Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society
The Semi-darkness of Russian Science

At the end of last year Russia was covered in a wave of social reforms the essence of which is still to be ascertained. Now, when the ferment of the first public reaction to the actions of the government has subsided, is the very time to try to figure out what these reforms are directed at and what they bring Russians in the long term. The latter is especially important since the proposed reforms contain consequences which affect not only people living today but will very probably also considerably change the historical path of the country. In other words, this is about a new point of no return through which the country is irrevocably passing and which will determine its subsequent fate for a long time.

In October of last year the Ministry of Education and Science published a document titled, “Concept of the Participation of the Russian Federation in the Management of State Organizations Operating in the Field of Science”. As indicated in the press, the author of this concept was Deputy Minister Andrey Svinarenko. The concept was the second version and declared as its goal the definition of state policy in the field of science in order to make the state sector in science “optimal” and bring it into line with the state resources devoted to it. The document devotes special attention to a “substantial increase in the effectiveness of state science and technology policy, the facilitation of the development of the non-state science sector, and the formation of a new attitude of the national innovative system in response to the current world level”.

It follows from this that today the effectiveness of science is assessed as “low” and that the government regards the current mechanism for adopting scientific and technical innovations as outdated. And Svinarenko and his experts actually cite data about the low number of patents coming from state scientific enterprises, the loss of the scientific element and other, quite unhappy indicators, it needs to be understood, of what Russian science is today. Judging from everything, the authors of the concept would like to present [Russian science] as a regular Soviet mammoth frozen in the snows of the market economy. It is true here that it needs to be stipulated that the 46 billion rubles which compose the annual science budget are by no means such a great sum, and thus the state is not demanding so much effectiveness as the super-effectiveness of a Stakhanov initiative from a frozen beast, that is, to put it crudely, something for which it will not pay.

Indeed, the American government budget devotes a hundred times (!) more to science than the Russian government. Science associated with health alone gets more than 28 billion dollars annually, which is 18 times the entire Russian science budget. There are estimates according to which the state on average spends no more than $150 a month per Russian scientist, and only part of this sum goes to salary, at the same time as his American colleague can count on $3,000-$10,000 a month (the amount depends on the job and the location). And by no means does the level of social prestige which the scientist’s profession affords him plays the smallest role. If in today’s Russia science is usually regarded by young people as the inability to engage in anything more profitable (we note in this case that the perception itself is important, and not the real state of affairs), then in America, as the author of these lines hardly needed to be convinced, a degree in science and success in this field of activity commands respect. The relatively high social status of scientist in America is also maintained by the enlistment of scientists as experts by the mass media. It is important to stress that the social prestige of science is not determined by market mechanisms at all: a government makes a conscious choice to maintain such prestige (in America) or let it fall below zero (in the RF). Considering all these factors, can one be in doubt: is the effectiveness of science in Russia low if it is assessed according to an honest estimate?

But the matter is not even one of an effectiveness which can be measured one way or another. It is no secret to anyone that the defense industry in the RF has experienced a long decline, but science, if you look at it from the standpoint of social utility, served it most of all. In the second place this refers to the civilian sectors of industry which are also not experiencing the best of times. It turns out here that the end user of scientific and technical achievements has simply bowed out. It means that is senseless to talk about the effectiveness of science in the framework of that decline which exists in the country. The figures of the concept also speak to this, if one reads them carefully and in detail: “In the entire number of scientific organizations the number of design organizations has been considerably reduced (by 87%), design bureaus (by 72%), scientific and technical subunits in industrial enterprises (by 44%) in the period from 1990 to 2003”. Behind these figures is a complete catastrophe: the intermediaries who connected science and industry have been eliminated. This means it’s not just a matter of science itself. In addition, these numbers speak of the deep indifference which the state has had to date toward the effectiveness of science and its participation in production. We will draw the conclusion: today science in Russia exists in a state of storage. It is a hibernation from which it can still be brought out of if the reformers have the desire to bring themselves to be guided by the national interest. The guarantee of this is the 900,000 people working in science and the very strong infrastructure which Russia was left as a legacy of the Soviet Union. What does the government plan to do with this legacy?

