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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stopping the Brain Drain, One Scientist at a Time

Itar-TassA student working at the Moscow State Engineering Physics Institute, one of the centers to receive MacArthur funds.
It might sound paradoxical, but American money is being put to work in stopping Russia's brain drain. Promising Russian scientists and scholars might be dissuaded from leaving westward if Russian science, which was propped up in the Cold War days but, in more recent years, has been lacking modern equipment and means of supporting researchers, is revamped. So believes Jonathan Fanton, the president of the MacArthur Foundation.

MacArthur, which has been involved in Russia since 1992, has recently announced it will award $21.6 million in grants to Russian public and private educational institutions. The particular program that funds research and education centers universities across Russia, spanning from Vladivostok to Petrozavodsk, began in 1998 and has grown from three grantees to 16.

"The purpose of this program is to reverse the brain drain and keep bright, dedicated students here," Fanton said in an interview last week, adding that "here" was "not just in Russia, but at universities" as opposed to business. Dedicated to the study of disciplines ranging from optics to marine biology, the centers funded by MacArthur are a new model for Russia, where universities have traditionally been devoted to teaching and research is done at Academy of Science institutes.

Marine Biota Research and Education Center at Vladivostok's Far Eastern State University is one of the first winners of the MacArthur grant, and as such, has been doing both research and educational work, creating two of its 10 currently operating labs from scratch with the help of the grant. The modern equipment and growing library, which have been made possible by the grant, helped "attract many students, who take great pleasure at working at the center," said the marine science center's director, Vladimir Vysotsky.

Besides equipment costs -- which can go from $50,000 to $100,000 for a single machine and which "few universities could handle," said the center's press secretary, Zhanetta Ivanenko -- the center tries to support and encourage students by awarding monthly stipends to undergraduates, giving prizes to winners of research contests and funding graduate and post-doctoral research.

Alexei Kostesha, who has worked at the center since his third year in college and is currently working on his master's degree in organic chemistry, said his research of marine alkaloids began as part of one of the center's projects. The center has helped fund Kostesha's trip to a scientific conference in Turin, Italy, in addition to making his work feasible. "What the research center has given me ... was the money for the acquisition of new equipment," Kostesha said. Sixty percent of the grant money goes toward buying state-of-the art equipment. "I use it actively in my research, and I really like that we have it. Without it, my research would have been impossible."

Fanton takes great pride in the strides made by the grantees. He said that centers are currently working on research as varied as finding a cure for Alzheimer's, growing disease-resistant strains of tomatoes and potatoes, reducing drag on airplanes in turbulent weather, working with an alloy for medical devices, developing material for lining polluted lakes and rivers, and creating a new laser. All in all, 70 new scientific patents have come out of the research funded by the program, he said.

Yenisei Research and Education Center, located at Krasnoyarsk State University, has been monitoring the environmental state of the Yenisei River and successfully cooperating with regional authorities since winning the grant in 1999. "We've twice had oil pipes burst here, and the administration has approached us about whether we can help," said the center's director, Valentin Sapozhnikov. The center also wants to take over the eco-monitoring of oil drilling in the Taimyr Peninsula -- "the tundra in the North, it's very vulnerable," Sapozhnikov said. Another important achievement of the center is its work on the creation of biodegradable plastic, primarily for medical use.

The center has been able to integrate students from different disciplines, involving mathematicians, chemists, and ecologists in its work. The students are excited because of the opportunity to "stew in the educational melting pot together with veteran scientists. They can participate in expeditions and lab research, they get the motivation for education, not surface education, but profound education," Sapozhnikov said.

Another opportunity the centers provide is learning English. There are yearly English camps with instruction from invited native speakers. Yelena Fyodorova and Yulia Chankovskaya, fifth-year students at Krasnoyarsk State University, went to an English-language camp in 2003. "I don't know of any such courses anywhere," Fyodorova, who has been monitoring sewage from the local pulp and paper plant as part of her research, said of the instruction they received in conversational English and writing scientific articles. Chankovskaya, who has been researching the effect of bacteria on water quality in nearby Shira Lake for the past three years, said: "We feel great about working at the center. Students who work at other labs don't have opportunities like ours."

Ivanenko is not so sure that the program can have much of an effect on the bigger brain-drain picture in Russia. "I would definitely say there are opportunities for work, but the question is more profound than that and concerns the government's policy toward young people," he said. "This is overall Russian policy. The fact that our centers have been operating for five years is unlikely to have had any serious impact."