Outcry of Russian Scientists

By | March 11, 2018

Presidium of Academy of Sciences building

On December 27, 2017, 397 Russian academicians and corresponding members of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAN), professors and doctors of sciences sent an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which the “overwhelming majority of the academic corps” expressed dissatisfaction with the 2013 reform of the Academy. Scientists argued that “the style and methods of the Federal Agency of Scientific Research (FANO) work interfere with scientific activity” because it applies the rules of ordinary budgetary institutions to research institutes “completely ignoring the creative and exploratory nature of the work of researchers.” This was the second letter of scientists to Putin. There was no answer to the first similar letter sent in July 2016 by 200 scientists.

FANO was created in September 2013, when, on the initiative of the Russian Ministry of Education and Science (Minobrnauka), the restructuring of Russian scientific institutions began. The previously separate agricultural (created in 1929) and medical (created in 1944) sciences were merged with RAN, and organizations belonging to RAN and their property were transferred to the management of the new federal authority, the FANO. However, Minobrnauka is still responsible for scientific institutions in universities.

The FANO is subordinate to the Russian Federation Government and its head is appointed only after the Russian President’s approval. Since 2013, the agency has been headed by now 41-year-old Mikhail Kotyukov,  theformer deputy minister of finances (he graduated in Finance from Krasnoyarsk State University in Siberia). Since July 2017  Kotyukov has also determined what RAN research information should be classified as state secrets. FANO has divided all the sciences into four sections:

  1. Mathematical, physical, computer and technical sciences
  2. Chemical Sciences
  3. Life Sciences – Biological and Medical Sciences
  4. Environmental sciences – Earth sciences, ecology and others.

By November 2017, 1,008 academic institutions reported to FANO but . Since there are no people in the FANO who have even a remote relationship to science, there is a reasonable general opinion within the Russian scientific community that the agency was created to enrich people close to the authorities by plundering institutional assets. In addition, the “planning” of FANO makes no scientific sense.

The signatories of the December letter wrote:

Scientists must “plan” how many discoveries they will make, how many and in which journals they will publish articles in the next few years. This planning is impossible in principle, and these requirements lead only to fraud and deception. The same applies to the ridiculous calculation of the normo-hours [a normo-hour is an indicator that characterizes the amount of time needed to perform work – V. B.] for the preparation of scientific products… If urgent measures are not taken to correct the described tragic situation, then in March 2018, the newly elected Russian President will take over the country with a decapitated, dying fundamental science that can’t meet the challenges of the modern world.

Scientists asked Putin to return the leadership status of scientific research institutions to RAN.

Instead of forwarding the letter to Putin, the bureaucrats of the Presidential Administration sent it to the government, and on February 15, the FANO responded to the letter. The agency said that the request to return scientific institutes to the RAN is impossible because it contradicts the law, two decrees of the President, two government decrees, as well as the “formed system and structure of federal executive bodies.” The FANO’s officials also stated that, although state funding of science had declined in recent years, it should now grow. The number of scientific publications has grown significantly, and the number of young scientists in scientific institutions has increased by 3 percent in the last three years. In conclusion, the FANO assured that “it is always ready for a constructive dialogue […] within the framework of the current legislation.”

One of the signatories, Academician Vadim Brazhkin, a physicist and director of the Institute of High Pressure Physics within RAN, commented:

This answer causes an ambivalent impression. The first letter to Putin, sent by 200 scientists in July 2016, had no response at all. Now, the bureaucrats have answered through the chain of subordination […] even politely, according to bureaucratic standards. But we, of course, were waiting for an answer from Vladimir Putin, even if his spokesman [Dmitri Peskov] said that the President is aware of the appeal. [In its answer,] the FANO detailed the legislation and regulations under which it works. Of course, thank you, [FANO], but we expected not this answer, and we sent the letter not to you.

Meanwhile, the Club “First of July” (Klub “1 iyulya”), an unformal association of scientists opposed to the RAN reform, reacted to the FANO letter more sharply:

You can argue on each point [of the FANO]. Thus, while speaking about a 3% increase in the number of young scientists, the FANO does not mention the close to a record number of young scientists emigrating from Russia. The main idea of the “Letter of 400” is: Academic science in Russia is in a terrible shape, and it is dying. The alternative point of view of the bureaucrats that scientists “now are living better, have more happiness” [a paraphrase of Joseph Stalin’s infamous statement in 1935, at the peak of repressions in 1934-35: “Life has become better, life has become happier” – V. B.] is an irresponsible lie. And if to look a little farther than tomorrow, this massive deception is a crime against the state.

On February 21, 2017, now 415 Russian scientists sent one more open letter to President Putin. They wrote:

Many of us, while still working in the USSR, in a largely unfree country, at that time felt free in their research. The feeling of freedom, so necessary in scientific creativity, is now disappearing in the grip of financial specialists who demand reports. The situation calls for immediate measures at the level Russia’s top leadership. Science in Russia should be given back its special status and be self-governing.

