Rubles for Researchers

MOSCOW--Two saviors have come to the rescue of Russia's impoverished scientists. Last month, a new foundation endowed with $1 million from a pair of young tycoons announced that more than 200 researchers will receive salary supplements of up to $10,000 this year--as much as 10 times their annual salary. While commending the so-called oligarchs for their generosity, some observers have complained about the secrecy of the selection process.

The money comes from the Public Charity Foundation for the Support of National Science, funded entirely by Oleg Deripaska, the 32-year-old head of the megacompany Russian Aluminum, and Roman Abramovich, a 34-year-old oil industry executive and governor of the Chukotka region across the Bering Strait from Alaska. The new foundation's executive director, Maxim Kagan, says candidates for grants were chosen from among past winners of three academic competitions run by the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) and the office of Russian President Vladimir Putin. From this list of names, Kagan says that experts selected winners based on factors such as the number of citations their papers had received.

The 2001 grants went to 10 prominent academicians--including Yuri Kagan, Maxim's father--who each will receive $10,000 this year; 200 young Ph.D.s and doctors (the highest academic degree in Russia) each get $3000 and $5000 respectively.

The selection process was conducted in secrecy--the foundation has even refused to name the experts that helped select winners--and this has prompted some grumbling. "The atmosphere of secrecy may cause suspicion," says Pavel Arsenyev, former executive director of the Moscow office of the International Science Foundation (ISF), a similar charity set up in the early 1990s by U.S. financier George Soros. Arsenyev wonders if the new foundation enlisted any expert advisers at all, and he complains that only RAS scientists appear to have been eligible for the prizes.

According to Kagan, even if the new foundation can raise money to continue beyond 2001, the selection procedure is unlikely to become more transparent. He notes that the Nobel Committee also keeps its deliberations secret.

In announcing the foundation, Abramovich and Deripaska said they were moved to act by the parlous state of Russian science. It's also great PR in the power struggles between the oligarchs and Putin over taxes and privatization of state assets, notes the former head of the ISF's scientific council, Vladimir Skulachev. Whatever the political benefits, Abramovich and Deripaska certainly have won the hearts of at least 210 scientists.