In Russia, a lab-coat rebellion

Fed up with budget cuts and other limitations, a group of scientists protests today in Moscow.

Russian scientists plan to rally here Thursday in what organizers call a "scream of despair" over funding cuts and state indifference that have left much of the once formidable ex-Soviet intellectual establishment in ruins.

"The worst thing is that we cannot work at the professions we were trained for, no one wants us, and the government has abandoned us," says Sergei Nikitin, an unemployed specialist in experimental mechanics who is among the protesters.

But the demonstration is bringing out critics who say that academics and researchers ought to start hustling like everyone else must in the new market economy.

"Real scientists don't march in the streets, they solve problems," says Osip Rogov, rector of the Moscow University of Applied Biology. "Scientific research is inextricably linked to production, that is, it earns money. Researchers need to find ways to be productive, and secure their share."

About 150 mainly elderly protesters set out on foot for the capital earlier this week from the science town of Pushchino, about 62 miles away, to dramatize their plight. Pushchino, built during Soviet times to house several biological institutes, has lost nearly two-thirds of its scientists in the decade since the USSR collapsed.

The marchers say their angst is not so much over salaries – which average less than $100 per month. Their biggest complaints are depleted working conditions that make it almost impossible to keep up with the global scientific curve, a massive brain drain that has seen at least half a million Russian specialists emigrate in the past decade, and the post-Soviet rejection by young people of science as a profession.

"The average age of Russian scientists is now 56, and it's creeping up every year," says Mr. Nikitin.

Less money

The marchers also say they've been betrayed by President Vladimir Putin, who came to power promising to restore Russian greatness, but whose government just slashed scientific funding from a promised 50 billion rubles (approximately $1.6 billion) next year to 35 billion rubles.

But critics say that instead of begging the government for more handouts, the scientists should be thinking like capitalists – lobbying for stronger intellectual property rights, for example

The state of Russian science is increasingly dire. Soviet Russia had almost 1 million scientists, but today there are just 400,000, and only one in seven is under 40 years of age. State funding for science has slumped from almost 3 percent of the state budget in 1997 to 1.5 percent this year.

Most new graduates of Russia's still- renowned higher educational institutes leave the country to find work. "Between 500,000 and 800,000 Russian scientists have left on a long-term mission abroad in the past 10 years," Viktor Kalinushkin, chairman of the union of Russian scientific workers, said last week. Among those who have emigrated are the cream of the country's physicists, biologists, chemists, and computer programmers. "Almost none of them have returned," Mr. Kalinushkin said.

Meanwhile, the increasing impoverishment of Russian scientists has fueled Western fears that some nuclear specialists may secretly be selling missile know-how abroad.

There is little accord over how to manage the accelerating decline of recent years. Some of the protesters say they understand the Russian government faces severe financial constraints, but telling scientists to finance their own work is no solution.

"Making science pay its own way is just a foolish slogan," says Zhores Alferov, a Nobel-prizewinning astrophysicist, and Communist deputy of the state Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.

"Fundamental science usually has no connection with the economy, and is everywhere funded by the state," he says. "Even applied sciences need to be helped in Russia, because our industry is still on its knees and in no condition to subsidize research as is done in the West."

Svetlana Seleznyova, a specialist at the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Biophysics in Pushchino, says that attempts to create marketable spinoffs from her work, such as nutritional products and exercise equipment, have fizzled badly. "If you try to attract outside partners to develop your product, any investments are taxed heavily," she says. "Then, business culture being what it is in this country, your partners make off with all the profits. We've been there, and there is nothing but grief on that road."

A hard fall

The decline in Russian science is a humiliating comedown for a country that once claimed to be the West's chief rival and, at least in some branches of science, indeed was.

The Soviet Union's nuclear and military technology fueled a four-decades-long arms race, its space achievements are legendary, and its strides in many other fields remain impressive.

Some of the protesters say they are joining the protest movement simply to try to force the government to make some basic decisions. "We're not the kind of people who normally demonstrate in the streets," says Svetlana Prozhogina, a philologist and trade- union steward at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, which is part of the Academy of Sciences, to which most Russian intellectual workers belong. "But we've devoted our lives to something which is now dying," Ms. Prozhogina says. "You can't ask us to sell our knowledge of ancient languages and dead religions on the open market. So, we need to know, does this country want us, or not?"

Though the Moscow rally is not likely to rock the Kremlin, it may be an unpleasant straw in the wind for Mr. Putin. "The scientists believed the things Putin said about reviving Russian science, and their expectations have been given a cold bath," says Andrei Ryabov, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "It looks to them, and to many watching, like Putin does not have a plan after all."

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