Stung by 'foreign agents' law, Russian scientists regroup

The Evolution foundation’s logo: “In any incomprehensible situation—evolve!”

The Evolution foundation’s logo: “In any incomprehensible situation—evolve!”

Courtesy of Evolution

MOSCOW—Hoping to a fill a void left by the closure last summer of Russia’s only private research funder, scientists here are gearing up to launch a new foundation. But the nonprofit, called Evolution, has set modest ambitions: Initially it will focus only on science popularization.

These are difficult times for nonprofit organizations in Russia. Over the past 3 years, the government labeled several dozen organizations “foreign agents,” questioning their motives and imposing restrictions on their activities. Recent designees include the MacArthur Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, and the Dynasty Foundation, backed by the Russian telecommunications tycoon Dmitry Zimin.

Established in 2002, Dynasty spent some $30 million over 13 years on seed money for young Russian scientists and on competitions for science teachers, science festivals, and public lectures by world-class researchers. It ran afoul of the foreign agents law because Zimin bankrolled the foundation with funds held outside Russia. Dynasty’s tarring last May was a blow to Russia’s scientific community: Zimin pulled the plug on his support, forcing the foundation to wind up its activities in July.

Rueing Dynasty’s demise, a group of scientists behind the independent newspaper Troitsky Variant, the tribune of Russia’s scientific community, set out in August to create a successor. “The original idea was to continue and extend what Dynasty had been doing,” says Evolution board member Mikhail Gelfand, a biologist here at the Institute of Information Transmission Problems. But fundraising has proven daunting. So far, Evolution has managed to raise tens of thousands of dollars—“a drop in the ocean” compared with Dynasty’s budget, says Troitsky Variant chief editor Boris Shtern here at the Institute for Nuclear Research.

After recalibrating its aspirations to the size of its war chest, the foundation now intends to translate into Russian science nonfiction books from abroad, including children’s literature, publish Russian science authors, and organize science festivals in the hinterlands, far from the science powerhouses of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Novosibirsk. The foundation intends to support some of its activities through crowdfunding, says spokesperson Lilia Sabirova. Evolution’s coming out party will be later this month here at the VDNH book fair.

Although Evolution is starting small, “It is hard to overestimate the symbolic importance of the new foundation,” Shtern says. “For the first time ever in the world,” he says, “researchers united to replace an organization they had been deprived of.”

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