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The Continuing Crisis in Russian Science

The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked the end of the Soviet system of science. Organizationally, the Academy of Sciences of the USSR disappeared, to be replaced by the Russian Academy of Sciences (with most of the former leaders still in place). Financially, support for science dried up. The new government was preoccupied with other things, and the deteriorating economic situation left little wherewithal to fund science. Institute budgets fell drastically, and salaries for scientists, when paid at all, fell even faster. The entire scientific edifice seemed about to collapse.

This prospect caused great concern outside Russia. Russia's excellent scientists and engineers were (and are) one of the world's great resources. It was feared that the deterioration of pay and working conditions would lead to a massive exodus of scientists. Coupled with the collapse of institute budgets, this would destroy research teams that could not be readily rebuilt. There was great concern that Russian weapons scientists would emigrate.

As a result of these concerns, a number of programs were developed in the U.S. In addition to government programs, the civilian sector also contributed to the effort, most notably in George Soros's International Science Foundation. These programs had positive effects in Russian science, but quantitative estimates of their impact cannot be made. We do know that there was no mass emigration of scientists, civilian or military. Employment in research and development fell substantially, perhaps by as much as 50 percent, but this was attributable mostly to workers leaving R&D for other pursuits within Russia. Much if not all of this internal migration can be seen as a needed reduction in a bloated scientific establishment. Most institutes have survived, although many research teams must have been broken up.

Conditions for research, however, have not improved. By 1996, total expenditures on R&D appeared to be about one-fifth what they had been in 1990. Institute funding remains almost ridiculously low. Institute budgets are used to cover overhead costs and pay minuscule salaries; little if anything remains to support research. Laboratory conditions continue to deteriorate.

Significant financial recovery for science in Russia cannot take place until the nation’s economic health is restored. It is important, however, that the basis be laid for a research structure that will be effective when the financial means are available to support it.

In that regard, the work of the Civilian Research and Development Foundation (CRDF) is important beyond its modest size. Through modest competitive grant programs, the CRDF has begun to shift the culture of Russian science away from the old Soviet-style research administration system to peer review. Significantly, the CRDF is about to undertake a new initiative that is intended to develop the research capabilities of Russian universities, which were prevented from developing research programs in the Soviet system. Supported by funds from the MacArthur Foundation and other sources, the program will establish research centers similar to National Science Foundation Science and Technology Centers at several Russian universities. These centers will combine research and education, thus shifting the universities to a model akin to the old German one that has proved so successful in the U.S. and elsewhere. By changing the infrastructure for science, these programs could play a crucial role not only in reviving a strong Russian research capability but in making it more responsive to the needs of science, rather than those of bureaucrats and politicians.

John H. Moore
President, Sigma Xi

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