Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov

Who wants the Russian Academy of Sciences to collapse?

It is clear that the Russian Academy of Sciences in its present form needs reforms. Not that long ago, the Russian government announced that the reform bill had been developed. However, it is not clear why the reforms of such an important science structure as the Russian Academy of Sciences, are being carried out in a rush, excluding expert consultations with academics?

It should be noted that this reform began in a strange, if not suspicious fashion. It is puzzling that the government announced the reform in the middle of the summer period - that is precisely at the time, when most scientists are absent from their jobs. Some of them work in expeditions, others enjoy well-deserved vacations, and someone else defends the honor of Russian science at international symposiums and conferences. Summer is the off-season for institutes. At this time of year, getting an expert opinion from the scientific community is extremely difficult.

It is also alarming that the draft reform of the Russian Academy of Sciences, as it turns out, had not been discussed with academics before it was announced. The administration of the Russian Academy of Sciences immediately responded that the Academy was not familiarized with the draft reform and that the reform had been developed without the participation of the Academy. In addition, the Science Council, established by the Ministry for Education and Science for consultations with representatives of the scientific community, was not involved in the process to discuss the draft law. Moreover, the council had not even been informed of its existence.

To crown it all, in the current situation it remains unclear why they want to pass the bill so quickly. After all, as the chairman of the Duma Committee on Education, Vyacheslav Nikonov said: "At certain political will there is a possibility of its adoption in this session (spring session)." The spring session is ending on July 14 of this year. It just so happens that academics have just a few days left to become familiar with the bill. Needless to say that such a process requires a lot more than just a few days.

So why is the Russian Academy of Sciences being reformed in such a hurry? Could it be that the authors of the bill knew from the beginning that academics, and Russian scientists in general, would not like the bill? Most likely, this is exactly the case: one comes to this conclusion after reading some of the provisions of the bill carefully.

It was stated that the project of the reform of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) stipulates the creation of an agency to manage the property of scientific institutes of the RAS. The agency, the head of the Ministry for Education and Science, Dmitry Livanov said, would be subordinated directly to the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation. According to the minister, the measure would free scientists from dealing with proprietary solutions and business issues and enable them to engage in their scientific work thoroughly. This should certainly improve the efficiency of the work of scientists of academic institutions. Apparently, Dmitry Livanov has doubts about this efficiency, despite criticism from academics, who claimed that such an assessment was biased.

In addition, the minister said that under the new law, directors of academic institutions would be appointed taking into consideration the opinion of the Academy. Livanov said nothing about who exactly would be making appointments, and whether the academics' opinion was going to be regarded as an important one. Today, a director of any academic institution can not take office if he or she is not approved by the relevant branch of the RAS. Apparently, the new bill will change this order, and the approval of academics would not be mandatory.

Moreover, the document suggests the unification of three federal government agencies, namely the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences and the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences, into one social state association that will be called the RAS. Its president will be the current president of the RAS (who from now on will not be approved by the head of state), and the heads of the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Academy of Agricultural Sciences will become vice-presidents. It was announced that the new Academy will abolish the title of a corresponding member, and all current corresponding members will automatically become academics. In order to sweeten the pill, the minister said that all members of the new Academy of Sciences would receive lifetime allowance of 100,000 rubles (about $30,000).

According to the head of the Ministry for Education and Science, this project should appeal to academics, since it represents a "step toward genuine autonomy." However, scientists doubt that: what kind of autonomy can be discussed when the RAS is expected to be deprived of both the material base and the opportunity to normally govern its own institutions? Leading researcher at the Institute of Mechanics of the Moscow State University, Andrey Tsaturyan said: "The proposed "reform" actually means a wholesale purchase of the entire scientific staff of all three academies by one collective "master" from another one." The scientist questioned the fact that there were no guarantees that could make everyone believe that the new "master" would manage the Academy better than the previous one.

It is really hard not to agree with it. In Russian science, there were many examples to show when "appointees from a side" could not cope with their responsibilities. This brings up the story from three years ago that took place at the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics named after Alikhanov. The appointment of Yuri Kozlov on the position of the director of this institute and his mismanagement generated a conflict between the scientists and the administration, which continues to this day. Mr. Kozlov is a scientist, not an official. However, he specialized in absolutely different scientific disciplines, and therefore could not understand the specifics of the Institute that he chaired.

A similar story took place at NPO named after Lavochkin (the company works in the space exploration industry), when Chief Designer Georgy Polishchuk started to rejuvenate the team. He dismissed all who were older than 45, including those  involved in the Phobos-Grunt project. He even sacked the chief designer of the company, who had been working on the project from the beginning. The person, who took his place, was a great programmer, but, alas, not a designer. The result of this action is known to all of us. Instead of heading to the satellite of Mars, Phobos-Grunt, circled around our planet and headed straight to the Pacific Ocean, where it crashed.

Noteworthy, both of these stories (as well as many other similar ones) took place in so-called departmental, rather than academic institutions, where "external appointments" was a common occurrence. Nothing like this has ever happened in the institutions of the RAS even during the hard times of the 1990s. From my perspective, a situation when academics run their institutions themselves (including their property) is more preferable. They just know how to do it.

However, it would perhaps be incorrect to say that all scientists are against the proposed reform of the RAS. There are many figures of Russian science, for whom the transformations proposed by the government will be very, very beneficial. After all, the Russian Academy of Sciences, alas, is not perfect either. There are scientists, who were "offended" by academics, and they still remember that.

As an example, in May this year, the director of the Kurchatov Institute, physicist Mikhail Kovalchuk, was not re-elected as the director of the Institute of Crystallography of the RAS named after Shubnikov Sciences. The decision raised sincere concerns among everyone who worked at the institute. Some even suggested pulling out from the structure of the RAS. It all happened because Kovalchuk had long been highly critical of the Academy, so many decided that such an action was not due to the fact that he was managing the institute poorly - the move supposedly came as revenge on the part of academics.

There are many of those who wish the status of the Russian Academy of Sciences to change for various reasons. They are likely to fully or partially support the project of the reform. This is quite natural, but it brings up another question - why did the Ministry for Education and Science take account of the opinion of the discontented only? Why didn't they ask the academics, taking into consideration the fact that the new president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vladimir Fortov, spoke of the need of reforms in the organizations? It turns out that he was not allowed to present the project of his reform.

In addition, it appears that the authorities have not taken another factor into consideration. The fact is that today, the Russian Academy of Sciences in its current form serves as a guarantee for the existence of fundamental science in Russia. Allegations saying that "such structures as the Russian Academy of Sciences exist nowhere else in the world" are, of course, true. In the West, foreign academies exist in the form of scientific clubs. However, in the West, as well as in Asian countries there is knowledge-based production, which supports the existence of fundamental science. Russia does not have this kind of production. Defense and space companies do not count, because they are the proprietary and do not contribute significantly to the economy of the country. This automatically means only one thing - the lack of demand for this science.

In this situation, the existence of the RAS as a management organization with a strong financial base is quite necessary for those who are engaged in basic research. In other words, the institutions involved in non-applied research could exist only because the Russian Academy of Sciences was interested in it and gave such an opportunity to them. However, if the Academy is deprived of tools and management powers, the fate of these institutions will be unenviable. They will be no longer needed - they will simply disappear and bury all hopes for the national science to come out of the crisis ...

Anton Evseev


Read the original in Russian