Russian Expats Challenge Country's Support of Science

Last Friday, in the leading Moscow business newspaper Vedomosti, a letter addressed to Russia’s president and its prime minister and signed by more than 100 Russian researchers who permanently work abroad complained of “the disastrous situation in the Russian basic research,” noting extremely low levels of funding and a continuing massive brain drain. “We certainly hope to draw the attention of the political leadership of the country to the dangers of neglecting fundamental science and education,” says Andrei Starinets, a physicist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and an author of the letter. “It takes years before investments in fundamental science and education pay off. These issues therefore require strategic rather than tactical thinking.”

The letter hasn’t drawn any official response so far, but Russian officials this week boasted about their support of science, particularly a new program to lure back 100 expat researchers to work at least 2 months a year in a Russian research institute or university. “The process of return of researchers to Russia will become avalanche-like in the nearest future,” said the minister of science and education Andrey Fursenko at the Second International Nanotechnology Forum which has just closed in Moscow.

“The process has started,” Fursenko further claimed in an interview to a Moscow radio station, “and many of those who returned back noted that they have got much more up-to-date equipment than they had abroad.” At the nanotech forum, Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev also spoke of the expat researchers. “It would be inexcusable for us to neglect such a treasure,” he declared. “Our task is to interest these people by offering them proper conditions to work in our country and proper projects.”

Starinets and the other letter-signers also focused on how “proper projects” could help Russian science. In their letter, they suggested the country try to attract world-scale scientific projects, using as a concrete example the construction of the International Linear Collider. This high-energy particle collider, envisioned as a possible successor to the Large Hadron Collider,  would boost Russia’s research in many fields, including information science, biology, and materials science, they say.

Russian researchers within the country haven’t all embraced the letter and its desire for big-science projects. “My attitude to this letter is quite reserved,” says Mikhail Gelfand, deputy director of the Kharkevich Institute for Information Transmission Problems. “I am confused with the demand to raise funding of the science. It is good, of course, but it would not give any result without radical reforms in science. But most of all, I’m confused with the suggestion to launch big projects, particularly to build in Russia a new generation collider. At the moment, such projects could only be harmful for Russia. They would drag away big money and will not give any result. I am afraid this could happen regardless of the good intentions of the letter authors and people who have signed [the letter]."

Starinets notes that published letter is “open for signing only to Soviet/Russian scientists having permanent positions abroad to avoid any criticism that the undersigned want any preferences for themselves from the Russian government or have any other selfish interests.” He adds that colleagues inside Russia have not been silent: In September, hundreds of signatures were collected in an analogous appeal to the president by doctors of science inside the Russian Federation, including many prominent members of the Academy of Sciences”.