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New Russian Science Minister Will Continue Push From Academy to Universities

23 May 2012 11:33 am
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Newly reelected Russian President Vladimir Putin will be missing a familiar face at the cabinet table following the announcement yesterday that his longtime colleague and personal friend Andrei Fursenko will not return as Minister for Education and Science in the new cabinet. Instead, he has been appointed an adviser to the president. In his cabinet seat will be Dmitry Livanov, rector of the National University of Science and Technology (MISIS), and Fursenko's deputy from 2005 to 2007.

Formerly a physicist and businessman, Fursenko was made science minister in 2004. One of his successful initiatives was the introduction of a Western-style system of bachelor's and master's degrees in universities, which enabled Russia to join the Bologna process of integration in higher education. His introduction of a Uniform State Examination was not so well received. It was supposed to make it easier for graduates from provincial high schools to get into the university system. But Fursenko was blamed for the high rate of corruption in the university admissions process.

Fursenko also set up a system of multimillion dollar competitive grants to attract foreign researchers and emigres to come to Russian universities and set up labs there. Some say these too are contaminated with corruption: "He brought the system to a situation where bribes and kickbacks were thriving in the funding competitions. At the same time, the quality of research at least didn't improve," says Evgeny Onishchenko of the P. N. Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow.

Although unpopular with many researchers, Fursenko also tackled the thorny issue of reform of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS). After a long struggle for supremacy, the ministry finally got the upper hand, and RAS is now dependent on the ministry and has lost its role in defining science policy. Worryingly for some academicians, the ministry in recent years has tended to favor applied research over basic science, giving preference in funding to the projects that promise short-term benefits for industry. "Many of his initiatives ended in failure—the RAS reform, an attempt to develop research universities, and so on. In the first years of his work as a minister, the number of publications by Russian researchers began to grow, but the rise stopped completely since 2009," says Onishchenko.

In keeping with that applied research tendency, Livanov has been heading a university which is a leading educational institution in metallurgy and is strong in applied research. The MISIS Web site clearly states that "the University is working to develop research and development projects in prioritized areas of the economy, as identified by the Presidential Administration."

Livanov laid out his philosophy last year in an article in Expert, an authoritative Russian magazine. He detailed the measures necessary to successfully reform Russian science. Among his priorities were the need to raise research funding, improve the quality of research evaluation, and shift the emphasis in research from RAS institutes to universities. "Livanov is a physicist and knows the problems of Russian science very well,” Onishchenko says, although he is concerned about the proposal to shift research to universities. “The bureaucratic system in the educational institutions is even worse than in the academy, and [Livanov] will face enormous resistance. Instead of improving the situation, he may worsen it. It all depends on what way will he choose as minister."

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