20 years under Putin: a timeline

The system of Russian science is deteriorating, despite the government's claims that the country is modernizing. This April, Thomson Reuters published a report revealing that Russia is absent from leadership groups in the 100 top-ranked specialties in the sciences and social sciences. Another report, produced by the Russian Association for the Advancement of Science at the end of 2012, called the current state of affairs “catastrophic.” IMR analyst Olga Khvostunova examines the reasons for the crisis in Russian science and its implications for the country's future.



Scientific Losses

Last December, Yevgeny Velikhov, president of the Kurchatov Institute and head of the Russian Association for the Advancement of Science, published a research paper in which the current state of affairs in Russian science was described as “catastrophic by a number of objective parameters.” The authors of the report named several reasons for this “catastrophe,” including shortcomings of the regulatory and legal framework of the sciences, drastic cuts in funding in the 1990s, and, most important, the lack of a clear government strategy for scientific development.

Despite Velikhov's controversial reputation in the scientific field (for instance, he may excel more in entrepreneurship than in academic research, heading the Rosshelf Corporation since 1992), but the report he presented touches upon a number of crucial issues. “In the 19th and 20th centuries, scientific developments in Russia were largely based on the success of the Russian technical and engineering school that helped the country to gain leadership or to act as an equal to the developed industrial countries,” the report observes. The success of this school was driven by “holistic government goal-setting,” which linked science, education, and the industrial sector into an integrated system.

“The planning economy of the USSR was based upon the ‘cult of knowledge,’ especially in the field of hard sciences. Until 1991, this cult was maintained in the public consciousness through purposeful government policies,” the report points out. Fundamental science (including academic, industrial, and university research) in the USSR was always generously funded by the government. Results provided by scientific research were used for developing sophisticated technical systems of long-term functionality and high reliability—primarily for military use. In fact, many sectors of the Russian economy are still successfully functioning on the basis of these systems.

In 1990s, Russia underwent a major brain drain, during which 100,000 to 250,000 of its most highly qualified scientists left the country; most were in the most professionally active age range of 30 to 50.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the existing links among science, education, and industry were broken. As former president of the Russian Academy of Sciences Yuri Ossipov estimated, in the 1990s, funding for Russian sciences was cut by a factor of 12 to 15. Over this period, Russia underwent a major brain drain, during which 100,000 to 250,000 of its most highly qualified scientists left the country; most were in the most professionally active age range of 30 to 50. Today, more than 16,000 Russian scientists with a Ph.D. degree reside in the United States only.

With the dramatic budget cuts, the prestige of science dropped. As Velikhov’s report informs readers, “individuals who earned money according to the principle ‘maximum return for minimum time’ gained influence in the government and in the public mind.” A position in the bureaucratic hierarchy became more important than the results of scientific research. Personal responsibility for one’s work transformed into collective responsibility and, in some cases, into a lack of responsibility entirely, which undermined the very idea of scientific development.

The so-called “mediatization” of scientific discourse took place in the mass media, undermining the authority of scientific knowledge for the public and bringing many pseudo-experts into the limelight. “The authority of professional knowledge is destroyed by the federal TV channels that broadcast serious discussions that are moderated by unprofessional discussants,” Velikhov’s report explains. “With unprepared viewers, such discussions create an illusion that the audience participates in solving complicated scientific, technical, political and other problems and wrongly persuades them that anyone can resolve such problems, regardless of their education and practical experience.”


In the Group of Losers

Domestic studies of the current state of Russian science are complemented by independent analysis conducted by Thomson Reuters, one of the leading research companies in the world. Two recent reports published by this company show that in the global knowledge market, Russia has been transformed from a leading player to a loser.

This April, Thomson Reuters published a report entitled Research Fronts 2013, which includes information on the 100 top-ranked specialties in the sciences and social sciences over the last five years. These specialties are grouped into 10 scientific clusters: agricultural, plant and animal sciences; clinical medicine; biological sciences; chemistry and material sciences; physics; mathematics, computer science and engineering; social sciences; and three others. This research considered the number of peer-reviewed articles in the leading scientific journals and the number of follow-up references to the original source in other articles that were later published on the same topic. Russia was nowhere to be found in the top-10 countries in any of these groups (among the leaders across all groups were the United States, China, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Australia).

Earlier, in February 2013, Thomson Reuters published another report entitled Building Bricks: Exploring the Global Research and Innovation Impact of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Korea. As the report’s title indicates, these countries are actively engaged in the most advanced scientific research today and thus have an impact on the global economy.



According to Thomson Reuters' data, the total number of articles published by Russian scholars has hovered at around 25,000 per year. But over 30 years (taking 1981 as a baseline year), Russia, which used to produce most of the articles published by the five BRICK countries, fell behind all of them, including the much-smaller South Korea. In terms of number of articles published in the top 1% of scientific journals, Russia has also conceded its position to all of the other BRICK countries.