According to the signatories, President Putin is “the only person authorized to take a meaningful political decision on our proposals. […] Science in Russia can’t develop […] under the control of the incompetent structure called the FANO.”

Apparently, Putin has a vague understanding what is happening in Russian science. According to him, Russian science has a great future. Earlier, on February 8, he visited the city of Novosibirsk in Siberia, where he met with scientists working in the institutes of the Siberian Branch of RAN.

Before and during Putin’s visit, measures reminiscent of a martial law were introduced in the whole city. On February 7, inhabitants were forced to clean the city center from snow. Then the police visited apartments in houses along Putin’s future route and demanded they remove mosquito nets and sunscreen films from the windows. Residents were urged to stay at home on the next day and not look out of the windows. The stairs to the attics of the apartment buildings were sealed.

Putin arrived on the night of February 8, and in the morning the House of Scientists was surrounded by army cordons and a covered military truck with the inscription “FSB of Russia” was standing nearby. The number of policemen exceeded all limits, the central Red Avenue was crowded with traffic police cars, helicopters circled over the city, main highways were blocked, transport routes changed, residents had to go to work on foot in the morning.

Putin gave a speech in the House of Scientists that showed he vaguely understood what he was talking about. “In science, as in other areas, we must achieve a real breakthrough,” Putin said. He stressed that the key principle of state support of scientific research will be concrete practical results, the creation of global competitive products and breakthrough technologies. “Already today, our scientists are helping domestic companies, are helping to achieve success in the technology race, including that in the field of processing and transmission of large data. The interaction of science and business should become a key condition for the realization of the Digital Economy Program.” This is a state program approved in July 2017 and scheduled for 2017-2030 with the extremely unclear goal of the “creation of the ecosystem of the digital economy of the Russian Federation, in which data in digital form are the key factor of production in all spheres of socio-economic activity and in which effective interaction is ensured, including the cross-border, business, scientific and educational community, state and citizens.” It’s hard to get through this bureaucratic lingo.

Putin congratulated scientists on the Day of Russian Science (this day was announced by President Boris Yeltsin in 1999) and noted that strengthening the scientific potential of Russia is crucial for the future of the Russian Federation. “It is obvious that now the leader will be one who will have his own technologies, knowledge, competencies, they become the most important resource of development, ensure the sovereignty of the country without any exaggeration,” he said.

Then Putin turned to genetics: “The accumulated intellectual and scientific potential allows organizing large-scale genomic research in Russia. I ask you to develop an appropriate program in a short time, to provide mechanisms for supporting strong teams, creating advanced infrastructure and training personnel.” It’s unclear what he meant under “the large-scale genomic research.” And even more puzzling was his other phrase: “Both in genetics and in other areas it is necessary to use more widely the so-called convergent approach, nature-friendly technologies.” But obviously, he thinks that it’s enough to give an order, and scientific developments will magically happen.

Apparently, the developments in human genetics, as he understands them, are becoming one of Putin’s idée fixe. In October 2017, speaking at the International Festival of Youth and Students in Sochi, Putin stated that the current level of genetic technology is so high that scientists can actually “get into the genetic code.” He continued: “Now it is quite conceivable that soon a person will be able to create another person . . . And what I said may be worse than a nuclear bomb.”

In Novosibirsk, after biology Putin talked about medicine: “Russian scientists have made a significant step forward in relatively new interdisciplinary areas, such as life science, where research is conducted at the intersection of biology, chemistry, genetics, medicine, bioinformatics, physics. […] Serious progress has been achieved in regenerative medicine. We are talking about innovative developments that allow people to be saved, for example, with almost complete skin damage, to return to normal life for those who have experienced a severe brain injury or a stroke, with fewer risks to replace heart valves.”

Putin called for the formation of powerful international research centers in Russia, recalling the proposal to create one of such centers in Novosibirsk. “We must continue to expand cooperation with other countries, increase the openness of our science,” he said.

Also, Putin mentioned the problem of young scientists: “Everyone who shows successful results should have the opportunity to build a research career in Russia, implement major scientific projects, have a long-term horizon for planning their activities.” According to Putin, the effective implementation of a program of Russian so-called mega (i.e., big) grants will help: “We need to offer such tools that will not only attract outstanding scientists as laboratory managers, but also form powerful international research teams in Russia.”

According to Putin, “both famous scientists and young researchers should see that it is interesting to work in Russia: here we are setting up ambitious goals that meet the challenges of the time, and all conditions have been created for this, to achieve a breakthrough, to meet the challenges that our country faces today.”

Later Putin visited the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Siberian Branch of RAN. At the end of the meeting, he asked scientists to write proposals and promised to evaluate them. Interestingly, how he, not a scientist, will do that.

