Former USSR: Halting the Brain Drain

Article excerpt

Low wages and a poor public image have forced more than half Russia's scientists to quit science in the last to years. International co-operation is trying to repair the damage

When Alexei Perchuk joined Moscow's prestigious Institute of Geology, Mineralogy, Petrochemistry and Geochemistry in 1987, he was looking forward to a glittering career in the best tradition of Soviet science. The son of an eminent university professor and, like him, a petrochemist, the 24-year-old graduate was fulfilling a dream of many fellow students at that time, for whom a job as a researcher was still a great honour.

Today only Academicians still have real status. Rank and file researchers like Perchuk no longer do. A 1996 public opinion poll by Moscow's Centre for Science Research and Statistics showed that the three most prestigious professions in Russia were business, banking and politics. The three least respected groups were researchers, the military and engineers. Very low pay - Perchuk earns about 800 rubles ($30) a month - has completely devalued the work of scientists and engineers.

To escape poverty, Russian scientists have three choices - go into industry and earn about $100 a month, become a "businessman" and hope to earn millions, or go abroad. A dozen of Perchuk's friends have already made up their minds - half of them have gone into business and the rest have left the country.

Perchuk himself hasn't decided yet. His affection for his country and his work still overrides his money problems. Financially speaking, the institute where he works belongs to the privileged few that have been given priority status by the government. As a result, its scientists work in good conditions and none of them has yet left for abroad. But while there have been no departures, no one new has been hired for the past 10 years. This means that after 12 years, Perchuk is still one of the Institute's youngest researchers.

At national level, the situation is catastrophic. UNESCO's 1998 World Science Report says Russia had about 900,000 scientists involved in research and development (R&D) when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. …