Russian Research on the Ropes

Washington--Painting perhaps the grimmest picture yet of Russian science, a Russian governmental think tank here today presented eyebrow-raising new data on everything from the accelerating scientific brain drain to the decline of federal R&D spending.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the accelerating flight of Russian scientists to other countries or other professions. According to the Russian government's Center for Science Research and Statistics (CSRS), the number of researchers has plummeted nearly 50%--from 1 million in 1990 to 518,700 in 1995. That's not necessarily bad, because more than half the ex-scientists have begun new careers within Russia, and a redistribution of talent to banking and other economic sectors "is gainful for the economy," says CSRS deputy director Leonid Gokhberg. But there's a dark side: Some of the best scientists have left the country entirely, and there's another problem as well in that the "less qualified personnel continue to stay in R&D," he says. Indeed, adds Gerson Sher, executive director of the Civilian Research and Development Foundation, a Washington-based organization that funds East-West collaborations, the latest figures "suggest a real cataclysm going on there."

And these aren't the only alarming stats in the CSRS's latest report, Russian Science and Technology at a Glance 1996, which will be released early next year. For instance, the federal R&D budget has declined from a rough approximation of $10 billion in 1990 (2.03% of gross domestic product) to just $2.45 billion in 1995 (0.73% of GDP). "R&D still enjoys a low rank among the government's priorities," says Gokhberg. In addition, while total university enrollment is up, the number of students receiving advanced degrees is way down. In 1992, universities awarded more than 29,000 candidate and doctoral degrees in the sciences, but in 1995, only about 14,000.

Amid the gloom, however, there are some indicators that some reform measures are taking hold. Spending on defense R&D is down, from a 43% cut of the federal R&D pie in 1991 to 26% in 1994, reflecting defense conversion and reductions in often-mediocre military applied research. And the percentage of research funds from the West has increased steadily to 4.6% last year. "That's a real achievement," says Gokhberg. The stats also reflect one experiment whose results are not yet known. The number of Russian Academy of Sciences institutes has mushroomed from 297 in 1990 to 429 in 1995. This reflects an effort "to break up large behemoths into institutes of a manageable size and see which can fly," Sher says. Eventually, Sher and others say, the number of institutes will have to shrink in order for Russian science to survive.