Thomson Reuters’ reports may even appear overoptimistic when set against the domestic view of some Russian scientists. For example, in the estimation of Yevgeny Onishchenko, a research fellow at the Institute of Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), from 2010 to 2013, the number of scientific articles produced in Russia dropped by 10%—an unprecedented drop for the scientific world. In his words, neither the United States, where science has been recently undergoing budget cuts, nor Japan, after its tremendous losses caused by the Fukushima disaster, nor any other BRICK countries, have experienced such drops.

The report provides a breakdown of Russian articles published by specialty, which repeats the pattern created in the Soviet times: physics, space, and mathematics are still considered major priorities. Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, life sciences and applied sciences are becoming more advanced. In Russia, they are hardly developed at all. But at the same time, the recent failures of the Russian space program (the unsuccessful launch of the automatic interplanetary station Phobos-Grunt in 2011 was one of the most devastating losses) shows that Russia is losing its leadership even in areas of strategic importance.

The integration of innovations into the economy is viewed as the weakest area of the Russian sciences by Thomson Reuters experts, as the country has a very low volume of patent filing.

The report concludes that the main reason for this sorrowful state of affairs in Russian research and development (R&D) is lack of investment. Traditionally, developed countries’ governments invest about 2% of GDP in R&D. As Batelle Memorial Institute reports, in 2011, the United States invested 2.67% of GDP ($405.3 billion) in R&D, Japan invested 3.67% of GDP ($160.7 billion), and South Korea invested 3.74% of GDP ($55.8 billion), while Russia’s investment did not exceed 1% of GDP ($23.8 billion).


Investment in Vanity

The insufficient funding of the Russian sciences is not breaking news but rather popular trivia. This issue is regularly discussed in the Russian mass media. For example, in response to Thomson Reuters’ BRICK report, Sergei Rogov, RAS corresponding member and director of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies, wrote an op-ed about the difficulties of the Academy’s everyday life. He pointed out that despite poor funding, RAS remains “the only surviving palladium of science in the country.” He continued: “It’s no secret that for many years RAS has been struggling for its survival. In 2009, the Academy’s budget was 46 billion rubles, or $1.5 billion. This amount is catastrophically small and hardly exceeds the budget of an average American R&D center (there are 435 R&D centers and institutes within RAS).”


Russian Academy of Sciences headquarters in Moscow.


In a recent interview with Gazeta.ru, Andrei Rostovtsev, head of the Physics Laboratory of Elementary Particles at the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics (ITEP) and founder of the antiplagiarism project Dissernet, gave concrete examples of the negative effects of insufficient funding, but from another angle. In his words, it’s hard to imagine a more qualified specialist in the field of high-energy physics in Russia than a graduate of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, but ITEP administration offers these graduates a salary of only 1,300 rubles ($40) per month. “At the same time, [this very administration] is paid very well, like the top management of a successful business. Today, the scientific community of ITEP is destroyed. It doesn’t exist anymore. And it happened over the last year and a half. Many people left [the country], others found other jobs, or are already packed and ready to go.”

Meanwhile, early this year, an acute conflict developed between the Ministry of Education and Science and RAS over insufficient funding, leading Minister Dmitry Livanov to accuse the Academy of “lack of viability and prospects.” Later, the minister apologized for his words but insisted that the work of RAS is not organized efficiently, and that RAS itself does not meet international standards. Livanov also added that he was ready to discuss the issues of Russian science with the scientific community.

Perhaps some shifts in the work of RAS might happen quite soon. On May 29, 2013, Vladimir Fortov was elected as the new president of RAS (succeeding Yuri Ossipov, who presided over the Academy for the last 20 years). Fortov has already promised to introduce turnover in RAS top staff and to put up a fight against bureaucracy.

In reality, the substantial growth of civil R&D is nothing more than an “accounting trick.”

But personnel solutions will hardly resolve the key issue of poor funding. Actually, if one looks at state budget funding of R&D over the last 10 years, it might seem that the situation has been improving: 17.4 billion rubles were allocated for this sector in 2000, 76.9 billion rubles in 2005, and 319 billion rubles in 2011. Meeting with RAS academics after his inauguration last May, Vladimir Putin praised the government for this growth and promised to increase R&D funding further, up to 1.8% of GDP by 2015, and up to 2.5% in the future (“like in the U.S.”).

But if one takes a look at the expenditures section of the Russian budget for 2013–2015, passed in November 2012, it will become obvious that the R&D funding plan for the next three years differs from what was promised by the president. In 2013, Russian science will receive 324 billion rubles; in 2014, it will receive 310 billion rubles; and in 2015, it will receive only 307 billion rubles. One of very few positive provisions in this budget is a slight increase in funding for Russia’s two key grantmakers—the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (RFBP), the primary grantmaker, whose projects constitute up to one-third of the total number of articles published in top journals by Russian scholars; and the Russian Humanities Research Foundation (RHRF). In 2009–2011, the funding of both organizations was cut by one-third, thus undermining their very existence. In 2011, a public campaign in support of providing these organizations with funds was launched, resulting, fortunately, in an outcome in favor of science and common sense. In 2013, the budgets of both funds will remain at 2012 levels, with the organizations receiving 8 billion and 1.5 billion rubles, respectively, and minor increases slated to occur over the following two years.

