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Putin Promises New Money for Russian University Research

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last week announced a batch of new funding to "modernize higher education in Russia." Totaling some $1.3 billion, the money will support a string of new universities as well as providing grants for researchers and boosting research infrastructure. In line with the government's recent policy on research, the money is focused on applied science. "It is important for us to orientate scientific research at Russian universities towards the development of technologies which are in demand in the real economy, and to boost cooperation between business and higher education," Putin said in his speech at Novosibirsk State University. As a result, Putin added, the government expects "serious return on its investment, [including] patents for inventions and the creation of small productive enterprises." While researchers welcome the new funding, many bemoan the continuing lack of support for fundamental research and point out that channeling money into universities, rather than the better equipped Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), could be a mistake.

A large chunk of the new money will go to supporting five new federal universities which the government created last year: the Arctic University in Arkhangelsk, the Urals University in Yekaterinburg, Kazan University, the North-Eastern University in Yakutsk, and the Far-Eastern University in Vladivostok. Each of these, Putin said, will get about $13 million per year for 3 years. But these institutions have the status of "autonomous establishments," which means that the government will provide no more than 60% of their funding.

Some $400 million of the new funding will be distributed as grants to researchers and about $645 million to support R&D infrastructure and larger research teams. The grants will not be given to institutions, Putin says, but to "researchers who present the most promising and interesting projects in terms of Russian science and economy." Putin added that the government was ready to subsidize industrial R&D projects carried out at universities, even taking on as much as 50% of costs for projects that lead to new products that go into production.

The plans emphasize the government's enthusiasm for applied science. Although the audience in Novosibirsk welcomed Putin's presentation, it drew criticism from some researchers. "The scientific level of many universities is so low that even the most modern equipment is used to solve primitive tasks," says Mikhail Gelfand, deputy director of the RAS's Kharkevich Institute for Information Transmission Problems in Moscow. "University researchers are encouraged to immediately earn money using this equipment, that is, to offer services instead of doing research. That's why all these big expenditures will be extremely ineffective." Gelfand and others argue that the government should avoid grand gestures and instead create a Western-style funding system. "It is important to begin not with global plans but with the creation of a normal grant system with international peer review of big projects. In that case, funding and equipment would go to strong teams, and those teams would support universities by overheads," Gelfand says.