Russian scientific academy draws Nobel laureate support in protest at control Bill

Scientists say the Kremlin is clearing the legal way for a major land grab

Zhores Alferov: the 2000 Nobel prizewinner for physics turned out for street protests. Photograph:  Alexander Aleshkin/Epsilon/Getty Images)

Zhores Alferov: the 2000 Nobel prizewinner for physics turned out for street protests. Photograph: Alexander Aleshkin/Epsilon/Getty Images)

 

There are not many places in the world where you’d see illustrious academicians and even octogenarian Nobel laureates out carrying banners in street protests. Except, that is, for Russia, where hundreds of scientists are battling to overturn a controversial Kremlin plan to reform the Russian Academy of Scientists.

At yesterday’s demonstration in Moscow, about 200 scientists and their supporters gathered in early morning rain near the Duma, or parliament, where deputies were expected to debate amendments to a Bill that will transfer control of the fiercely independent academy to a federal agency. The Bill will also strip it of the right to manage its valuable property portfolio.

Zhores Alferov, the 2000 physics Nobel prizewinner who heads the Duma’s science committee, has been among the most vocal of the protesters who have rallied in Russian cities from Moscow to Saint Petersburg and Vladivostok since the government detailed plans to overhaul the academy three months ago.

He has described the proposed reforms, as “a complete disgrace” that will “kill” Russian science” once and for all.

Founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1725, the academy has, over its centuries-long history, grown into the biggest academic institution in Russia, managing most of the country’s scholarly research through a network of 434 affiliates.

In its hey day in the Soviet era, this august organisation was at the cutting edge of a scientific revolution that helped put the first man in space, create a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and build Russia’s own atomic bomb.


Scientists as stars
Soviet academicians were showered with material privileges by the communist authorities that ordinary citizens could only dream of. They were regarded with an admiration comparable to the popular worship of today’s footballers and rock stars.

The glory days at the Russian Academy of Scientists came to an end in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and state funding dried up. Many of Russia’s most talented scientists have been snapped up by foreign companies and institutions since then, and those left behind have struggled to produce ground-breaking research.

After Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, the Kremlin began trying to impose its will on the academy, but the academicians, who are still highly respected in Russia, resisted.

Somewhat unfairly, Russian officials have painted a picture of the academy as a club of elderly and even corrupt researchers who produce little of scientific value.

For its part, the academy has criticised the authorities for trying to push through hasty reforms in the summer recess without consultation with the scientific community.

Most egregious from their point of view is the government’s plan to take over management of the academy’s property portfolio. This includes not just research institutes, but hospitals, sanatoriums and valuable real estate in Moscow.


High-profile opposition
The scale of the protests – that included not only scientists, but notable members of the Russian intelligentsia such as Nataliya Solzhenitsyna, the widow of the Soviet dissident writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn – appears to have taken the Kremlin by surprise.

In July, Mr Putin summoned Vladimir Frolov, the president of the academy, for talks aimed at resolving the dispute. After the meeting, legislators drafted a set of amendments that are said to water down some controversial aspects of the Bill.

The protest yesterday took the form of a gulyaniye (walk about), to bypass Russian police rules that outlaw unauthorised demonstrations. It was timed to coincide with the Duma debate on the amendments.

Many of the protesters acknowledged that Russian science needs to modernise and align more closely with international standards, but they suspect the government may have a hidden agenda.

“No one knows what’s going on,” said Mikhail Gelfand, a doctor of science and professor of bioinformatics. “It’s all happening under the carpet.”


Recipe for ‘chaos’
The reforms were ill-thought-out without any consideration about their implementation, he added. “They could cause chaos in the years ahead.”

Raising the stakes, the Russian Society of Scientific Workers, the academy trade union, accused some Duma deputies of academic plagiarism and demanded their resignation ahead of the vote. “We consider it categorically unacceptable that the fate of the Russian Academy of Scientists is being decided, among others, by Duma deputies suspected of falsifying their dissertations,” the society said in an open letter published in the Russian business daily Kommersant.

Even if the Duma, as expected, votes conclusively in favour of academy reform later this week, the protests are likely to continue, said Prof Gelfand. “Today is one of the big days [in the protest movement]. I regret it will not be the last.”