Putin also gave awards to the laureates of the Presidential Prize in the field of science and innovation for young scientists for 2017. The winners were the historian Nikita Bashnin (a specialist in the history and economy of Russian monasteries) from the St. Petersburg Institute of History of RAN, the crystallographer Konstantin Kokh of the Sobolev Institute of Geology and Mineralogy of RAN’s Siberian Branch, and Maxim Nikitin, head of the Laboratory of Nanobiotechnologies at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology.

And here is the opinion of a professor of Saratov State University, on the situation in Russian universities. Professor Vera Afanasieva, Doctor of Philosophical Sciences and Candidate of Mathematical-Physical Sciences, explains:

The number of Russian scientific publications is growing much faster than world scientific knowledge. Almost every Russian professor has a hundred publications, some have much more. […] The overwhelming majority of the current Russian scientific works contain nothing new. These are replications of the same results, obtained long ago, when there was still time and energy to think […]

There are several reasons [for this].

The first is the need to follow the established order. In Russian science and education, it is […] the ratings [of publications] and salary levels directly depend on the amount of written papers. . . Those who have a low rating, who have not written kilograms of paper for a year, run into the risk of being fired […] At the same time, […] the quality, and simply the content of scientific works, are of no interest to anyone, only quantity. […]

The second reason […] is intellectual degeneration. The latter is a direct consequence of the long-term destruction of the national education. For a quarter of a century education in our country is not respected […] The whole country is taught somehow, from schools to postgraduate studies. In science, a new generation of insufficiently trained, dependent, not gifted, not too successful people has already come. Poverty, dependence on ignoramuses, make science the last refuge of meager minds who have received a classical education; a place of vegetation of those who are nowhere else handy. The former guard of scientists, those who knew-dared-could, becomes old and goes away.

The third reason is the total Russian immorality. Scientists, like all in our country, are accustomed to lie, they consider a lie to be the norm. It is necessary to publish as many articles as possible […] Let’s lie, rewrite what has already been published, take from the others, publish raw, ill-conceived-untested-unfinished texts, not interesting to anyone; it’s not a crime. But it is a crime against the truth and against yourself.

The saddest thing is that many people, long ago without seeing a real honest example, do not realize the miserliness of their so-called achievements, their insignificance. They are sure that their opuses are genuine scientific creations. Some even seriously fear that the nonsense they produce could be stolen, and are vigilantly reading other people’s texts — are their own meager words there; locking their desks with a key; while writing, hiding their texts from the colleagues.

Here is one more example of the official attitude to scientists. In January 2018, Doctor of Biological Sciences Aleksandr Soloviev, dean of the Agronomy and Biotechnology Department at Moscow Timiryazev Agricultural Academy, was fired because he protested against the transfer of the experimental fields and gardens of the Academy for the construction of apartment buildings. Since there are no people in the FANO who have even a remote relationship to science, there is a reasonable general opinion within the Russian scientific community that the agency was created to enrich people close to the authorities by plundering institutional assets and the seizure of the fields and gardens confirms this opinion.

In addition, On March 2, 2018 the judge of the Koptevsky Regional Court of Moscow ruled against Dr. Soloviev’s appeal to reinstate him at the Academy. On March 14, the same court ruled to fine Mariya Kuzicheva, a student of the Academy, for 20,000 rubles (approximately $350) (university student stipend is about 7,000 rubles per month) for organizing a picket in defense of the dean. In fact, she did not even participate in the picket, according to the Trade Union “University Solidarity” page on Facebook.

As one could expect, Putin’s answer to the appeal of Russian concerned scientists was formal and didn’t touch upon the problem of scientists with the FANO. On February 23, Putin sent a draft of amendments to the law on the RAN for consideration by the State Duma (Russian Parliament). A description of the draft was given in bureaucratic language that means nothing: “The amendments clarify the goals, tasks, functions and powers of the RAN. The bill proposes to include in the aims and tasks of the RAN the scientific management of universities and scientific organizations, the popularization of science, the forecasting of the directions of Russia’s scientific and socioeconomic development, and work on research in the interests of national defense and state security.” According to the draft, the appointment of the director of an institution could be made without coordination with the FANO, but the appointment of his deputy on science should be coordinated. The rules for the coordination were not given. In other words, the FANO will continue overseeing the research work of scientific institutions.

Putin’s long, almost two-hour speech addressed to the Federal Assembly (both Russian Parliament chambers, the State Duma and Federal Council) meeting on March 1, 2018 shows how little he understands the situation with Russian science. Putin declared that now Russia “is ready for a real technological breakthrough […] The next few years will be the main ones for technological change, no matter who wins the [Presidential] election.” Also, Putin said that by now the country is in a state of stable development. “At the same time, stability should not be turned into relaxation,” he added.

