Putin Grants Minor Concessions on Bill to Overhaul Russian Academy of Sciences

8 July 2013 2:30 pm

The Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) has gained a 3-year reprieve from a government plan to merge it with two smaller academies. But RAS would still lose the ability to manage its extensive property and real estate holdings.

Incensed by what they view as an attempt by President Vladimir Putin to destroy the 289-year-old research organization, dozens of scientists have said that they will refuse membership in the new version of RAS. They are also trying to build support for a counterproposal to what the Russian government wants to do.

On 27 June, Russia's science minister, Dmitry Livanov, unveiled a draft law that would fundamentally change the status of RAS. On 3 July, Putin met with the newly elected RAS leader, Vladimir Fortov, to discuss the proposal. On Friday, the Russian parliament, or Duma, endorsed changes to the original plan in the course of taking a second vote on the legislation. Final passage is expected this fall.

Under the latest version, RAS will not merge with the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences. Instead, RAS will preserve its current status for at least 3 years while undertaking changes aimed at increasing its effectiveness. Putin also backed away from his attempt to erase the distinction between full-fledged academicians and scientists of a lower rank, called corresponding members. The revised law still gives corresponding members a chance to become full academicians on a competitive basis, but it does not define the status of those who do not pass the competition.

The authority to manage what is now RAS property would shift to a special agency created by the government. At their meeting last week, Putin asked Fortov to lead the new agency, and the next day Fortov accepted Putin's offer. But Putin rejected Fortov's plea to be given 1 year to carry out significant reforms at RAS before any major administrative changes are adopted. "If I fail, do fire me," Fortov told the Russian president.

Instead, Putin decided not to delay the current draft legislation. "Sometimes it is better to pass a document and then amend it rather than to flail around and do nothing," Putin told Fortov.

Although Fortov praised the latest version of the legislation, many researchers take a gloomier view of the changes. "The law, in whatever version it is passed, eliminates not only the academy but all Russian science," says Boris Ioffe of RAS's Alikhanov Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics, who is an RAS corresponding member. "Previously, how the system worked was very bad, but understandable. Now it is completely incomprehensible," says Mikhail Gelfand, a professor of bioinformatics at the RAS Institute for Information Transmission Problems and a member of the Ministry of Education and Science's Public Council.

Sergei Popov, of Moscow University's Sternberg Astronomical Institute, thinks that the country's leaders are playing a sophisticated, multistep game that he does not understand. "The scandalous level of affairs related to the academy goes off scale," Popov says. "Of course, [RAS] must be reformed, but not this way. Whatever happens, it is the ministry that would lose in the first place, but [later] it will be the whole of Russian science."

Nikolay Podorvanyuk, Popov's colleague at the Sternberg institute, says that he is willing to accept Livanov's statement last week that conditions for the average research won't change immediately after the law is enacted. But he's less sanguine about the long-term prospects. "Livanov said that the reform is only a frame and a canvas and the picture must be painted by the scientific community," Podorvanyuk says. "But it's hard to believe that anyone at the academy's top would remember about ordinary researchers."

About 70 academicians have publicly refused to become members of the new academy if the law were passed. "The law is full of false statements," says academician Vladimir Zakharov of the RAS Lebedev Physical Institute. "I haven't seen a single proposal that the academy or Russian science might benefit from."

Zakharov and another academician, Valery Rubakov of the RAS Institute for Nuclear Research, are part of a group they have labeled "The July 1 Club." The group plans to ask the RAS Presidium, which meets tomorrow, to hold an extraordinary general meeting of the academy in early September. Zakharov hopes that the academy membership would use the meeting to adopt its own version of the draft law and present it to the Duma before it casts the third and final vote for the law.

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