Downsized Yet Still Potent Russian Science Seen Emerging from Current Political Crisis

Article excerpt

Russia's science establishment, the largest in the world in absolute numbers, is in crisis. Salaries of research scientists and engineers have not kept up with the monthly inflation rates of approximately 30 percent, and, as a result, most researchers make less than taxi drivers and small traders, who are in a better position to keep up with the market. The collapse of the Soviet Union, with its centralized administration and budget, has left research institutes without adequate support.

Much greater travel freedom has given scientists and engineers with established reputations the possibility to flee abroad, either permanently or temporarily, and many are doing so, leaving their home institutions deprived of their best talents. Those scientists and engineers who remain, especially the young, have often sought economic refuge by deserting the laboratories for private business activity, where their scientific talents are usually not utilized.

The decline in military research has thrown many applied scientists out of work. Newspapers and journals are filled with articles predicting "the death of Russian science." While these articles contain exaggerations and are written in the apocalyptic style so common now in the Russian press, no one knowledgeable about the situation, either in the West or in Russia, denies the existence of the crisis.

Science in the former Soviet Union was traditionally organized in three large pyramids: 1) the applied research establishment, subordinate to the defense ministry and the centralized ministries of the various branches of industry; 2) the research universities; and 3) the academies of science in each of 14 republics, plus the "big" Academy of Sciences of the USSR, largely located in the 15th and largest republic, Russia, and headquartered in Moscow.

In terms of size, the first pyramid was by far the largest, receiving about 70 percent of the annual R&D budget. In terms of quality, the best and most prestigious pyramid was the academy of science system, especially the "big" academy, even though the academies of science received only about 15 percent of the government's science budget. Contrary to the United States, where fundamental research finds a natural home in the research universities, in the Soviet Union the academies were the locus of most fundamental research, while the universities performed a primarily pedagogical, rather than research, function. The universities traditionally received about ten percent of the annual state budget for science.

I found each of these pyramids in disarray when I made my 30th trip to Russia, in January. Most of the industrial ministries have been abolished, and the factories for which they were responsible are now acting alone. Some of the industrial plants are being privatized, but most are still dependent on the hard-pressed budget of the Russian republic, which finances I them by speeding up the printing presses, accelerating inflation at the same time. At such a moment, research and development falls lower and lower in priority, replaced by the effort for simple survival. At the same time, the plants are struggling, usually without success, to convert from military to civilian production. In 1991, the scientific workforce in the industrial and military pyramid fell by 13 percent.

The state budget for the universities has recently fallen three-fold, while contracts from industry, traditionally an important support for universities, have declined by ten times. …