MOSCOW — NOT far from the main building of the Russian Academy of Sciences towers the statue of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
The silvery sleek monument symbolizes probably the greatest scientific achievement of the former Soviet Union - the winning of the space race against the United States in the early 1960s. When then Major Gagarin became the first man in orbit in 1961, it seemed as though there was no limit for Soviet science. But three decades later, with Russia wracked by economic crisis, the nation's research facilities - the Academy of Sciences, in particular - are feeling a budget crunch that is devastating scientific
potential and causing scientists to leave.
"Today, we are struggling just to preserve the scientific complex that is already in place. There is no talk about growth," said Andrei Fonotov, Russia's first deputy minister of science, higher education, and technological policy.
Given the collapse of industry and defense, the scientific establishment depends more than ever on government funding. Whereas its share of financing research and development (R&D) amounted to some 56 percent in 1990, it now comprises about 86 percent, Mr. Fonotov says.
The state's ability to provide for R&D has been greatly eroded due to inflation, estimated last month at 50 percent. Although government R&D appropriations this year are estimated at 250 billion rubles (about $500 million), inflation is likely to make the relative value of those funds less than the 103 billion rubles in 1992 state allocations.
Because of the crisis, the Ministry of Science wants to slash the number of research projects this year, Fonotov said. Most state funding would go to paying researchers' salaries; the remainder would be channeled into "core" projects with high money-earning potential, such as those in aerospace, according to ministry projections. The ministry also seeks to cut workers at R&D facilities by up to 50 percent over the 1990 level of 3 million, but it must fight interference from parliament and President Boris
The money problem is having a disastrous effect on morale, Fonotov added. A junior Academy of Sciences researcher, for example, earns about 6,300 rubles ($12) monthly, barely enough to survive on. Not surprisingly, many researchers have turned to the emerging business sector, Fonotov said. Others have gone abroad, causing some to raise the alarm about a "brain drain."
But Academy of Sciences spokesman Murad Urmanchiev says the drain has not been as severe as expected. Most scientists who have gone abroad are under contract for a few years with foreign firms, Mr. Urmanchiev said. But there is no guarantee they will return to Russia. The hardest hit are institutes specializing in hard sciences, like physics and mathematics, which have lost up to 15 percent of their specialists.
There are some potential benefits for the future, Fonotov said. "Many young people will return and bring with them the experience and methods of some of the best laboratories in the West." The Russian parliament, he added, could provide incentives for specialists to remain at home by strengthening intellectual property rights and patent laws.
Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, in a meeting with Academy of Science officials Jan. 18, tried to reassure scientists about the government's commitment to R&D, but many are uneasy, Urmanchiev said. "He [Mr. Chernomyrdin] said he couldn't promise much, other than to pay close attention to the situation."