President Vladimir Putin last week signed a clutch of decrees that could have a profound effect on science in Russia. One stipulates that all state research funding should be distributed via a competitive grants system. Previously, research institutes received government support to cover things such as upkeep of buildings and utility bills, but that could now stop, as will the government’s so-called state targeted programs, which single out certain areas for direct financial support.
It remains unclear, however, how the new system will work as the decrees don’t describe an organizational scheme. “One can only welcome the introduction of a competitive funding system,” says Valery Rubakov of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ (RAS’s) Institute for Nuclear Research. “But only on one condition: if the competition is absolutely transparent. In this case it may do much good. Otherwise, it will be deadly for many laboratories and not only for the ones that are ineffective.”
Russia’s Ministry of Education and Science has been trying to introduce such a system since the fall of the Soviet Union but has been hampered by RAS, which has controlled most basic research in Russia. RAS supports competitive funding publicly, but has worked to maintain a system that evolved in the former Soviet Union, in which it controlled the distribution of funds within the academy. But a recent reorganization  of Russia’s research system reduced RAS’s influence and the ministry is taking the opportunity to implement a competitive funding system.
At a meeting of the Council for Science and Education, which advises the president, Putin said that supporting science “by apportioning budget for state targeted programs” should be stopped; that position was confirmed by one of last week’s decrees. Observers expect the authority to finance research programs to be assigned to the Russian Science Foundation, a new agency established last November.
“Today we cannot say how the foundation will work,” Yevgeny Onishchenko of the RAS Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow, tells ScienceInsider. “Researchers who have already started to participate in the competition for this funding will face serious problems. They risk either being left without the money they were counting on, or getting it with a substantial delay, much later than they actually need it.”
“If basic funding becomes a matter of competition—an unclear competition—as it is seen at the moment, for many institutes it will mean a catastrophe,” Rubakov says. “Today, basic funding in Russian institutes is meager, it is hardly sufficient to cover public utility charges. If this funding is put out for tender it would mean bankruptcy for many institutes.”
Putin also decreed a yearlong moratorium on anything being done with RAS property, which was transferred last year to the jurisdiction of the newly created Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations. Putin had stated his intention to do this last fall.
In general, Onishchenko says, the government has again plunged the research community into a state of uncertainty. “Everything that is happening now and to which researchers are trying to somehow adapt, can radically change any minute. And it is unclear if that change will be for better or for worse.”
Photo caption: Change agent. Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with students at the National Research Nuclear University in Moscow earlier this week.
(Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office/Government of Russia)