Russia’s scientific community is in turmoil. This week has seen protests, tense Kremlin negotiations and even a police raid. President Vladimir Putin has warned scientists that they need to come up with “big, good, socially useful results” as part of a sweeping overhaul of the Russian Academy of Sciences, a centuries-old network including hundreds of research institutions, which many fear could spell the end of academic independence. Physicist Vladimir Fortov, acting head of the Academy as well as editor in chief of Scientific American’s Russian-language edition V Mire Nauki, has been leading the charge to minimize the impact of a controversial reform bill. In in early versions, the bill mentioned the word “liquidation” about the academy; the current version would see three unrelated academies merged into one state organization and all of the Academy’s assets (including 434 scholarly institutes) would be handed over to a newly created government agency headed by the academy.
Russia may have sent the first man to orbit, but two decades after the breakup of the Soviet Union, when many researchers emigrated in a “brain drain,” the scientific community is still struggling. As part of revitalization efforts, the government funded “mega-grants” to encourage researchers to return.
The Academy, founded by czar Peter the Great in 1724, is undoubtedly in need of reform. But many believe this bill is less about reform and more about what one academician called “corporate raiding.” There have been rallies, and threats of a nationwide strike. But Fortov’s negotiations with Putin, who has become personally involved in the controversial legislation, may be leading to a compromise. In amendments adopted Friday, several academies will merge without liquidating their governing bodies, and the Academy of Sciences—not bureaucrats—will continue to oversee their own scientific projects. But the budget and property, while overseen by the president of the Academy, would still be transferred to a new state agency, prompting fears of corruption. Speaking by phone from Moscow with Scientific American, Fortov discussed the tumultuous week.
It appears as if the Russian parliament on Friday is making some compromises to this controversial bill. Did your talks with Putin change the situation?
We had a very honest and very detailed discussion with President Putin about the proposed law. I conceded to his concerns, but told him that in our opinion this document would destroy the Russian Academy of Sciences. He listened and was highly concerned, and he’s been speaking with many Russian scientists and academic leaders. The results were some shifts in his position and in the Duma [Russia’s parliament] as well. There will be a third reading of the bill in September and over the next two and a half months we’ll try to work toward an optimal solution, but the situation is shifting in a more positive direction now.
What is it about the current version of the bill that worries you most?
There are some details that are unclear to us and we’d like to analyze it carefully. This whole project was submitted in a great hurry and we can’t understand why. But the most dangerous points of the bill—which would included killing the Academy of Sciences and other non-optimal outcomes are not included now.
During your meeting with Putin he said you and your scientists needed to come up with some “big” and “useful” results. Is that not happening now?