Russian Researchers Call for Better Coordination of Science

More than 2200 researchers sent an open letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last week asking the government to set Russian science in order and to consult with the scientific community when making major science-policy decisions. The signatories, including 60 members of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), say Russia's scientific enterprise needs to be more structured, systematic, transparent, and based on the real needs of researchers. "It is important to change the system of how the decisions are being worked out and made, otherwise officials' pretence of activity will finish off Russian science," the letter says.

"Unfortunately, there is no systematic state science policy," says signatory Yevgeny Onishchenko of the RAS's Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow. "Even when decisions are made, good and reasonable in intention, things are done in such a way that one's hair stands on end. It seems that the state machinery does its own thing while the scientific community exists somewhere far away."

The letter cites the new National Research Center formed out of Moscow's Kurchatov Institute as an example of this disconnect. "The decisions on the project were taken privately and even the managers of the institutes that were to join it were unaware of it." The government ignored internal problems at the institute, the letter says, including "a drop in the number of publications of the Kurchatov Institute researchers in the past 10 years."

Of particular concern to the letter's signatories is uncertainty about the future of two Russian grant-giving foundations: the Russian Foundation for Basic Research and the Russian Foundation for Humanities. The two bodies were created in the early 1990s to offer grant support to research teams and are the only public, Western-style funding bodies based on peer review. "Although the resources they offered were not very significant—about 6% of civil research funding—they helped to save science in Russia by giving small grants that helped to sustain the work of research groups," says Onishchenko. Both foundations, the letter states, "are at present the most effective state organizations that fund research. The resources that they allocate fund the most successful research teams no matter what body they belong to."

That could change, however, when a new budget code for the two foundations goes into effect on 1 January 2011. It stipulates that state funding bodies may distribute money only to subordinate bodies. Onishchenko says the government needs to "amend the budget code in order to give the foundations the right to fund research teams in any organizations without any time limits." The letter also calls for a doubling or more of their budgets in 2011 and an increase by 2013 in the size of grants to at least $50,000, from the current $13,000.

"Technically, all these problems are solvable," says Mikhail Gelfand, deputy director of the RAS's Kharkevich Institute for Information Transmission Problems in Moscow. Gelfand says it is possible to find the necessary additional funding from within existing science budgets without depriving areas such as health care.

The letter's signatories do not expect a quick response, although the law says a state official must reply within 1 month.