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New Law Would Deal a Blow to Russian Academy

28 June 2013 5:25 pm
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Tidings-bearer. Science minister Dmitry Livanov unveiled the new law.

MOSCOW—For months, Russia's science minister, Dmitry Livanov, has derided the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) for being ineffective and ripe for serious reform. At a press conference on 27 June, Livanov showed he means business, unveiling a draft law that would merge RAS with two other science academies, strip it of control of its real estate holdings, and abolish any distinction between full-fledged academicians and scientists of a lower rank, called corresponding members.

The move would radically transform the 289-year-old RAS less than a month after it elected a reform-minded physicist, Vladimir Fortov, as president. The science ministry has asked Russia's parliament to fast-track debate on the law, with passage expected in the next 2 weeks. To the chagrin of scientists who may have hoped to see the law derailed, it has backing from the country's top leaders. Speaking to the RIA Novosti news agency, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that the law is meant to help scientists concentrate. "It's important to allow the scholars to focus on science and research and spare them the irrelevant function of managing real estate," he said.

Instead, the draft law has had the opposite effect: Many scientists are too blinded by rage to focus on their work. The legislation is a "national tragedy," fumes Alexandr Spirin, an academician and former director of the Institute of Protein Research in Pushchino. "The academy will lose the independence it has enjoyed since the time of Peter the Great," the Russian czar who created RAS in 1724, he says.

Under the draft law, RAS would merge with two more specialized bodies, the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences. The law would also establish an Agency for RAS Scientific Institutions that will manage the academy's real estate holdings and property. And it would promote all corresponding members to full academicians—"eliminating the scientific elite," Spirin says—and impose a 3-year moratorium on election of new academicians.

Some researchers bristle at the way that the law was drawn up without outside input. "They didn't even consult with us," says physicist Alexei Khokhlov, vice-rector of Lomonosov Moscow State University and head of the science ministry's Council on Science. In a 28 June statement, the council argues that it is "incorrect that a law that radically changes the whole system of organization of science in Russia was prepared and considered without any discussion in the scientific community." The council went on to note that it was not even aware the law was being drafted.

The stealth and unveiling of the law by press conference are "disgusting," says Mikhail Gelfand, a bioinformatics professor and a member of the Ministry of Education and Science's Public Council. "Many rights were declared for researchers, but in reality everything was decided without their consent," he says. In a 28 June statement, the Interregional Society of Scientists, a nongovernmental organization based here, called the law a "personal affront" to many scientists and demanded a "broad debate" on the law with the possibility to amend it.

Fortov had vowed to reform RAS, but has previously stated that the academy should hold onto its real estate and told RIA Novosti on 28 June that the draft law must be postponed and discussed by the scientific community. Neither he nor Livanov could be reached for comment before ScienceInsider went to press.

Rumors are rampant about the motives that may be driving a law that many scientists feel would neuter the academy. The bottom line, says Mikhail Ugryumov, an academician and neuroendocrinologist at the Koltzov Institute of Developmental Biology here, may be a lack of interest of Russia's leadership in science. "If the Russian government were willing to develop science, it could do that, and the investment would not be tremendously big," he says. "It just looks like science is not among the priorities in Russia."

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