Scientists March to White House

MTScientists rallying at the White House on Thursday after a three-day march to call for an increase in government funding.
Hundreds of chemists, biologists and nuclear scientists, desperate to support their families and feeling forgotten by Russia's post-Soviet leadership, crowded at the government's headquarters Thursday to plead for better wages and research funding.

Anis Gariyev once enjoyed a generous salary and the respect of his neighbors as a chemical engineer at the Pushchino Research Center in Pushchino outside Moscow. Now his 1,500 ruble ($48) monthly salary leaves him among the community's most destitute.

Going to work sometimes depresses Gariyev because several of the offices in his corridor stand empty, abandoned by colleagues who left for more lucrative employment, such as working as a grocery store cashier.

Gariyev, 55, and about 40 other scientists and graduate students marched to the White House for three days to reach Thursday's rally from Pushchino, 130 kilometers away.

"My feet are tired but the trip was worth it," he said. "It's for the future of Russia."

The scientists, some wearing white lab coats, were joined in their protest by hundreds of Communist supporters carrying red banners. They joined in the criticism of the government for the reduction in spending on science and research since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Most of the scientists were middle-aged or older, reflecting the low number of young people joining the profession in recent years because of its miserly pay.

The Soviet Union boasted having the largest number of scientists in the world, researchers responsible for the Soviet space program, advances in superconductor research and vaccines -- and its vast nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs.

But the generous state support for science withered after 1991, prompting many researchers to seek jobs in the private sector or abroad. More than half a million scientists have left Russia since the Soviet Union collapsed, the chairman of the Russian Academy of Sciences' trade unions said last week.

President Vladimir Putin has made rejuvenating Russia's scientific establishment a priority. In March, he gave a speech urging government scientists to streamline their research, focusing on promising new technologies.

The speakers at Thursday's rally said the government has only partially followed through on Putin's promises, earmarking just 35 billion rubles ($1.1 billion) instead of the 49.5 billion rubles ($1.5 billion) pledged earlier.

They said they're ready to modernize, but need money for that too -- not to mention money for basics such as pencils and beakers.