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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Why Science Is So Poor




The science crisis is only the continuation of the disintegration of the Soviet nomenklatura system, which includes scholarly institutes.


Scientists joined the ranks of the picketing miners last month in front of the government building. Their demands were political: the dismissal of the president and government. The Academy of Sciences union leader, Viktor Kalinushkin, explained the reasons for doing so. In his view, the majority of workers in scientific institutions believe that the country is becoming a source of raw materials where science is not needed. But it is a northern country that requires an economic course for the development of advanced technologies. The government leadership rejects or does not even consider the proposals by scholars for economic development. Only people other than those now in government can change the present course.


According to the director of the Institute of Earth Physics, Vladimir Strakhov, who twice in 1996 went on hunger strikes, Russian science, which once had some of the most powerful schools in the world, is now in critical condition. If life continues in the same direction for another two to three years, the scientific community will cease producing world-class results. There are two basic problems: 1) Scientists are forced to look for extra work outside their specialties, while losing their professional qualifications; 2) Basic instruments and equipment have not been updated for eight years and all the material provisions for scientific research are in a terrible state.


This is the first time since the Russian Civil War that such a situation has arisen. But the crisis should not be considered a purely external problem in relation to science. The problems did not begin with perestroika or the period of reforms that came later. What is happening now is only a continuation of the disintegration of the Soviet nomenklatura system, of which institutions of higher education and scientific institutes were a part.


By the 1970s it was already extremely hard to land a job in academic research organizations or prestigious scholarly institutes without patronage or family ties. And it was much more difficult to build a career there. The Russian tradition of putting the continuation of scientific work above personal relations had been forgotten. Children and relatives of brilliant old professors began to take their places regardless of their abilities. For example, one of the sons of a Moscow State University professor, who now has a senior teaching post in mathematics, was once nicknamed "Flunkie." At the graduate level, mostly Komsomol, Communist Party and union leaders were accepted "by appointment."


In many institutes, women and Jews were no longer taken in. The same was true of other groups, especially peoples of Caucasian descent. The quality of research, of course, did not improve as a result.


Seeing their positions as sinecures, the pseudo-scholars and so-called organizers of science often canceled the best domestic scientific projects and proposed instead copying morally and technically obsolete Western models. This is one of the reasons why Russia is terribly behind in computer technologies. Such "useful work" was done by the many institutes attached to various branches of industry that were scientific only in name.


Science in the Soviet Union was above all oriented toward orders from the military. When perestroika began, true scientists hoped they would finally get the chance to realize their own projects in the civilian sector of the economy and in public life. But the heads of many institutes and the subdivisions that served them decided to use the situation to their own ends. The number of people who fed off science turned out to be greater at the time than those who truly wished to engage in it.


Heads of laboratories began to demand from their scientific colleagues that they rewrite old reports in order to sell them under the guise of new work. Then the main source of income -- and a very substantial one for the administration -- was to rent out productive space, including libraries, for example, to commercial organizations, exchanges and banks.


Contacts with the world community were one of the privileges of the scientific nomenklatura, which it rushed to exploit under the new conditions in Russia. The nomenklatura used this privileged position to distribute grants in their favor, go abroad with their families on exchanges and sell everything they could there.


Like many of my young and active colleagues, I left official science. Some stopped their research activities altogether, some tried to work on their own and others went abroad where, in their opinion, the level of students and scientific research is generally lower than in Russia.


But as it turned out, the brand name of the place of work still means far too much -- not only within the nomenklatura system but for colleagues abroad. After several years of swimming on market waves I was forced to return to the Academy of Sciences. Practically nothing has changed there. In the institutes, where there are virtually no young people left, life continues as if in a parallel world: Too many inhabitants there have a poor conception of what is really happening outside.


Now that the hungry scientists have finally gone out to protest, the leaders of the majority of institutes -- who in Strakhov's words are accustomed to "beating out money through the apparatus," which means government hand-outs through personal connections -- are trying to continue to live as before. These are the people who represent Russian science in the eyes of Western colleagues. If this view of Russian science, like the economic course of the government, does not change soon, then not only will Russia suffer but so will the rest of the world. And this does not even take into consideration the increasing presence of Russian scientists in countries like Iran where they would be better off not being.


Tatyana Matsuk, a sociologist, holds a doctorate in computer science. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.