Russian Academy of Sciences Elects Reformer as President

The Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) has, for the first time in 22 years, elected itself a new president. Yuri Osipov, who has headed RAS since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has stepped down and yesterday RAS members chose Vladimir Fortov, head of the RAS Joint Institute for High Temperatures (JIHT) in Moscow, to replace him.

A simple majority was required to win the presidency and Fortov got 58% of the votes. It was not the first time that Fortov has run for the RAS presidency—in the previous elections in 2008 he got more than 40% of votes. Fortov was Russia's science minister from 1996 to 1998 and deputy prime minister during the same period. He was also a vice president of RAS from 1996 to 2001.

RAS manages more than 400 institutes and employs nearly 100,000 scientific staff members. It is, however, often criticized for being a secretive club ruled over by powerful academicians. The academy has not fully embraced peer review or competitive funding methods—the patronage of influential scientists still plays an important role. Fortov says that change is necessary in the work of the academy, but he may find that difficult because of his own complicated relationship with the Ministry of Education and Science.

In March, science minister Dmitry Livanov said in an interview with Moscow's most popular radio station Echo of Moscow, that the academy is not viable and is without prospects, after which RAS academicians sent an open telegram to the minister demanding an apology. Livanov apologized but stated that "in general, the system of organization of work of RAS researchers is not modern, efficient, and does not meet world standards." Later that month, Fortov, who was a member of the ministry's Public Council, an advisory body, resigned his position saying that the situation made it impossible for him to work there.

Speaking to the press yesterday, Fortov said that "the academy is ready for change and feels the need for that." The work of the academy, he said, must be "more dynamic, flexible, and sustainable." He particularly stressed the necessity of being open to the media. "We must respond to journalists and, what is more important, to the citizens of Russia, so that they clearly understand what the academy of sciences is and how it works. So that there will be no situation where nonsense, distorted, and obviously untruthful things are said. It is the 21st century now and we must keep abreast of the times."

Fortov had two competitors in the elections, both RAS vice presidents. Jaures Alferov, a 2000 Nobel Prize winner in physics and the head of the RAS St. Petersburg Scientific Center, said in his electoral program that "with a special law, RAS must return to its position as the supreme scientific organization in the country." While Alexandr Nekipelov, an economist who heads the board of directors of the biggest Russian oil company Rosneft, stressed the need for a dialogue between the academy and national authorities.

"Among the three candidates, Fortov had the longest and most progressive program," says Mikhail Gelfand, a bioinformatics professor and a member of the ministry's Public Council. "He has a reputation of being a reformer. For instance, he is widely credited for the relative success of the Russian Foundation for Basic Research [a non-RAS funding body], of which he acted as president. The fact that he was elected at the first ballot and with a solid majority means that the academy members have finally understood that the 'business as usual,' or 'give us more money and then shut up,' approach is not working anymore." Gelfand says that Fortov's program includes key points, such as more openness, increasing the fraction of funds distributed as grants, and term limits. "It remains to be seen, whether he'll have sufficient power and resolve to carry it through," Gelfand says.

A crucial first step will be Fortov's choices to run for vice president positions. Gelfand says that during the election campaign Fortov probably had to seek the support of various powerful factions within the academy, which may restrict his ability to reform RAS and his choice of deputies. "If we see the same well-worn and sometimes thoroughly discredited names, this would severely decrease my cautious optimism," Gelfand says.

*Correction, 4 June:This article incorrectly stated that Fortov got 55% of the votes instead of 58%.