Russian Scientists Decry New International Funding Rules

Russian researchers are up in arms over a government decree issued last month which turns the process of issuing research grants into a bureaucratic nightmare for international foundations. The decree introduces new regulations according to which any organization that wants to award grants to Russian researchers must obtain permission from the Ministry of Education and Science for every grant. "No self-respecting grant-giving agency would deal with Russia on such conditions," says Andrey Tsaturyan of Moscow State University's Mechanics Research Institute.

Under the new decree, organization's will have to apply to the ministry for every grant and complete a bulky set of forms that include the bank details of the organization and the would-be grantee, the subject of the research, the purpose of the support, and so on. If the project to be funded is not in line with the main priorities of basic research and R&D in Russia approved by the government, the ministry may decline the request and the organization will not be allowed to award the grants. Tsaturyan believes that most painfully, the new regulations will affect research in medical sciences and humanities as the physical sciences are now rarely funded by international foundations.

The new regulations have raised serious worries among the researchers. Evgeny Onishchenko of the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences thinks the decree is an absurd and very dangerous example of bureaucratic zeal. "The fact that an application will be required for each specific grant will cause bureaucratic hurdles," he says. In his view, the demand that the research subject must fit in with officially approved research priorities is ridiculous. "The government should be happy that someone supports research that is not a government priority," he says.

Onishchenko hopes that researchers' protests will lead to the new rules being either strongly amended or totally revoked. In any event, he says, bearing in mind the government's current xenophobic attitude, "One can expect persecution of those scientists who do the research in collaboration with foreign colleagues."

Tsaturyan, who also co-chairs the Council of the Russian Researchers' Society, an informal association of researchers seeking to revive the scientific community, is even more pessimistic. "Effectively, the decree introduces a total ban on foreign grant funding of research. If organizations know that each time they award a grant to a Russian candidate they will have to request permission and risk refusal, they will just stop giving us grants. They will just turn their back on us and walk away," he says.

The decree does include a list of agencies that are exempt from the rules. According to Tsaturyan, this list was originally compiled in the 1990s to exempt foreign grants from taxes and customs duties. "The list used to be very long but now it is replaced by another one, which consists of only 13 agencies, including IAEA [the International Atomic Energy Agency], a few U.N. organizations, the Council of the Baltic Sea States, etc., that is, bodies of which Russia is a member. There is no serious scientific foundation on this list," he says.