Russian Scientists Rally to Protest Funding Freeze

MOSCOW—Several hundred researchers, many wearing lab coats, rallied here today to protest a funding freeze at Russia's two grant organizations and on procurement regulations that they say are major obstacles for research. The rally was organized by the trade union of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) and the Young Scientists Council, together with associations of Moscow State University students, postgraduate students, and young scientists.

Pushkin Square, where the rally took place, wasn't packed, but the organizers were satisfied with the turnout. "Scientists are usually very apathetic about this kind of events," says Evgeny Onischenko of the RAS Institute of Physics, one of the organizers. "This time there are many young people here, and this is new. ... The fact that new organizations join us is a good sign."

The protesters emphasized that their ire isn't about general issues such as salaries or housing; instead they demanded immediate action on two concrete points.

One is Russia's granting system, which operates through only two funding agencies: The Russian Foundation for Basic Research (RFBR) and the Russian Foundation for Humanities (RFRH). The Russian government recently decided to freeze the budgets for both at 2010 levels—which were already lower than the years before—until 2014. The total sum, some $200 million annually for both agencies together, will not keep up with inflation, and is only 40% of what a single state in Brazil, São Paolo, spends on its research foundation, the organizers said. Protestors urged the government to restore the old rule, under which RFBR received 6% of the overall budget for civilian science and RFRH 1%.

The protestors also demanded a radical reform in the legislation governing public procurement, which severely limits grantees' freedom to spend the money as they see fit. For instance, spending rules limit the amount of equipment, reagents, et cetera that they can purchase per month, which researchers say slows down their work. Moreover, state funding is given through tenders organized by state bodies, for which researchers have to apply. Criteria for these tenders are quite vague, researchers say, and often the choice of research themes made through the tenders is questionable.

"This rally is a warning," Onischenko says. "We want to make it clear that if nothing is done to meet our demands, there will be much more serious rallies of researchers all over the country." The unexpected support from many sides "shows us that we have a real chance to get what we demand," he says.