Chaos on the Caspian

Scientists in Azerbaijan, one of 15 former Soviet countries, are effectively seeing the clock turned back to the days when science was under central government control. Earlier this week, President Haidar Aliev stripped the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences (AAS) of its independent status and put it under the control of his office. But he tempered the move by decreeing that academy scientists would receive a pay hike.

Azerbaijan has produced many top applied scientists, particularly in geology, petrology, and other disciplines that are crucial to exploiting the country's Caspian Sea oil fields. "These areas are highly developed and are leading centers of research," says Lotfi Zadeh of the University of California, Berkeley, a pioneer of fuzzy logic, who was educated in Baku, Azerbaijan's capital. But now, says Zadeh, "my perception is that there's quite a bit of turmoil over there."

When Aliev took control of the AAS on 2 February, he accepted the resignation of its chair and announced his replacement, physicist Farmaz Maksudov. Taking some of the sting out of the loss of the academy's 5 years of independent status, Aliev said that the 9000 academy staff members, spread across 34 research institutes, would receive 50% more than their current wage, which for scientists is about $40 per month.

It's unclear why Aliev has put the power play on the academy. But conditions for research have become so desperate, says political scientist Mahir Ibrahmov, vice president of the American University in Baku, that "if there will be changes, they will be for the better."