Embattled President Seeks New Path for Russian Academy

11 February 2014 2:30 pm
Vladimir Fortov

Courtesy of Vladimir Fortov

Vladimir Fortov

Russia’s scientific community is in the throes of upheaval. Last month, the powerful Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) was compelled to merge with two sister academies that serve medical and agricultural research. The reform law setting that change in motion also created a Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations (FASO) that oversees the combined academies and their assets. President Vladimir Putin has said that the reforms will restore luster to an ailing scientific establishment. Others claim to see the machinations of individuals in Putin's inner circle bent on harming the academy or stripping it of its estimated $10 billion in real estate holdings.

In an interview with ScienceInsider, RAS President Vladimir Fortov, 68, an accomplished plasma physicist, criticizes how the reforms were forced upon the scientific community and defends his strategy of cooperating with the academy’s adversaries rather than confronting them. His answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Why is the government reforming RAS?

V.F.: Reforms were happening in the Russian Academy of Sciences, but they were not so conspicuous to society and to the leaders of the country. That is why the leadership introduced its own plan of action. It was the plan for more rapid and more radical reforms, without appropriate consultations with scientists. To the government, it seemed more appropriate to integrate the academies into a general framework that would correspond to their notions of what is modern.

There were, of course, reasons for introducing changes in the Academy of Sciences; we saw them, and just after [my] election as president of the academy we ourselves started to deal with them. Why was a reform forced on us at that time? To my mind it was a mistake—to rely on opinions of some interested bureaucrats but not on the opinions of scientists.

Q: By law, last month RAS merged with two other science academies. Has RAS ceased to exist?

V.F.: On 8 February, the Russian Academy of Sciences celebrated its 290th anniversary. Will it be able to celebrate its 300th anniversary 10 years from now? Much depends on the interpretation and implementation of the law on reform.

As the research institutes of RAS were transferred to FASO, the task of the academy is to preserve their research potential. But from a realistic point of view, one has to admit that in the future, the total corps of research institutes may be diminished.

Q: When all this is settled, what other country will Russia resemble in terms of the organization of scientific research? Are you searching for a model?

V.F.: I’m afraid that it is such a model that was long ago described by Nikolai Gogol, well-known Russian writer in his play Zhenitba, which means marriage, when the bride has a dilemma of a choice among bridegrooms. Nowadays in Russia, there is a fashionable trend of borrowing superficial features from overseas and not paying enough attention to substance.

Q: How will the merged academies be governed?

V.F.: Now, I’m president of a new Russian Academy of Sciences that united the three former academies: the main RAS, the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences. We are in preparation for the first general meeting of the academy, which is due to take place at the end of March. This general meeting will adopt the statutes that clarify the management of RAS.

Q: How do you feel about the law’s provision to abolish the rank of corresponding academician?

V.F.: We managed to avoid the original proposal in the draft law, which was a straightforward scheme of converting corresponding members to academicians [full members]. Corresponding members will have to undergo elections before they become full members. However, academician status has already been devalued by an increasing number of academicians. It looks as if you had turned on a money-printing machine and manufactured three times more money than justified. Naturally, this currency has less value.

Q: There is much discussion about how scientists in RAS institutes will be affected by the merger and budgetary considerations. What percentage of RAS’s 55,000 scientists do you anticipate will lose their positions in 2014?

V.F.: Issues of staff reduction are today beyond the scope of RAS and at least in the near future are not going to be considered by RAS.

Q: Do you envision the reforms will trigger a brain drain from Russia?

V.F.: There is no doubt that it will be followed by a brain drain. We have already felt it among the young people especially.

Q: You have said that you are ready to cooperate with FASO Director Mikhail Kotyukov. However, some observers argue that you should be taking a more aggressive stance to fight for the future of RAS. How you will represent the interests of academy scientists in the coming difficult weeks?

V.F.: We as scientists are well aware of mathematical game theory and understand what strategies could lead to a win or at least to a draw, and which of them will undoubtedly lose. Aggressive strategies turn out to be winning only in one case, i.e., if you have the multiple advantage of force. Otherwise, it’s more reasonable to use negotiations, i.e., cooperative strategies. To rush about and change your strategies depending upon success or failure in resolving individual issues is to go from bad to worse. That’s why, having suppressed our emotions, we along with the RAS Presidium have chosen our own line of conduct, and many scientists and members of the academy have supported us. I still stick to it and remain of the opinion that I have taken sound decisions. I am convinced that over the past half a year we have managed to achieve for academic scientists more than what might have been gained from one or two aggressive attacks.

Q: To what extent will research directions continue to be decided by the researchers? Scientists at the Steklov Institute of Mathematics, for instance, say that a new directive decrees that their research fields will be limited to finance, molecular biology, and other applied fields. Areas that the Steklov gained fame for—geometry, topology, and algebra, for example—will no longer receive support. What is your understanding of this issue, and what leverage will you have in the new system?

V.F.: It’s one of the most complicated and pressing questions. We’ll see how it’ll work in practice. But according to the general health of the economy, the financial support of science is hardly likely to trend upward. So some directions will suffer.

Q: In hindsight, is there anything you wish you had done in the past several months that might have led to a more optimistic outlook for RAS?

V.F.: We wish we had prepared more seriously and carefully for the legislative connotations of the law, to require formal negotiations and a written account of the results of the negotiations. Verbal agreements work badly in today’s Russia.

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