Saturday, October 26, 2013

By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia) - King Charles the second loved to pose riddles! A story goes that the king invited members of the Royal society to explain to him why a dead fish weighs more than the same fish alive.The scientists answered with all kinds of novel and sophisticated explanations. Then an amused king told them they were all mistaken! A dead fish weighs the exact same as an identically live fish. He had lied to them in a witty way and took them to task for not challenging his deception! 

Perhaps the president or the minister of education would dearly love to send up the Russian academy of sciences in such away. However,Charles the Second was endowed with subtle wit which officials are largely devoid of! Whereas Charles the second could get away with charming scientists, officials attempt to deceive them in a crude,vulgar and crass way.The Russian scientists are not as gullible as the English scientists .The minister of education displays as much tact as a sledge-hammer.This is clearly demonstrated  by some of his past remarks.

He once stated - 'If my words offend someone from the scientific community then I sincerely regret it .The purpose of organised scientific work of the Russian academy of science doesn't appear modern, doesn't appear effective and doesn't come up to World standards.The responsibility for this lies with the management of the Academy of Science'.

Regarding the academy as ill-managed,ineffective and largely incompetent,the government is seeking to remedy the problem with establishing a newly appointed board of Government officials and token scientists who will assume the reins of power and take control of the wealthy assets of the academy.The Government claims that the Academy is too bureaucratic and set in its ways.But that is not how the Russian Academy of sciences sees things! They believe that entrusting authority to incompetent and unqualified officials would make things far worse.It would lead to more bureaucracy,not less not to mention increased corruption.They point to the government's disastrous reform of the Ministry of Defence which ended up mired in corruption scandals.

This is not the first time the Academy of Sciences has collided with governments.The Empress Anna attempted to subordinate scientists to her courtiers,Stalin killed some of the best scientists in the country and Khrushchev threatened to close it down.By some miracle the Russian Academy of Sciences,founded in 1724,has survived !

The new reforms challenge the very identity of the Academy. It will be merged with the academies of medicine and agricultural sciences. Membership will be devalued to let in candidates who might not deserve entry.


Few people would disagree that the Russian Academy of Sciences is in a dire state.The effectiveness of its work has been steadily declining over the years and it has been chronically deprived of much required funding. As many as 40 to 50% of its members are reputed to be above retirement age and they have been publishing less and less over the years.Many of the best scientists have left the country as they feel there is often 'no real scientific community' where one can work to the fullest capacity. A Russian scientist Artem Oganov stated 'All those people who could have obtained or could have acquired Nobel prizes have left.I feel that Russia has lost in the order of 80 to 90% of her best scientists ,if not 100 %,but all the same,it represents a steep fall.'

Scientists such as Andrei Geim,Linde  and Maxim Kontseich have left.The Russian Academy of Science is already partly commercialised although this process would be intensified by government reforms. Artem Oganov stated, 'If scientists don't publicise their work ,it means most of them are not absorbed in science but something else.For example,renting out their buildings to Auto-salons'.

While on my way back from an international science conference, a young man handed me a leaflet inviting me to attend a demonstration on the 13th of October, where the case for defending the Academy of Science would be made. I accepted the invitation and went to Revolutionary Ploshchad, in the city centre near the Kremlin,where the protesters were gathering.The leaflet which I had been given was full of all kinds of oddly curious slogans such as 'Reform of the Russian Academy of Sciences represents a blow against Russia..We demand that the reform of Russia is put under citizens' control, and 'Stop the Westernisation of Russian science' and 'Recognize the strategic growth of Russian science.'Without Science Russia has no future and don't surrender to the privatization of science'.

The leaflet was issued by the trade union of the workers at the Russian Academy of sciences'.The problem is that to stop the westernisation of Russian science betrays a lack of knowledge of the Academy's own history. The Russian Academy of Science was founded in 1724 as part of Peter the Great 's drive to westernise Russia! In fact,it was largely the brainchild of a German scientist, not Russian! The Academy started off as a community of invited German scientists because there was practically no real science in Russia.The present academy consists of 434 research institutes which undertake research and members once enjoyed perks such as free apartments and dachas.They were once a privileged and prestigious elite where scientists could earn a reasonable if not lucrative salary.

Around the square there was a group of people holding Red flags and handing out leaflets and papers.It resembled more of an old Soviet Communist party rally.However,appearances are deceptive. In reality ,all kinds of young students,elderly scientists and tourists were wandering around. Unfortunately, only a few hundred people turned up and the news of the rally was overshadowed by a program against migrants following a murder of a Russian by an alleged 'migrant'.

I asked one demonstrator what the demonstration was about. He answered 'It is about the Russian government's reforms which are aimed at destroying science.The government is only interested in making money.'Speaker after speaker who addressed the rally repeated the same message  that the Russian government is trying to destroy science and that this was an attempt to loot the Russian Academy of science's property'.

One fiery speaker,C. Kurginyan, thundered, 'The call of science comes when all the Academy of science is utterly dismantled. There is the call of education, which warns that children will be half-educated or quarterly educated or not even educated at all .' A call was made to defend 'Soviet science', 'Patriotic science' and 'The peoples' science'. The Government were perceived as being Luddites who were out to destroy science. The speaker appealed to laymen not to remain indifferent to science as it serves the public interest and represents the foundation of civilisation.

It seems inaccurate to view the government attempts at reform as an attempt to destroy science. It would be more accurate to describe it as an attempt to challenge the hegemony of some scientists and to impose its narrow view of science on the Academy of Science which they believe should serve the interests of an elite of officials and wealthy businessmen who have their eyes on the assets of the academy.

Science is to be plundered and assaulted, rather than destroyed. Nevertheless, the Academy of Sciences has to radically formulate an alternative vision of science which truly offers an attractive alternative and vision to the narrow-hand-fisted bureaucratic vision of the Government. The trade unions and wider community need to get their act together in organising much more structured and coherent opposition. For this is regressive reform, not innovative or open-minded. Much more people need to heed the call if the Academy of Russian Sciences seeks survival.

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