Sergei Yakovenko's blog: on Math and Teaching

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Save the Russian academics

Filed under: opinion — Sergei Yakovenko @ 3:31
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Several weeks ago the Russian scientific community was stunned by the news that the Russian Ministry of Education and Science plans to legislate a series of drastic measures to “reform” the Russian Academy of Sciences, the structure under whose aegis the main bulk of research (and a good part of scientific education) is done. The measures included merging the Academy with two other academies (medical and agricultural) and stripping the Academy from the “property management” (including, but not limited to, the real estate).

The existing Russian Academy is not ideal as a governing body for scientific research (nothing is). It was essentially created (again, by cardinally redesigning its precursor, the Imperial Academy) by Stalin to solve the engineering and technical problems dictated by the arms race (the space and nuclear research). These huge industrial and engineering challenges required military-like subordination and hierarchic structure. To establish a clear chain of command, two categories of  members (academicians, members of the Academy, and corresponding members), were to become the chief officers of the new combat arm and de-facto promoted to super-scientists. These super-scientists were empowered with super-authority in everything related to research and relevant logistics. They were made directors of research institutions, chairs of committees allocating funds, the most influential of them had the ear of the highest rank Soviet leaders in matters of national priorities. They were granted the perks only a few in the Soviet Union could boast (luxury housing, provisioning, even some intellectual freedom).

The system proved its efficiency then by reaching the claimed goals. Notably, although the main objectives were in the applied engineering areas, the academicians were fully aware about the need to develop the fundamental sciences and mathematics (the humanities and social sciences were a different story), and they succeeded in doing that beyond all expectations. Many members of the Academy were (and are) great scholars whose achievements were universally recognized, including the Nobel, Wolf and Dirac prizes.

On the other hand, the Soviet/Russian academic system has its own weak spots. Competition was practically eliminated: every research area has its own Mecca with its own Pope-en-chief. Scientific inbreeding, sometimes disguised as “famous scientific schools”, turned many areas into dictatorships (often enlightened, but nevertheless dictatorships) of a single person. No mechanisms for dead wood cutting were built in the system as long as the academician-protector was in power.

The composition of the body of the academicians is also uneven. Together with the deepest scholars and people of scientific vision, the system eventually accumulated a heavy ballast of politicians-cum-scientists, managers elected for their administrative clout and other birds of the feather. Integrity of many of a member of the Academy could be questioned, at least in what concerns their role in fair allocation of limited resources, awards, positions, publications in prestigious journals etc. In an “inexplicable way” some of the best representatives of the Russian scientific diaspora (e.g., several Fields prize laureates) time after time fail to get elected to the Academy despite their intensive cooperation with their Russian colleagues, often on the Russian soil.

The situation indeed requires serious soul-searching, debriefing and thorough discussion of the ways how these problems should be addressed.

Yet the proposed “reform” has nothing to do with any of the above problems. I do not know a single person working in Russia (apart from a few demagogues or idealists), who would buy the declared goal of “increasing the efficiency of scientific research” as the real rationale behind the proposed move. It’s a sheer profit, stupid! The reaction of the Russian academics was predictable [2,3].

The Russian scientific community was devastated in the early 90-es, when over a third of its members, the most mobile and energetic, abandoned their cold empty labs with disintegrating infrastructure and moved to the West. For a decade the scientific research was almost clinically dead. But relatively recently the government funding of the scientific research was increased considerably. The area that was practically abandoned since the early nineties suddenly was brought back to the fore of the national priorities (not clear for how long and how sincerely). Money began pouring in. In parallel the value of the real estate administered by the academic institutions, especially in the historical heart of Moscow, soared. All this made managing the property of the Academy a tidbit worth a few dirty tricks. This seemed to be an easy task: the current members of the Academy (full and corresponding) were to be bribed by disgraceful handout of $3000 per month to keep their mouth shut, the opinion of the “workhorses” really doing research was not even assumed to be heard. The plans were to introduce energetic “efficient managers” who would control the money allotted to the scientific research, thus sparing the precious academic brain force for the “pure science”. No doubt, these managers would soon institute the corporate ethics into what remains of the scientific culture, with the ill-famed citation indices being the main indicators of what has to be supported and what has to be “sanitized”. The ruling bureaucracy, no doubt, will find additional pleasure watching humiliation of the intellectually unruly Academy, punished for several recent affronts it dealt to the Kremlin-sponsored candidates.

Many scientists in the world, especially those who maintain close cooperation with their Russian colleagues, took the issue of the “reform” of the Academy close to their hearts and wrote letters to the Russian authorities, cf. [1,4,5] below. In these letters they politely state the obvious things: that the Academy is very far from the “failure” as it is painted by the “reformers”, that the measures proposed to increase the efficiency are unlikely to achieve the stated goals, that any steps should be first discussed by representatives of all sides, primarily of the scientists themselves. My most sincere gratitude and respect to the authors notwithstanding, I am afraid that these polite letters will have a very small impact on the decision makers, if at all. The “reform” is not an ill-advised step made by a good-willing czar out of ignorance. Instead, the truth should be told: it is a pre-planned (although hastily and quite stupidly, as often happens with things done by dirty hands) assault aimed to snatch a juicy chunk out of “shaky hands”.

There is a species of wasps, called the spider wasp, who attack their prey and rather than killing it, sting the neuronal ganglion which controls the spider’s motions. Immobilized by the venom, the spider remains alive, but cannot do anything when the newly-born larva starts gnawing into the living flesh. Of course, the spider eventually dies, but only after the larva completes this stage of its life cycle, when the health of the victim interests nobody. The “reformers” act exactly this way, – nothing personal, just business.

Pre-reform statePost-reform state

Pre-reform state (left) and post-reform state (right) of the Russian Academy of Sciences

The “reform” (better called putsch) should be stopped now. Not for the sake of shifts in the power sharing between the super-scientists and state bureaucrats, but because of the mortal blow it will deliver to the remaining body of academics (in the usual sense of this word, the scientists) currently working in the institutions affiliated with the Academy. It’s them who are most vulnerable and who will be the first victims of the sting. Perhaps, the spider is not a model of beauty, but I personally find the larva more  disgusting.

References

While the story is unfolding in the real time, its development is well documented (albeit almost exclusively in Russian).

  1. Russian roulette: Reforms without consultation will destroy the Russian Academy of Sciences. Editorial, Nature (July 3, 2013)
  2. V. M. Polterovich. Reform of RAS: an expert’s view (in Russian).
  3. Russian Academy of Science. The protest chronicles. Ed. by A. N. Parshin (in Russian)
  4. Ingrid Daubechies, President of the International Mathematical Union. Letter to S. Naryshkin, Speaker of the Duma.
  5. Gunter Stock, President of ALLEA (Association of All European Academies), Letter to V. Putin
  6. Michael Gelfand, What has to be done about the Russian science. Nature (August 21, 2013). Point of view of one of the people who advocated necessity of reforms (not to be confused with the “reforms”) in the Russian academy
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