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© RIA Novosti. Valeriy Melnikov

Russia's new science president Fortov faces uphill battle

by Kristen Blyth at 03/06/2013 14:34

There’s a new president in town, and his name is Vladimir Fortov.

President of the Russian Academy of Sciences, that is.

Fortov, a prominent Russian physicist and head of Moscow’s Joint Institute for High Temperatures, won 58 percent of the vote in a secret-ballot election among academy members last week. He beat out two other candidates for the presidential seat. Fortov will replace Yury Osipov - the outgoing head who’s been president of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) since 1991- after being approved by President Vladimir Putin.

In other countries, Fortov’s victory would be a happy promotion within the prestigious and rapidly expanding industry of scientific development.

Unfortunately, in Russia, Fortov inherits a leadership position in a field that has been riddled for years with suffocating bureaucracy, petty infighting, corruption, and dwindling productivity.

Fortov promised in his campaign platform to lower the level of bureaucracy in academia, establish constructive collaboration between the RAS and the Ministry of Education and Science, and raise the prestige of Russian science.

“The academy is ready for change and feels the need for that,” he told journalists following his victory on Wednesday. “[We] must be more dynamic, flexible, and sustainable…it is the 21st century now and we must keep abreast of the times.”

Although the majority of academy members expressed support for Fortov’s ideas through their votes, spectators seemed dubious about his ability to realize meaningful change. Combating oppressive red tape and cheating scandals while raising productivity, acquiring decent funding and soothing administrative quarrels are obviously a tall order for any man.

“I am trying to be optimistic,” Ivan Kurilla, chair of the Department of International Relations and Area Studies at Volgograd State University, told The Moscow News. “Fortov seems like an active person, and he seems to understand many of the problems. I don’t think there is any other way than for him to try to change the situation.”

Funding and fighting

One of Russian science’s most immediate concerns is the increasingly stringent chokehold placed by the government on funding regulation.

Last month, authorities decreed that any organization wishing to award grants to Russian researchers must ask permission for every grant from the Ministry of Education and Science.

“No self-respecting grant-giving agency [will] deal with Russia on such conditions,” said Andrei Tsaturyan, a scientist at Moscow State University's Mechanics Research Institute, to ScienceInsider Magazine this month.

Infighting between the country’s two major scientific organizations – the Ministry of Education and Science and the RAS – has contributed to academics’ frustration.

Education Minister Dmitry Livanov’s criticism of the RAS as “ineffective and outdated” in a March interview with radio station Ekho Moskvy was just part of an ongoing flurry of insults and accusations between academics of the RAS and officials of the Ministry of Education.

Three Duma opposition parties demanded that Livanov be fired in April, then Deputy Education Minister Igor Fedykin ended up resigning last week over “political tensions,” according to RIA Novosti.

Diplomas for sale

The tension and infighting are partly due to a massive plagiarism scandal that’s recently stretched to include even high-level Russian politicians.

Education officials revoked the PhD degrees of 11 people in February after discovering that their dissertations were plagiarized. The revelation sparked a government crackdown on academic dishonesty, in which numerous Duma deputies were accused of cheating to get their doctoral degrees. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev even admitted to journalists in February that “the number of phony doctorates surpasses all possible limits.”

Paying money for a fake degree is nothing new. Accusations of plagiarism against various government officials and academics – even President Vladimir Putin himself - have been flying around for years.

A 2006 analysis by the Brookings Institution, an American think tank, claimed to find that at least 16 pages of Putin’s doctoral dissertation had been copied from a Russian translation of an American economics textbook.

The fight against plagiarism is coming to a head now, however, because the vulnerability of the science field has reached a tipping point, Kurilla said.

“These are fights for the purity of the academy, of science, for academic integrity,” he told The Moscow News. “Of course it influences the validity of Russian degrees worldwide.”

The scandal is still ongoing. Six Education Ministry officials were fired last week after it was discovered that they were involved in approving fake dissertations.

Productivity flatline

Russian academia’s troubles with bureaucracy, corruption, and infighting have accumulated in an unsurprising result: stagnation.

Russia’s publishing productivity has flatlined, while developing countries like Iran, Malaysia, and Pakistan have exploded by comparison. A July 2012 study by Russian researcher Maxim Kotsemir, from Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, found that the number of publications by Russian scientists actually decreased slightly in 2011 compared to 2001. In addition, the average number of citations of Russian scientific papers was one of the lowest in the world.

“Developing countries have begun closing the gap with the established leaders,” Kotsemir wrote. “Because of the strengthening in this trend, Russia’s lagging will manifest itself largely. By the next decade, Russia may lose its status as one of the world’s great scientific countries without timely reforms in scientific policy.”

This weakness has remained largely unacknowledged in the Russian scientific community.

When questioned about the very low citation rate for Russian-language scientific articles in 2010, outgoing RAS president Yury Osipov dismissed the importance of publishing in English - the official international language of science. “Any top-level specialist will also study Russian and read papers in Russian,” he told Gazeta.ru.

Science: simply not a priority

The obstacles suffocating the growth of Russian science seem innumerable. Commentators blame everything from poor funding and high emigration of academics to a plunge in scientific prestige for the field’s seemingly constant floundering.

Ultimately, however, experts say the issue is twofold. The first problem is shortsightedness, said Andre Geim, a Russian-born Dutch-British physicist and Nobel Prize laureate.

“Taxpayers ignore our industry and now the economy is harvesting the fruits of this ignorance,” he told The Moscow News. “[People] believe that we can invest in immediate outcomes without investing years in research.”

A desire for convenience and immediacy has misled Russians into undervaluing the worth of serious scientific investment, he explained. This limited perspective has contributed to the second problem: science is not a priority in the Putin Administration.

“When Putin outlined his priorities for his next presidency during the last election campaign, he put education and science in the least important category,” Kurilla, the Volgograd State University academic, told The Moscow News.

“For him, [they] are not a part of strategic research or development of Russia. Oil and gas is more important than even technological modernization…It’s a very dangerous situation for the country.”

This sentiment has been echoed among other high-level academics. Osipov, the outgoing RAS president, also criticized the Kremlin’s unsupportive attitude towards academics during a meeting before the RAS elections last week. “All levels of authority need to understand that support of science is not charity, but the mission and function of the government,” he said.

The 2013 budget for the Russian Academy of Sciences is about 68 billion rubles ($2.1 billion). Defense spending for Russia in 2012, by comparison, topped 2.9 trillion rubles ($90.7 billion).

 

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