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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Academic Town Left Out in the Cold

NOVOSIBIRSK, Russia -- Akademgorodok, the science research center buried deep in the heart of Siberia, was arguably the birthplace of the economic change that is sweeping through Russian society. But, by a cruel twist of fate, those very changes have triggered a brain drain that now threatens the town's future.


Akademgorodok, or Academy Town, has long been a center of liberal thinking. When Mikhail Gorbachev launched his perestroika program in 1986 he drew his chief economics advisor, Abel Aganbegyan, from the town's Economics Institute.


Yet the market forces unleashed by reform have not been kind. The one-time center of excellence now faces a lack of funding, staff losses and rock-bottom morale.


Heads of institutes are forced to survive on monthly salaries of less than 3, 000 rubles (about $7. 50). Staff frequently go unpaid, and there have been rumors that Moscow may withdraw all funding for the first three months of next year.


The result has been brain drain. Brilliant young scientists no longer want to stay in Akademgorodok, preferring more lucrative posts in Moscow or abroad.


Fifty former staff members of the Genetics Institute now work overseas, while the scale of emigration to America is such that the United States now houses a sizeable "old boys club" of graduates from the Physics Department of Novosibirsk State University.


"One problem is lack of career mobility", said Professor Alexander Shaposhnikov, who acts as a spokesman for the community. "Important posts are all filled, so the brightest and most ambitious scientists move away for more money and prestige elsewhere. We are left with the mediocre".


Along with the changing economic goals, the scientific emphasis has also shifted in Akademgorodok. Pure science is no longer a sacred cow; instead, priority is given to applied sciences and projects of practical worth to industry.


Business sponsorship is encouraged, while pure science faculties like the Institute of Mathematics suffer under the new policy of economic pragmatism.


"We need more cooperation with industry, more joint ventures, more entrepreneurial activity", said Shaposhnikov.


"We also need to attract investment from abroad", he added. "Unfortunately, Akademgorodok has a disgracefully reactionary presidium that tries to block all new ideas".


Perhaps the most symbolic change from the early glory days is Akademgorodok's aging population. The town always buzzed with young enthusiasts -- in 1971 the average age of its research scientists was only 31.


Now older academics are settled in posts they have no intention of surrendering. Idealism, inevitably, has declined into complacency.


"Akademgorodok used to be a wonderful place", said Natasha Tumanova, a resident since the very first days of Akademgorodok and a teacher at Novosibirsk State University.


"The atmosphere was so invigorating", she recalled. "There was a real sense of discovery and community. You would see world famous scientists jogging in their shorts, and illegal literature banned by the authorities was always easily available".


Russia's foremost ivory tower was launched on a wave of idealism and optimism. The town in the taiga, 30 minutes from Siberia's largest city, Novosibirsk, was built in 1959 to house the Siberian section of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and Novosibirsk State University. To help attract top scientific brains to distant, forbidding Siberia, Akademgorodok's shops were better stocked than elsewhere. Shoppers poured into the town from Novosibirsk to buy eggs and sausages unavailable in their own stores.


Within Akademgorodok, scientists felt they were shaping the future. There were breakthroughs in many fields. A sense of vitality and optimism seized the town. The intelligentsia were far enough from Moscow to speak freely.


Looking back to those days, Tumanova spoke bitterly.


"Science was the only thing that worked well in this country", she said. "Now the place is being spoiled by thoughtless government policy. Nobody has any money. All the young people are leaving because by their early 30s they have exhausted the equipment and opportunities available here. I really fear that Akademgorodok is dying".