Russian Academy of Sciences building

The ax is falling at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Nataliya Sadovskaya/Wikimedia

Russian scientists bracing for massive job losses

MOSCOW—Russia’s scientific community is reeling from news that the government plans to fire about 10,000 researchers over the next 3 years. Most layoffs would be from Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) institutes, according to the online news site Gazeta.ru.

The staff cuts, representing about 17% of RAS’s 49,000-strong workforce, are the latest move in a controversial and painful effort to overhaul the academy. The Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations (FASO), set up in 2013 to manage RAS’s property and most of its budget, has recently stepped up efforts to make the academy leaner and meaner by merging institutes; several dozen mergers are planned.

Scientists decry the moves. In an open letter last month to President Vladimir Putin, more than 150 RAS researchers asserted that the reforms are eroding science’s image in Russia; they warned of disastrous consequences for the nation, including a brain drain of young scientists and an “upsurge in activities of bureaucrats and impostors.” The mergers are “a completely unnatural way of development,” says Mikhail Sadovsky, a physicist at RAS’s Institute of Electrophysics in Ekaterinburg. The 21 July letter, initiated by a group of discontented RAS researchers called the July 1 Club, argues that FASO must be brought to heel by placing it under RAS.

The specter of job losses has provoked even greater furor. Internal education and science ministry documents obtained by Gazeta.ru indicate that the layoffs are the price the scientific community must pay for a doubling of scientists’ salaries earlier this year. Some prominent RAS institutes, including the Lebedev Physical Institute and the Prokhorov General Physics Institute, both in Moscow, have already begun dismissing staff, according to the RAS scientists’ trade union. The documents acknowledge that layoffs will erode productivity.

The ministry told Gazeta.ru that it does not plan to fire scientists, although it does not dispute the documents’ authenticity. A spokesman for the Kremlin says the government gives the scientists’ concerns “great attention” but that it sees “positive results” from the ongoing reforms and will let them play out.