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Russia: Despite Drain, Some Russian Brains Remain (Part 2)

  • Francesca Mereu

The scientific establishment in the Soviet Union was one of the largest in the world, boasting one-third more scientists than in the United States. It was not only superiority in numbers; Russian scientists were considered among the world's best. Much has changed since the fall of the Soviet Union more than a decade ago. Funding is no longer a priority, and many scientists have fled abroad. In the second of a two-part story, RFE/RL finds out how much respect Russia's scientists command today, and what role they are playing in the international arena.

Moscow, 30 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Scientific advancements were strongly supported by Soviet ideology, but after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, science was removed from the list of the state's top priorities. It was considered more important to revamp the old Soviet political and economic systems than to help the scientific community develop further.

During the past 10 years, Russian science has suffered a precipitous decline in financial support. Many Russian scientists left the country to find better-paying jobs, while others left science to work in other fields. As a result, many experts predicted the imminent demise of Russia's scientific prowess.

Irina Dezhina, a senior researcher at Russia's Institute for the Economy in Transition, said that for each Russian scientist who emigrated, another 10 left science for another sector of the Russian economy.

Dezhina said that some 800,000 scientists practiced their profession in the Soviet Union. Today, she said, only about 426,000 of them are still working in science. An estimated 10,000 to 30,000 scientists left the country.

Boris Saltykov served as Russia's minister of science and technical policy from 1991 to 1996. He said that on the one hand, the brain drain has diminished Russia's scientific potential at home. On the other hand, he said, the spread of Russian science is positively influencing the world scene. The talents of Russia's scientists are no longer a state secret, he said, but are instead being shared with foreign colleagues. "One of the signs of the new time is that the number of articles Russian scientists published together with foreigners has grown substantially. Earlier, there were fewer. We published [our articles] in our journals, and [foreigners] in their journals. In this context, on the one hand, Russian influence has diminished [since Russia has fewer researchers]. But on the other hand, it has grown because now Russian science is more integrated with Western science," Saltykov said.

Dezhina agrees, saying that Russian cooperation with Western researchers is having a positive impact on both sides. As an example, Dezhina cited the U.S. Civilian Research and Development Foundation (CRDF), an American foundation with grant programs designed to support Russian scientists. In these programs, American and Russian scholars work on projects together, with each team working in its own country.

Dezhina said U.S. and Russian scientists meet occasionally and visit one another's laboratories. In this way, she said, Russian scientists have the opportunity to use modern American equipment, and American researchers are exposed to the Russian experience.

Dezhina asked both American and Russian physicists, after three years of working together on a CRDF project, to assess the impact of their collaboration. She spoke about her findings. "For the American side, it was very important -- [it was] like number one -- [to be exposed to] Russian expertise in this field, and the methods they learned from their Russian colleagues. So I think that it is in their mutual [interest] to look for such programs. For the Russian side, it was also the expertise, but more importantly, it was access to the American equipment we don't have," Dezhina said.

Dezhina said Russian scientists are contributing to international scientific advancements by sharing their knowledge with the world. For example, she said Russia is still considered strong in physics, mathematics, computer sciences, and genetic molecular biology.

Dezhina said Russia is unique. In comparison both with Western countries and the countries of the former Soviet Union, the level of foreign participation in Russian research is very high, and the growth of such participation is unprecedented.

Vitalii Lissotschenko is the head of LIMO, a German firm that produces micro-optics and laser systems. Lissotschenko, a physicist specializing in optics, left Russia as soon as he felt there was no hope to develop his skills further at home.

Lissotschenko attracted German investors and founded LIMO. He said the level of Russia's scientific expertise is still high, for the time being, but that scientists lack the financial means to achieve results. "In Russia, scientific potential existed, it still exists and, I believe, it will remain. The theoretic level is very high. But because of financial problems, it is very difficult for our people to get practical results in their work," Lissotschenko said.

Lissotschenko said laboratories in Russia are capable of performing top-quality work but that such research is slowed by what he called an "elementary lack of equipment."

Aleksandr Karasik agrees. He is a professor at the Moscow Engineering Institute and a researcher with the Laser Department at Moscow's General Physics Institute. Karasik said Russian scientists now have the chance to receive foreign grants and work with foreign colleagues, but that this money is not helping them improve their professional expertise. "Money [from foreign grants] is not enough to improve our scientific level. With that money, you can't buy modern equipment. It is some support. You can buy a personal computer. But modern science is based on very expensive equipment. What we had in Soviet times matched the international level. Now [our equipment] is not at that level, and year by year the gap between us and the [world's] leading scientific countries is growing bigger and bigger," Karasik said.

Petr Zverev, head of the Laser Department at the General Physics Institute in Moscow, looks at the situation with more optimism. He said Russian scientists are playing a great role in international scientific circles, despite the poor equipment they must work with. "Very often, we go to conferences to report our results. In Europe and in America, people listen to our results. Yes, of course, we cannot perform and experiment at a high technological level, but we can use our heads and think up tricky solutions that can show international science [the value] of our achievements," Zverev said.

But Karasik said the Russia scientific community is resting on its laurels. For example, one of the most positive recent events to occur in the Russian science establishment was the 2000 Nobel Prize in physics, awarded to Russia's Zhores Alferov. But Karasik said the prize was given for work Alferov had done 20 years earlier.

According to the Center for Political Information, some 800 to 1,500 scientific inventions and processes were certified every year in the Soviet Union. Today, it says, Russia certifies only some 100 inventions and processes annually.

Lissotschenko said Russian science could improve with the help of foreign investment, but he said the country doesn't offer enough guarantees to attract investors. "We may build a firm in Russia, like the one we have [in Germany]. We may also make some investments in [Russian] technology. But first of all, the conditions are such that it is impossible to have guarantees for our investments. [Second,] it is difficult to buy land or to build a firm on sites with developed infrastructures. But if there is some initiative on Russia's part, and some guarantees, we are ready to take the issue into consideration," Lissotschenko said.

Many Russian scientists are making ends meet thanks to contacts they have with foreign universities. Today's average salary for scientists in Russia varies from $60 to $100 per month. Foreign grants add some $200 to $600 per month, Dezhina said. Moreover, such grants are not subject to income tax or value-added tax.

But Saltykov said many laboratories in Russia are still not accustomed to the new reality. "What Russian science lacks is good modern management. Most leaders in science today are Soviet leaders. They were able to organize work, to spend money, when the money was given by the state. But they don't have experience at all on how to find money, on how to find orders. Some of them complain that they don't know how to write grant applications. They complain that they have to spend too much time writing proposals. But it is normal life [for scientists] in the West," Saltykov said.

Saltykov said there are research centers that work at the highest levels because they have good managers who know how to procure the necessary funds. Indeed, the most successful Russian research institutions get more than 25 percent of their budgets from foreign sources.

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