Russian researchers are vehemently protesting a bill that would essentially liquidate the venerated Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) and replace it with a newly -formed but as-yet poorly-defined body. The bill was passed its first and second reading on 1 July and 5 July 2013, respectively. It is slated to be signed into law when the Duma resumes session on 10 September. According to Russian law, substantive changes may not be made to a bill after it passes its second reading.
“[RAS] is the main structure of scientific research in the country,” says Alla Valeria Mikhalevich, a protozoologist and micropaleontologist at the Zoological Institute of the Academy in St Petersburg and a member of the St Petersburg Union of Scientists. “This reform will destroy the entire structure of basic science in Russia.”
The RAS, a network of more than 400 institutes around the country, was established almost 300 years ago by Peter the Great. Until now, it has managed to retain a rare degree of autonomy. This means it has the ability to elect its own director and to manage its extensive property holdings, in the face of shrinking budgets for basic science since the fall of the Soviet Union.
However, there is widespread consensus that the RAS, and more broadly, Russia’s system for scientific research, needs an overhaul. The organisation’s current president, Vladimir Fortov, was elected to the post on 29 May 2013 on a platform of reform. This included improving the efficiency of RAS institutes, reviewing the performance of Academy institutes and scientists, and allocating merit-based funding.
Shortly thereafter, the country’s science minister, Dmitry Livanov, unveiled the bill on 28 June 2013. It mandates merging the RAS and two other scientific academies, the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences and the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences, into a new body headed by a government-appointed director. Fortov was offered and accepted the position on 8 July 2013, citing positive compromises made by the government in the bill’s second reading, but some say his take is too optimistic.
It also transfers RAS’s real estate holdings to the government, ostensibly to free scientists from non-research duties. “It’s important to allow the scholars to focus on science and research and spare them the irrelevant function of managing real estate,” Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told the news agency RIA Novosti at the time.
Scientists see the move more cynically. Many are speculating that one of its intentions is to acquire the institute’s holdings. The stealthy way in which the government introduced the plan – with no consultation with the research community – and the speed with which it was rushed through has severely shaken the trust of the research community, says Mikhalevich. Her institute and multiple others, she says, formally protested against the bill as soon as it passed. Its most damaging element, she says, is the planned takeover of the institute by bureaucratic forces from above. “It removes the principles of democracy from the organisation.”
The Council for Science, the advisory body for the Ministry of Education and Research also voiced immediate objections. On 8 July 2013 it posted six recommended points of revision on its website. The Council is currently working on an alternative proposal for reforming the RAS. This will include auditing scientists, laboratories and institutes of the Academy with the help of international experts, according to Alexei Khokhlov, professor of physics and vice-rector at Moscow State University and the council’s chairman.
The St Petersburg Union of Scientists also proposed a plan for RAS reform that starts with a year-long discussion period among stakeholders.
It’s hard to foresee exactly how the bill in its current form will affect Russian science because it specifies little apart from establishing the new agency, says Konstantin Severinov, a molecular biologist and associate dean of faculty at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology near Moscow, who has been a vocal critic of the RAS. It is meant, as a starting point, “a bare-bones declaration of principle,” he says, which will have to be fleshed out after it passes. “Technically, changes in Russia administered from above tend to wreak havoc, that’s for sure, so there is really a good chance of all sorts of nonsense happening,” says Severinov. But, he adds, the RAS “lost their chance. They should have been the leaders of this process and now they are being offered solutions.”
However, a large body of scientists is alarmed about the government’s proposed plan. At a conference on August 29-30 in Moscow, more than 2,000 scientists met to discuss its impact and the future of the RAS. The RAS subsequently passed a resolution affirming the need for reform in the sciences, but stating that the Education and Research has failed to find a common language with the scientific community. The resolution authorised a commission to assemble and put forth to the government proposals for reform discussed at the meeting.
Vyacheslav Vdovin says that if the RAS bill is enacted in its current form, “the consequences will be catastrophic.” He is a researcher at the RAS’s Institute of Applied Physics in Nizhny Novgorod and a member of the RAS Trade Union, which represents the Academy’s 100,000 scientific workers, from researchers to technicians. For one thing, Vdovin notes, it will push many of his scientist colleagues to seek research positions abroad, impoverishing Russian science in the process.
But one positive aspect of the bill, according to Vdovin, is how strongly it has mobilised the research community. The united outcry has a strong chance of pushing the government to back down, he says. Ideally, the government would revert the bill to its first reading, reopening the debate to input from the research community. He concludes: “actually, I have bet a crate of good whiskey that Livanov would sooner be removed from the post of Minister of Science than the existing Academy would be liquidated in accordance with his plan.”
Vladimir Fortov Photograph credit: Kremlin, the Presidential Press and Information Office