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Russian researchers protest government reforms

About 3000 Russian scientists rallied in Moscow on Saturday to protest against government reforms of the research system and the imposition of competitive funding, which is not commonly used in the country. The main demand of the researchers was to revise the current reform of the Russian academic system, which has been going on since mid-2013.

A few weeks ago, the Ministry of Education and Science and together with the Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations issued a reform road map, which, in the opinion of many researchers, brings the process to a new and very dangerous stage. If the road map is approved by the government, academician Vladimir Zakharov of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ (RAS’) Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow told the rally, science in Russia will be depleted, if not totally ruined.

Researchers’ main criticism of the road map is that it will increase the proportion of the science budget that is devoted to competitive funding. In the 1990s, the majority of researchers backed a move for competitive funding while RAS authorities vigorously resisted it. Now, researchers say, the medicine prescribed to save Russian science has turned into deadly poison, because researchers who are unsuccessful at winning funds in the government-sponsored competitions have few other options to continue their research.

Evgeny Onishchenko of the Lebedev Physical Institute says that the government’s published plans suggest that “two-thirds of the basic budget funding will be withdrawn to run competitions between researchers and laboratories.” He adds that there is little detail on how competitive funding schemes will be run, how applications will be vetted, and how conflicts of interest will be avoided. “In the situation where the survival of a laboratory depends on the result of a competition, one can expect all sorts of trickery,” Onishchenko told ScienceInsider, adding, “the winners will not necessarily be the best organizations or the leading researchers.”  

Under the new arrangements, three-quarters of RAS institutes could end up worse off, without salaries or funding for equipment and will end up being closed. “I don’t want to take part in this playoff,” says Valery Rubakov of the RAS Institute for Nuclear Research in Moscow. “On such terms I do not want to compete with my colleagues from Ufa or Krasnoyarsk, as I do not want some of them thrown out onto the street because of it.”

According to the government’s plans, grant-winners and the staff of successful laboratories will receive salaries up to four times the average salary in the region where they are located. But Onishchenko estimates such generosity would lead to an RAS salary bill of as much as $4.6 billion, which is three times the total budget for RAS institutions—about $1.5 billion in 2015.

Originally, it had been planned for the rally to also protest against the decision of the Justice Ministry to label the Dynasty Foundation—a prominent private research funder—as a “foreign agent,” which could result in its closure. However, one of the organizers of the rally, Mikhail Gelfand of the RAS Institute for Information Transmission Problems in Moscow, says that Dynasty founder Dmitry Zimin asked the organizers not to focus on the foundation, so they decided to broaden the aims of the event. Nevertheless, speakers at the rally did discuss Dynasty and called for research organizations not to be labeled as foreign agents. There were also suggestions that researchers should organize an association to take over the educational activities of Dynasty.

Demonstrators had no illusions that they would dramatically change the government’s mind. Boris Shtern of the Institute for Nuclear Research and editor-in-chief of the newspaper for scientists Troitsky Variant, says: “Of course, the authorities will not hear us. There’s no doubt about that. But [the rally] may become a starting point for the further self-organization of researchers.