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Russia: Russian 'Brain Drain' Leaves Future In Doubt (Part 1)

  • Francesca Mereu

Russia's scientific establishment -- once among the world's best -- has been reduced to a skeleton of its former self, living off crumbs from the federal budget. The post-Soviet decade saw tens of thousands of science professionals leaving the country for better opportunities abroad, and more than a million scientists leaving the profession for other jobs within Russia. In the first of a two-part series on the state of Russian science today, RFE/RL looks at the problem of "brain drain."

Moscow, 30 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia inherited nearly all of the Soviet era's scientific resources. But the Russian research establishment, like many other sectors of Russian society, was hit hard by the economic crisis that followed the collapse of the communist system.

According to a research project conducted by Harvard University history-of-science professor Loren Graham, the past decade of transition has seen Russian government funding for research and development drop from about 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to less than one-third of 1 percent. In Soviet times, this figure never dropped below 2 percent. This, combined with the steady decline in GDP figures over the past 10 years, amounts to a bleak picture for science, once the keystone of Soviet glory.

Further emphasizing the decline of Russian science is the steady outflow, or "brain drain," of science professionals seeking opportunities abroad. The Harvard study indicates that Russia has lost between 10,000 and 30,000 scientists since 1991. Other estimates put the number far higher, at some 200,000.

Aleksandr Karasik is a professor at the Moscow Engineering Institute and a laser-technology researcher at the Moscow General Physics Institute. He said that nearly all of his former colleagues are now working abroad. "The outflow [of personnel] in science is really noticeable [in Russia]. For example, I used to be the head of a leading lab for nonlinear fiber optics. Now 90 percent of my [former] lab employees are working abroad: in the United States, in Mexico, and other countries," Karasik said.

The situation is even more dire when one looks at the problem of "internal brain drain," where science professionals remain in Russia but give up their vocation to pursue better ways of making money. Recent estimates in Russia suggest that as many as 1.5 million scientists -- researchers and technicians -- have left their jobs over the past decade.

Petr Zverev is the head of the Laser Department at the General Physics Institute. Now in his 40s, Zverev said nearly all of his university colleagues have changed their profession during the past 10 years. "If we take the group of 20 people with whom I graduated from the Moscow Physics Institute, now only five of them work in the science sector. Others are working in the banking sector or do business. Among those five [still working in science], only two of them are working in Russia. The other three have emigrated to other countries," Zverev said.

Low salaries are one factor driving scientists away from the field. Scientists' wages during the Soviet era were considerably higher than average. By 1997, however, their salaries had dropped to 30 percent below average, and since then have dropped even further. Now, scientists' salaries rank 10th out of 11 employment categories in Russia, ranking above only those working in arts and culture.

In practical terms, this means even those professors who work as department heads and maintain impressive research and publishing schedules may earn as little as $100 a month. Postdoctoral researchers may earn only $60 a month.

Olga Zharenova is a researcher with the Center for Political Information and the coauthor of a book on brain drain in Russian science. She said depleted government coffers mean not only low salaries for scientists but also little or no resources for new equipment. This, as much as anything, she said, is driving Russian scientists abroad. "The problem of money [for salaries] is not the most important one [for scientists]. The most important thing for them is to make progress with their research. [This is the reason why] the lack of modern equipment and technology is tragic for them," Zharenova said.

In the Soviet era, where the national interest was focused on advancing the country's space and military-industrial sectors, scientists were provided with the most modern technology and equipment available. But now, Zharenova said, Russian scientists are often struggling to conduct research with equipment that is upwards of 15 years old.

Karasik said buying his lab a modern laser system would cost about $100,000 -- "money we wouldn't even dream of," he added.

The combination of poor salaries and impoverished research budgets has, not surprisingly, turned many of Russia's best and brightest students away from science. The average age of Russia's scientists today is between 50 and 55 years, compared to the West, where it is 45. This, Karasik said, is another big problem. "The main problem is that now you don't have young people coming to work in science. The best-qualified groups we prepare [at the institute] usually leave after they get their degree. They either go abroad or they just give up working in science and start doing something else. You can understand them. Science isn't prestigious anymore. [Scientists] earn next to nothing, and [young people] can easily earn more just by selling telephones," Karasik said.

The situation, Karasik added, is only likely to get worse. Although the number of students enrolling in scientific institutes is still high, many are looking only to get an inexpensive, high-quality education they can then take abroad. But as the last generation of Soviet-era professors ages and retires, Karasik said, there will be no one to take their place.

The Kremlin appears to be addressing the problem. Gadzhimet Safaralev, deputy head of the State Duma Committee for Education and Science, said Russian President Vladimir Putin is aware of the crisis facing the scientific community. In the past two years, researchers received all the funds allocated to them in the budget. Moreover, budgets are once again on the rise. In 2000, funding for science increased by almost 39 percent, and Russia now spends some $1.3 billion on science annually. The numbers are expected to increase even further in the 2003 budget.

But such improvements still fall dramatically short of science budgets elsewhere. The United States, for example, spends some $652 billion annually on research and development.

Earlier this month, a group of scientists held a demonstration in Moscow asking the government to honor a 1996 law stipulating that at least 4 percent of federal budget funds be directed at research and development. The Finance Ministry said this target will be realistic only by 2010, a time many Russian scientists say will be too late.

Safaralev said it is difficult to argue for higher science expenditures at a time when Russia is facing economic crises in a number of crucial sectors. But he said even now many scientific institutes can improve their economic standing by renting out space to commercial firms. He also said scientific institutes enjoy considerable tax breaks from the state. "There is a lot of tax relief. On the whole, if you calculate how much academic institutions get, it is much more than 40 billion rubles [some $1.3 billion]. In real terms, the financing for science turns out to be 56 billion rubles [some $1.8 billion]. But a simple scientist doesn't know about this," Safaralev said.

But Karasik said he feels the government is not truly interested in improving the situation. "It is unclear how the problem is going to be solved in the near future. I feel that the government is not interested in [solving] it. It seems to me that, on the one hand, [authorities] want to keep the country's [former scientific] prestige alive and [don't want] science to be destroyed. But on the other hand, you don't see any concrete changes that make you think the situation is going to change for the better in the near future. We're going to lose forever the rich scientific potential we amassed over many years," Karasik said.

Both Karasik and Zverev say their research has survived during the past 10 years thanks to help from foreign foundations. Since 1991, foreign organizations have provided more than $4 billion to research and development. U.S. billionaire and philanthropist George Soros has personally donated some $130 million. The Harvard University study on Russian science indicates that currently nearly 17 percent of research-and-development work in Russian science is funded from abroad. At some of the country's most prestigious institutes, that number rises to between 25 and 50 percent.

Russian science funds are doing their part as well. But scientists say they themselves are limited in the amount of support they can provide -- often it is only enough to cover the cost of a single computer. For now, dedicated scientists like Zverev and Karasik spend a few months of every year working abroad at foreign research centers in order to make ends meet at home.

(This is Part 1 in a two-part series.)