includes prime real estate in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

"In this scheme, academic work becomes subservient to government," said Sergey Rogov, director of the Institute for the U.S. and Canadian Studies, a wing of the academy. "The entire infrastructure of research will be destroyed." Under the government's plan, his organization and other foreign policy think tanks might come under the control of the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Government officials describe their efforts to give the academy a new basic charter as necessary to inject some efficiency into an academic cocoon run by an aging club of researchers too removed from the modern economy. "The new charter should create a competitive environment, and it should cover new mechanisms of state and public control over the academy," Dmitry Livanov, a deputy minister at the Ministry of Education and Science, said in a telephone interview.

Some independent analysts agree that the academy has let itself slide into lethargy in recent years. Older members, they say, tend to cling to posts as sinecures; many younger ones have gone abroad in search of better pay and opportunities. The organization has often been slow to commercialize its scientific discoveries.

"The academy needs reform," said Alexander Shatilov, deputy director of the Center for Current Politics in Russia. "The question is whether it needs the kind of reform the government wants."

The issue will come to a head this month at the academy's annual general assembly, when its 1,250 full and corresponding members vote on a new charter. The document they have drawn up incorporates few of the elements demanded by the government.

The government has not said how it will respond if, as seems likely, academy members reject its demands. Members, however, appear to be relying on the belief that in an election year, political leaders will not want an open conflict with prominent members of the country's intellectual community, who still command a great deal of respect here.

The academy's senior members oversee a $1.2 billion budget, 400 research institutes and 200,000 researchers and staff members across Russia. The institution is self-governing. The funding of research, as well as personnel matters -- from who becomes a researcher to who enjoys the prestigious title of full membership, "academician" -- is determined by secret ballot.

The dispute grows from legislation that parliament passed last year setting new standards for state academies and requiring them to enact new charters reflecting the changes. The law also applies to academies of medicine, agricultural science, education, arts and architecture, and construction.

Among other changes, the president of the science academy, now elected by its members, would have to be approved by Russia's president.

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