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?
He should stimulate us—that’s OK. We have well-recognized scientific schools and our younger generation is very talented, but things could change. We have already created good results and I’m optimistic we can do more, but the ideas of some of these so-called “reformers” can be very painful for actual science.
Some Russian lawmakers are saying scientists should just worry less about property and let the government handle your affairs.
You’re right. But the main concern we have is that bureaucrats just want to control our property with no real argument as to why and how they would do this.
Do you think this turmoil will play a role in younger scientists heading West instead of staying in Russia, or in international collaboration?
This is a challenge. We must continue with international cooperation; it is essential for us. As for the brain drain, it will depend on how the situation develops. Young people now are very concerned about the future of science and our academy. Our goal is to stop this brain drain and develop real international collaboration.
Russian lawmakers have claimed that part of the problem is that your scientists are building elite homes on academy property, which is part of why they want to take it over. Is that true?
It’s not true at all. I’ll give you the numbers. The Russian Academy of Sciences has extra properties that we rent out; this is about 7 percent of all of our properties. As a result of this renting, we get about two billion extra rubles [about $59 million] a year for research. Our entire fund is more than 60 billion [about $1.8 billion]. This is a very low percentage and is not a real problem. Our real problem is that the government bureaucracy is getting stronger and stronger and it can kill scientific development. We do not have enough equipment for research, and what we have is getting old. We have a similar problem with the average age of our scientists. For scientists, these problems are much more important. When our critics keep talking about real estate, it shows that what they are interested in is property, not science.
The Academy has been around for centuries. Is this idea of more government control something new in its history?
No, there have been two moments in history when we were under threat as we’ve been now. Just after the revolution [the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917], some party leaders decided they wanted to put a “Red Academy” in its place, getting rid of the historical model. Lenin stopped them. The second time was [during the Cold War] when Nikita Khrushchev tried to take away about half of the academies institutions but, again, this did not go through.
Are scientists feeling intimidated? I just saw on the Russian news that police raided the basement of your primary building in Moscow this morning, allegedly to root out illegal immigrants. What is going on here?
Yes, there was an “effort” this morning. But they didn’t find anything. I don’t know what to say about intimidation. This is very fresh information for me and I haven’t had time to analyze it yet.