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Russian authorities labeled the country’s only private science foundation a “foreign agent,” in May, triggering its decision last week to close its doors.

Russian authorities labeled the country’s only private science foundation a “foreign agent,” in May, triggering its decision last week to close its doors.

Yves Cosentino/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Russia's only private science funder closes its doors

The Dynasty Foundation, Russia’s only private funder of scientific research, announced its closure yesterday after being labeled a “foreign agent” by the Russian government in May. The decision was made last weekend at a meeting of the foundation’s council and published on Dynasty’s website yesterday.

Anna Piotrovskaya, the foundation’s executive director, told ScienceInsider that it was not Dynasty founder Dmitry Zimin’s personal decision but that of the council. Earlier, she told the press that she cannot say exactly when the foundation will close, but all of Dynasty’s obligations to the current grantees will be fulfilled.

The Russian Ministry of Justice in May added Dynasty to its list of foreign agents, a new designation for organizations that receive funding from the West. Although Zimin was infuriated and left Russia in early June, the council decided on 8 June not to close the foundation immediately. In theory, the council members concluded, the foundation could survive without personal donations from Zimin—whose money resides in Western banks—but the foreign agent label was “absolutely unacceptable.”

In mid-June, a court fined Dynasty about $5000 for its refusal to register as a foreign agent. This was the final straw for Zimin.

Reacting to the news, Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told the press the Kremlin regrets that the foundation will be liquidated. However, he said, no one forced the closure.

Dynasty’s decision coincides with the creation by Russian authorities of a black list of “undesirable” organizations in Russia. According to the law, a group can be named undesirable if it threatens the foundations of constitutional order, national defense capabilities, or national security. The law—considered far more draconian than the foreign agents law—was passed in May and went into effect in June. Organizations named undesirable by the prosecutor general must cease activities in Russia. They will also have their bank accounts blocked. Groups or individuals that cooperate with such an organization, even outside Russia, will also be prosecuted: A first violation results in a fine, whereas second offenses could land perpetrators in prison for up to 6 years.

Earlier this week, the Federation Council (Russia’s upper chamber of parliament) published a suggested list of 12 undesirable organizations. The prosecutor general's office will make the final decision, but parliamentarians say they plan to send the names of many more organizations for consideration.

One of the proposed organizations is George Soros’s foundation, a group that helped ensure the survival of Russian science in the mid-1990s. Soros spent more than $100 million on his International Science Foundation, which supported researchers with grants and funded the construction of 32 university computer centers in Russia’s major cities.

"These two stories [Dynasty and the Soros Foundation] are very symptomatic and replicate each other,” says Mikhail Gelfand of the the Russian Academy of Sciences' (RAS’) Institute for Information Transmission Problems in Moscow and one of Russia’s top biologists. “I see fault in the Russian scientific community, too, because they did not react to accusations that Soros allegedly was buying [Russian] secrets.”

“Both events arouse indignation because first of all, like in the former gloomy time, they create the image of an enemy who is responsible for the majority of Russia’s problems. And those who helped Russian science get persona non grata status,” says Evgeny Onishchenko of RAS' Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow. “I don’t know what the Soros Foundation is doing now, but the humiliation of Zimin followed by his decision to close [the Dynasty Foundation] was an especially dishonorable action. He was unselfishly helping to develop and popularize science in Russia, but the authorities have found a loophole—that he was transferring his own money from accounts in foreign banks—and have publicly made a spy of him.”