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Will New Promises Save Russian Science?

MOSCOW--Destitute, their labs on the brink of ruin, Russian scientists may finally have something to cheer about. A series of public rallies in the last 2 weeks has elicited a promise of wage concessions from the government, and Russia's top science policy official may have cut a deal to allow the Russian Academy of Sciences' (RAS's) 300-odd institutes to raise hundreds of millions of dollars by renting out dormant lab space.

The rallies started on 28 February in Pushchino, a town near Moscow that is home to several biology institutes, where dozens of scientists demonstrated against the government's months-long failure to pay wages. But this protest, covered on national television, was only the first step in a campaign staged by the RAS's employees trade union. Similar protests were held on 3 March in the Siberian science city Novosibirsk and the next day in Vladivostok.

The coup de grâce came when dozens of scientists picketed the so-called White House--the government's central administration building--on 5 March. Protesters were invited inside to air their grievances with top officials, including Finance Minister Alexander Livshits, Deputy Prime Minister for Science Vladimir Fortov, and RAS President Yuri Osipov. The talks ended with a written promise from Livshits that the government would fulfill the science budget over the next 4 months as well as chip away at the mounting debt to science institutes. Those are no mean feats, considering that in January, for example, the government transferred less than 10% of $300 million in science spending approved for the month. "It has become a common thing that the government every now and again does not fulfill its own decisions," says trade union president Vladimir Khlebodarov. But Livshits's pledge to ensure the funds are delivered is heartening, he says. Ministers "try their best to stick to [promises made in writing]," Khlebodarov says.

In another encouraging sign, Fortov may have brokered a way for academy institutes to get some badly needed cash, by proposing that the institutes rent out unused lab space to private companies. Rental income, Fortov contends, could bring in as much as $1.4 billion a year--more than double the state's budget for the institutes. Institutes have already dabbled in being landlords, but companies have shied away because it has been unclear who owns the institutes and should receive the rent. Fortov's plan would transfer legal management of the institutes' property and real estate from a state property committee to the institutes themselves.

But the academy may not strike it rich. A new tax law allowing the government to collect property taxes from institutes and wage taxes from scientists' salaries and grants could wipe out any gains, contends former Science Minister Boris Saltykov. But for most institutes, just breaking even would be an improvement. Livshits's pledge and Fortov's proposal will be considered at a meeting of President Yeltsin's Cabinet on Thursday.