Once a science and technology powerhouse, Russia prowess wanes
The once-vaunted Russia science powerhouse is following the same downhill path of Soviet-era athletic prowess. Lack of funds and plummeting social recognition mean that few young people pursue science careers.
Nikolai Podorvanyuk works by day as a scientist at Moscow's prestigious Institute of Astronomy and moonlights as an editor at an online newspaper by night. If you guessed that the science job is his big breadwinner, you'd be wrong. He lives on his journalist's income.Skip to next paragraph
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"For me the most important thing is my career in astronomy, but unfortunately it doesn't pay much," says Mr. Podorvanyuk.
A recent comparison between Podorvanyuk's institute and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg found that the Russian organization had twice the staff but received one-sixth the funding of its German counterpart.
"If you take any scientific institute in Russia and measure it against a comparable foreign one, I'm sure you'll get a similar picture," Podorvanyuk says. "The core of our problems is chronic underfunding."
Russia's once-vaunted scientific establishment looks to be going the same way as its Soviet-era athletic prowess: downhill fast, that is, and for much the same reasons.
"Russia has been a leader in scientific research and intellectual thinking across Europe and the world for so long," says a new report by the global think tank Thomson-Reuters, "that it comes not only as a surprise but a shock to see that it has a small and dwindling share of world activity as well as real attrition of its core strengths. Russia's research base has a problem, and it shows little sign of a solution."
Though most scientists cite lack of funding as the key problem, others say the crisis runs much deeper and may not be solved even if government science budgets were restored to Soviet-era levels.
Lack of money and motivation
Russian state financing for science rose when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was president to a post-Soviet high of about $2 billion in 2008, but has since fallen back slightly. That's barely 2 percent of what the United States government spends annually to support scientific work, complained the vice president of Russia's official Academy of Sciences, Gennady Mesyats, in an interview published on the academy's website this month.
"It's not just about money, it's also about motivation," says Andrei Ionin, a scientific philosopher, who works in the space industry. "The profession of scientist is not prestigious anymore, and the government does not define scientific tasks that would attract talented people.
The dismal state of the sciences in today's Russia shows how quickly a change of national fortunes and, perhaps more important, an erosion in the perceived prestige of the sciences among young people, can hobble a once-powerful system.