During the second hour Putin described innovations in the Russian defense industry. This part of the speech was the most aggressive in years, Putin said the weapons would convince other countries to heed Moscow’s leadership. For example, he showed a 3D movie of the launch of the “Sarmat” ballistic missile equipped with a missile defense system. Another video demonstrated tests of the latest cruise missiles with supposedly nuclear engines with allegedly unlimited range of flight. On the video, a missile launched from Russia flew to South America and even rounded it. “Nothing like this exists in the world, no one else has it,” Putin said. Also, a video simulation of an underwater drones with a nuclear charge, which could hit an aircraft carrier and a coastline, was shown. The hyper sound missile “Kinzhal” (“Dagger”) was among other military wonders Putin described, and according to Putin, to an outside observer this missile will look “like a meteorite.” Putin concluded: “Such weapons can only be created in a country that has advanced science and education. Russia has this potential.”

However, as the site Republic and users of social networks demonstrated, in the video about the missile “Sarmat,” (SS-X-30 “Satan-2”) shown during Putin’s speech, old footage of the missile “Voevoda” (SS-18 “Satan”) from the TV documentary “RS-20 ‘Satan’ (nuclear shield of Russia)“, from 2007, was used.  Showing fake news has become a habit of the Russian Defense Ministry. In November 2017, the ministry removed a tweet from its official account, in which images allegedly taken by drones supposedly demonstrated the US cooperation with the Islamic State terrorists. In fact, these were frames from a computer game, posted on the Internet. The other three pictures in that tweet were taken from a video of the Iraqi Air Force action in Fallujah in 2016. Later Viktor Bondarev, head of the Federal Council’s Committee on Defense and Security corrected Putin, saying that according to the state plan, Russian troops will be provided with the state-to-the-art missiles “Sarmat” from 2018 to 2028. In other words, the missiles are not ready for production yet.

Russian and international experts and analysts were skeptical about Putin’s boasts. Ivan Moiseev, director of the Institute for Space Policy (Moscow), commented the enthusiastically described by Putin cruise missiles: “Such things are impossible. One cannot equip a cruise missile with a nuclear engine. There is one engine that is being developed now, but it’s a space engine. And of course, there were no trials held for those weapons in 2017, one may only wish such engine would be tested in 2027.” As The New York Times noted, “Max Trudolyubov, a newspaper columnist and political analyst, called [Putin’s] speech a modern version of the Czar Cannon, a giant 16th-century piece of armament that sits on the Kremlin grounds and that legend holds never really worked.”

A poll on the webside “News.ru” (approximately 2.500 respondents answered) showed that many Russians were not impressed by Putin’s boasts about supposed Russian military superiority:

Do Putin’s theses indicate a new arms race?

Yes – 70.24% (1718)

No – 19.99% (489)

I don’t care, in any case it wouldn’t be better – 9.77% (239)

Do you agree with Putin that Russia needs these weapons to “encourage our partners to negotiate”?

Yes – 30.87% (755)

No – 69.13% (1691)

Do you believe that the weapons named by Putin really exist in Russia?

Yes – 28.58% (699 respondents)

No – 71.42% (1747)

What awaits Russia after Putin’s announcement of a “militarized” message?

Even more financial and social problems – 79.24% (1938)

Revival of national pride and power – 12.26% (300)

Now the West will start negotiations with Russia – 8.50% (208)

After the message, did you want to vote for Putin in the March 18 elections?

Yes – 18.04% (441)

No – 44.97% (1100)

I will not vote – 36.99% (905)

But, apparently, for Putin it’s more comfortable believing in falsified technical achievements of his generals than to face the reality of Russian science.

In the March 18 elections, Vladimir Putin, “won”, gaining 76.66% of the vote with a turnout of 67.5%. As one of opposition websites wrote, the 77% “depicted” figure fits perfectly in the election figures of other authoritarian leaders of the former USSR: Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan (97.75%), Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan (84.54%), and Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus (83.49%). According to observers, various tricks were used during the election process for raising the number of votes for Putin. Statistical analysis of the results showed approximately 10 million suspicious votes. The real number of people who voted for Putin, was 46.5 million, and not 56.4 million as officially announced.

According to Nikolai Dolgushin, Chief Scientific Secretary of the RAN, in 2013, 20,000 scientist left Russia, and in 2016, this number increased to 44,000. Each year about 100,000 Russians are leaving Russia.

Author: Vadim Birstein

Dr. Vadim J. Birstein is a historian and geneticist. He is the author of over 300 scientific papers and books and has written two scholarly historical works, "The Perversion of Knowledge: The True Story of Soviet Science" and "SMERSH, Stalin's Secret Weapon: Soviet Military Counterintelligence in WWII". He received the inaugural "St. Ermin's Intelligence Book Award" in 2012 for SMERSH.

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