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.

A student at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology works in a lab. Chronic underfunding and a lack of student interest hamper the former science powerhouse.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Graphic: Russian science slides

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.

"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.

"Money matters," he says, "but social recognition is also a very important factor in choosing a career. And that's what's missing these days."

One 2006 survey cited in the Thomson-Reuters report found that just 1.6 percent of students viewed science as a worthwhile career. "Out of 15 of my fellow postgraduates, only five are still in science," says Podor­van­yuk. "The pressures are such that either you have to leave science or go abroad to make a living. I'm still working in the area I love, but I have to hold down two jobs to do it [and] my research suffers."

Youths uninterested in science

The average age of Russian scientists now hovers at over 50, says Andrei Petrov, chair of President Dmitri Medvedev's council to promote greater youth participation in science. Mr. Medvedev has made "modernization," including boosting scientific research and innovation, the signature theme of his presidency.

"Young people are gradually trickling back into science, and salaries have grown," says Mr. Petrov, "but now we urgently need to see investment in scientific infrastructure like laboratories and equipment."

He says about one-third of Russian scientists are under 40, while half are over 50. "That needs to be reversed," he says. "The president is offering special programs, grants, and prizes for young scientists. Things are stabilizing."

Kremlin looks West for reforms

The Kremlin is also pressing for reform of the science establishment, including sharp staff cuts, and shifting the workload away from the country's hundreds of Soviet-era research institutes to universities and corporations, as is common in the West.

The government needs to take a stronger hand, some argue, not only in funding but also organizing scientific research. Centralized control over scientific research, which was a great strength of the Soviet system, has evaporated, says Yevgeny Velikhov, president of the Kurchatov Institute, Russia's leading nuclear science center. "We have no counterpart to the Department of Energy," the cabinet-level agency that coordinates and funds a wide range of US scientific research, he says.

The Kremlin has recently taken steps to amalgamate some major sectors, such as thermonuclear and particle physics research, Mr. Velikhov says. Although Russia was a pioneer in nuclear-fusion research, it has been reduced to being just one of seven partners in the huge International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project, based in France.

Russia's once mighty space program, which gave the world Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, still has a few grand plans. But for now it ekes out a living by working as a taxicab to the International Space Station and playing host to high-paying "space tourists."

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.

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