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Darwin Anniversary Highlights Russia's Lack of Science Funding

  • Chloe Arnold

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

MOSCOW -- Hundreds of schoolchildren are descending on the Darwin Museum in southern Moscow this week at the opening of a series of exhibitions dedicated to naturalist Charles Darwin.

Darwin, who was born 200 years ago today, was hailed by early Soviet leaders as an "intellectual hero" whose work on evolution and the natural sciences played a key role in the formation of modern communist doctrine.

The director of Moscow's Darwin Museum, Anna Klyukina, says she hopes the exhibitions will give children a better insight into Darwinism at a time when the teaching of science in schools has been drastically reduced.

“Today in schools, it seems to have gone too far, and hardly any time at all is spent learning biology," Klyukina says. "But I’m glad to say that what little time is spent on biology lessons today does include the theories of Darwin.”

Klyukina’s aim, she says, is to teach children -- and adults -- about Darwin’s theories through 12 exhibitions that will run through 2009, the bicentennial year of his birth. They range from an in-depth look at his work, titled "Darwin: Myth and Reality," to more light-hearted exhibitions for younger visitors, including "The Life of a Worm," and "How Wolves Evolved into Domestic Dogs."

1 Million Scientists

During the Soviet period, the USSR's scientific establishment was one of the largest in the world. The Soviet Union boasted more than 1 million scientists -- roughly 30 percent more than in the United States at the time. The country even created an entire city in Siberia -- Akademgorodok -- dedicated to the study of every branch of science.

Unfortunately, biology lessons -- where children are taught about evolution and about where people come from -- have been cut. So we consider it our duty to teach children as much as we can...
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, science has suffered a setback. The economic and social turmoil of the 1990s saw science budgets slashed, and thousands of scientists left the country for better-paid positions abroad.

Emilia Vorobyova, a microbiologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences, says it isn’t that science no longer enjoys the status it once did.

“It still plays a leading role," she says. "It’s just that it is badly funded, poorly funded. It’s simple: All the conditions have changed. Of course, we would like to receive better subsidies, so that we can acquire better equipment.”

Two years ago, the 300-year-old Russian Academy of Sciences, which has boasted dozens of Nobel Prize winners, came to blows with the Kremlin over government plans to establish a supervisory council, which would include officials from the presidential administration and control the organization’s finances.

Scientists at the academy warned that the move would threaten the body’s prized autonomy, and expressed fears that the real aim of the reform was to allow bureaucrats to get their hands on its state funding and the prime real estate it controls.

Stop The Brain Drain

For now, the plans have been shelved, but the government insists reforming the academy is essential to bring the country’s underperforming scientific institutions in line with the 21st century.

Since then, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has promised to spend $25 billion on science institutions by the end of next year. This, he hopes, will help stop the brain drain and bring back the competitive edge to Russia’s much depleted scientific research.

An exhibit at Moscow's Darwin Museum
At the Darwin Museum, Yelena Baranova guides visitors through a maze of glass cases dedicated to Darwin’s life and work. As a science graduate herself, she says, it makes her sad that children are being offered less science in school.

“Unfortunately, biology lessons -- where children are taught about evolution and about where people come from -- have been cut," Baranova says. "So we consider it our duty to teach children as much as we can, and as far as we are able, what they are no longer being taught at school.”

But for some of the visitors to the museum this week, Darwin’s anniversary was not at the top of their agenda. Igor and his young daughter, Evelina, were happy simply to look at the vast array of animals on display.

“As far as Darwin is concerned, in all honesty we just came here to look at the wild animals, not to study evolution," Igor says. "My daughter is 3 years old. She came here for the first time a couple of days ago. And she just loves to look at the animals here.”

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