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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Academy of Sciences May Lose Autonomy

The historic autonomy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which has pioneered fundamental research since its founding by Peter the Great three centuries ago, is under threat from government proposals to bring the institution under much tighter state control and to end its academic freedom, academy members say.

"This is really a war," Alexander Nekipelov, vice president of the academy, said in an interview at the institution's august administrative headquarters, a tsarist palace on Leninsky Prospekt. "I am sure we are going to win it, but of course we cannot help being worried by the situation."

Members of the academy, which in 1980 defied Soviet demands that it expel dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, view the plan as part of a broader trend of increased official control over key parts of society. They contend that the effort is also driven, in part, by bureaucrats who are greedily eyeing the organization's rich portfolio of property, which includes prime real estate in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

"In this scheme, academic work becomes subservient to government," said Sergei Rogov, director of the Institute for the U.S. and Canadian Studies, a wing of the academy. "The entire infrastructure of research will be destroyed." Under the government's plan, his organization and other foreign policy think tanks might come under the control of the Foreign Ministry.

Government officials describe their efforts to give the academy a new basic charter as necessary to inject some efficiency into an academic cocoon run by an aging club of researchers too removed from the modern economy. "The new charter should create a competitive environment, and it should cover new mechanisms of state and public control over the academy," said Dmitry Livanov, a deputy minister at the Education and Science Ministry.

Some independent analysts agree that the academy has let itself slide into lethargy in recent years. Older members, they say, tend to cling to posts as sinecures; many younger ones have gone abroad in search of better pay and opportunities. The organization has often been slow to commercialize its scientific discoveries.

"The academy needs reform," said Alexander Shatilov, deputy director of the Center for Current Politics in Russia. "The question is whether it needs the kind of reform the government wants."

The issue will come to a head this month at the academy's annual general assembly, when its 1,250 full and corresponding members vote on a new charter. The document they have drawn up incorporates few of the elements demanded by the government.

The government has not said how it will respond if, as seems likely, academy members reject its demands. Members, however, appear to be relying on the belief that in an election year, political leaders will not want an open conflict with prominent members of the country's intellectual community, who still command a great deal of respect.

The academy's senior members oversee a $1.2 billion budget, 400 research institutes and 200,000 researchers and staff members across the country. The institution is self-governing. The funding of research, as well as personnel matters -- from who becomes a researcher to who enjoys the prestigious title of full membership, "academician" -- is determined by secret ballot.

The dispute grows from legislation that parliament passed last year that set new standards for state academies and required them to enact new charters reflecting the changes. The law also applies to academies of medicine, agricultural science, education, arts and architecture, and construction.

Among other changes, the president of the academy, now elected by its members, would have to be approved by the head of state.

That caused some uneasiness, but Nekipelov, the academy's vice president, said the organization was happy to accept the provision after assurances from the Kremlin that it could never imagine a situation in which the academy's choice would be rejected. The academy would also accept an oversight committee if it has no executive functions, he said.

In January, however, the Education and Sciences Ministry posted a "model charter" on its web site and demanded that the academies accept it. That document goes far beyond what was intended by the legislation and would effectively end the independence that allowed the academy to refuse to expel Sakharov, Nekipelov and other academics say.

During the Soviet era, the academy also repeatedly denied membership to leading Communist Party members on grounds that they lacked scientific credentials. It has done the same concerning politicians since 1992. Last year, the academy refused to accept prominent members of the parliament, as well as some businessmen who had petitioned to join. One of the politicians was widely believed to want membership so he could make a bid for the academy's presidency.

Under the government's model charter, many decisions would be handed over to supervisory committees, on which government appointees would hold a 2-to-1 majority. The boards each would have three academics, three representatives from the Cabinet, one representative from each house of the parliament and one from the presidential administration.

"There is no chance the Russian Academy of Sciences will ever adopt such a document," Nekipelov said. "Even if the leadership of the academy agreed to it, we could do nothing, because such a document could never pass the general assembly. We call it a mere provocation."

The government's model charter would abolish the direct and secret election of academy officers other than the president, including the heads of all institutes. They would instead be nominated by the academy's president and approved by its supervisory board.

Just as worrying, academicians said, the new board would allocate funding for research, which could lead to the suppression of specific projects, particularly in the social sciences, if government officials disapprove. The model charter would also allow some institutes to be placed under the control of individual ministries.

Nekipelov added that funding of basic research in areas such as physics, where breakthroughs are often uncertain and long in coming, would be subject to the whims of appointees who might not understand why some research can last decades.

"They say the president of the Russian Academy of Sciences will determine the main themes of scientific research, but money will be allocated by the supervisory committee. This is nonsense," Nekipelov said.

"Determining spheres of research means allocating money to them. Without allocating money, it is just a list and nothing more."