But in reality, as Yevgeny Onishchenko points out, the substantial growth of civil R&D is nothing more than an “accounting trick.” He explains that if one takes a look at the traditional expenditure items of R&D funding (federal special purpose programs, academies of sciences, research foundations), the growth rate will not seem that significant. “The solution [of this puzzle] is quite simple. Until a while ago, the expenses of the Federal Space Agency (Roskosmos) had nothing to do with R&D funding, but now more than half of the Agency’s budget is accounted towards ‘the applied scientific research in the field of the national economy.’” Thus, Roskosmos has become the largest recipient of funding earmarked for applied scientific research. In 2013, the agency will receive 89 billion rubles for these purposes.


In 2011, Vladimir Putin came to Dubna to discuss "megascience" projects.


In this controversy, many Russian scientists have become especially perplexed by the increasing funding of the Kurchatov Institute, which is listed in the R&D budget as a separate entry. In 2013, the Institute will receive 8.3 billion rubles—more than the RFBP. This puzzle can be easily explained: the director of the institute is Mikhail Kovalchuk, brother of Yuri Kovalchuk, head of the director’s board at Rossiya, one of the largest banks in the country, and Vladimir Putin’s close friend. On one hand, there may seem nothing wrong with allocating money for one of the leading research institutions in Russia. On the other hand—as scientists point out—the number of articles produced by the Kurchatov Institute has been steadily decreasing over the last few years.

There are other unanswered questions. As Vladimir Zakharov, an academic at RAS, Regents’ Professor of Mathematics at the University of Arizona (Tucson), and head of the Mathematical Physics Sector at the Lebedev Physical Institute (Moscow), wrote in an op-ed for Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “The inspirational and shallow speeches of M[ikhail] Kovalchuk, the main ideologist of ‘nano-, cogno-, and bio-‘ breakthroughs remind us of the claims for the necessity and possibility of reforming nature. To develop nanotechnologies the government [requires the] allocat[ion of] funding which exceeds the budget of the whole Russian Academy of Sciences by 1.5 times!”

And now, as R&D funding is on the verge of being cut, the Russian government’s attempts to develop so-called “megascience” appear just absurd. “Megascience” is the term used to describe large-scale scientific projects, such as conquering space or developing a nuclear bomb. In 2011, six projects of a similar nature were presented to the Government Commission for Advanced Technologies and Innovation: a tokamak fusion reactor called IGNITOR, NICA (the Nuclotron-based ion collider facility), the electron-positron collider Super C-Tau Factory project, MARS (the multiturn accelerator-recuperator source of high brightness), a high-flux research nuclear reactor (PIK), and plans for an international research center on extreme light fields. The total budget for all six projects was estimated at 133 billion rubles. Three of these projects were approved in 2012: PIK (with the support of Germany, which offered to provide equipment worth $37 million), IGNITOR (Italy expressed interest in developing this project and offered to invest $96 million), and NICA (South Africa and some CIS countries expressed interest in this project).

The answer to the question of why Russia needs these costly megaprojects when it can’t solve the issue of survival for the Russian sciences in the first place is quite simple. In fact, it has been recently articulated by the head of the presidential administration Sergei Ivanov, who said that megascience projects are “prerequisites for the national prestige” and that the government will do everything it can to implement these projects. Chasing prestige, which is, in fact, the Russian authorities’ cover-up for feeding their own vanity, has turned into a goal in itself: projects like these create an illusion of advancing and modernizing Russia, but in reality, they are nothing but a smokescreen that hides reality.


The Price Tag

Russian scientists agree that the current disastrous state of affairs in their professional field presents a threat to the country’s national security. In the postindustrial era, modernization is impossible without science and innovation. Analysis shows that the official claims of the Russian government about the prioritization of science have not been followed by concrete policies, and the government’s participation in major international projects diverts public attention from the nation’s real problems. In essence, the key problem of Russian science is not simply the lack of funding, but also the lack of demand for fundamental science at the government level.

Various ways of saving Russian science are being discussed within the scientific community. Aside from a general agreement on the necessity of investment growth, scientists suggest that a new system based on quality and independent, peer-reviewed expertise should be introduced in Russia. That system would help determine if research is correct and would prevent expertise from being supplanted by “convenient” opinion. The new system could also help to reduce the risks of corruption affecting the funding process.

As mentioned previously, Sergei Rogov suggests that tax policies should also be revised in order to stimulate private investment flow to R&D: “Investments in innovation must bring bigger returns for the private sector.” In his opinion, this measure would help to increase R&D funding to up to 2% of GDP now (with half being accounted for by private business), up to 3% by 2020, and up to 4–5% by the middle of the century.

At the same time, recent political developments do not encourage high expectations that the funding of Russian science will soon be increased. Today, a cynical and pragmatic approach has prevailed within the Russian government, which aims to maintain the existing system through cosmetic measures. Many scientists predict that full deterioration of this system might happen by 2020. The collapse of Russian science will inevitably lead to a series of crises in the economy, social sphere, and public administration. In other words, by ignoring the demands of Russian scientists, the government draws its own end closer. But it’s the future generations of Russians who will pay the highest price for this collapse.