MOSCOW—Physics research in Russia is on the cusp of a major transition. The government plans to consolidate several large scientific institutes into a single entity that proponents say will make it easier to fund major new facilities. However, some physicists decry what they believe to be the latest government maneuver to undermine the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS).
Earlier this year, 15 institutes signed an agreement forging a partnership on megaclass research facilities. Major signatories include the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, the Alikhanov Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics, the Shubnikov Institute of Crystallography, the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, the RAS Institute for Nuclear Research, and the RAS Special Astrophysical Observatory. Then, just before elections to choose a new RAS president in May, outgoing academy president Yuri Osipov and Kurchatov director Mikhail Kovalchuk wrote to Russian President Vladimir Putin asking him to transform the partnership into a separate body. Putin ordered the government to work out the legal framework for the new body by 1 September.
Some welcome the move to deepen the partnership. “I may be an optimist and my colleagues may criticize me, but it is a good agreement,” says Leonid Kravchuk, deputy head for science at the RAS Institute for Nuclear Research in Troitsk, which, too, will join the association. He predicts that the collective will be more effective at landing research funding than each of the institutes could manage on their own.
Others are less enamored by the deal. They see it as another threat to the embattled RAS, which is fighting for its identity as the government moves to strip it of control of its lucrative real estate assets. Some observers worry that the physics institutes may pull out of the academy altogether. No so, says newly elected RAS President Vladimir Fortov. In an interview with the online newspaper Gazeta.ru, he played down the significance of the institutes banding together. “There is nothing in the agreement that would move the institutions to another jurisdiction, outside the academy,” Fortov stated. “In any case, it cannot be done without the institutes’ consent.”
Critics also worry that the most powerful of the 15 institutes, the Kurchatov, will end up ruling the other 14. Boris Stern of the RAS Institute for Nuclear Research, who on 26 July revealed the terms of the deal in the scientific opposition newspaper Troitsky Variant, believes that the agreement will erode the institutions’ independence and that the funding windfall Kravchuk envisions is a pipe dream. Some institute directors “don’t understand that it is a question of issuing one single decree—and all their dreams will be ruined,” Shtern says. “The only option for them now is to withdraw from the agreement as soon as possible.”