“We are not able to maintain the cumbersome structure of the RAN which has been preserved since the time of the USSR. We need to keep only enough science for which we have the resources”. This is the opinion of the Minister of Education and Science Andrey Fursenko. (We note that these words sound paradoxical coming from the Minister, who by all the laws of common sense should be trying to expand his ministry, not reduce it). It is like killing a sleeping mammoth or at least hacking his hide to pieces. And the main thing would be if there were an actual need to economize: “the amount of financing of civilian science in 2005 from the federal budget will be increased by 20 %, to 56 billion rubles”. The newspapers do not lie; Fursenko said this himself. It is difficult to understand the minister. On the one hand, “for which we have the resources” and, on the other, a 20 % increase in one year. We’ll look for more quotes: “1) the federal budget surplus in 2004 was more than five times the planned amounts, 2) as of 1 December 2004 the Stabilization Fund was 462,600,000 rubles. According to a Ministry of Finance forecast, as of 1 January 2005 the size of the Stabilization Fund is expected to be about 564,800,000 rubles”. Thus, there is more than enough money in the state budget. It is being allocated in increasing amounts, including for science. This means that the reason for cutting science which the concept offers is not at all about money - tell this to the minister.

In order to understand what the real reasons are for the cuts which the concept recommends we need to first estimate their size. We turn again to the concept: “the research ‘nucleus’ of the state sector of science will be composed of 100-200 leading scientific organizations and the infrastructure component of the state science sector will be approximately 300-500 organizations”. (These numbers were in the first draft of the concept; they were removed from the second, but there are no other figures in the second draft about the size of the cuts. The fact is eloquent in itself). There were more than 5,000 scientific organizations in the RF at the start of 2004. The planned cuts are to be 90% on average! Presumably 810,000 of the staff of 900,000 would end up without salaries. One can conclude that the state has decided to rid itself of science as such. However “leading” they are, those 100-200 institutes which they plan to keep will not be able to engage in science. If scientific institutions cannot cope with the tasks today, as the government itself admits, then how will a tenth of them be able to handle them, even if they are called a “nucleus” and “leading”?

The decision is brilliant in its simplicity: no science, no problem. And this is not the first reform in Russia by this method: first a crisis situation is created. This is done by the same bureaucrats and they soon begin to point to the crisis and then to complete elimination as the only solution. “We have no other option”, as reformers sum things up in such situations.

We note that the state has not simply decided to eliminate science, but is doing this gradually. The greater part of the cuts are planned for the period before 2007. The periods of the reform again evoke Soviet memories: there were five-year plans there, here there are two-year plans. It has undoubtedly taken on a shock tempo. This is also understandable: [the goal] is to destroy, not to build. But, we repeat, they plan to just destroy. The prospects for the privatization of science described in the concept do not hold up to criticism. A change in the form of property does not make scientific institutions any more attractive to private capital. If they didn’t buy them at all before now, then where is the demand on the free market for the thousands of scientific institutions discarded by the state going to come from before 2007? We’ll ask this question for a test: how many scientific research institutes has private capital built in Russia in the last 10 years? Or we’ll check the estimated cost of the enterprises which have landed in the privatization list: entire design bureaus and computer centers are appraised in the list as having a zero ruble value! Moreover, science on the Soviet scale might be required only by an industry of corresponding scale; a change in the form of property of enterprises will change nothing on the market of scientific and technical development projects. Even such a very simple project as geological exploration is not financed by Russian oil companies. But these are the richest private enterprises in the RF, not to mention the less wealthy owners. With respect to serious scientific projects, the majority of them can yield a profit only after several decades. Thus, it should already be understood what privatization will mean for a majority of scientific institutions. By 2007 no more science will be remembered in the deserted buildings of scientific research institutes.

We will make a digression which is about one more consequence of the proposed reform. Russian scientists were also forced to leave for the West before it. Many managed to achieve enviable successes there but far from everyone was able to feel at home in Europe or America. Many would have returned if the Russian state had demonstrated even minimal interest in these people. The proposed reform closes all routes to a return. Moreover, it will cause a new massive outflow from Russia by those who until recently clutched at a straw: they worked and hoped for the revival of Russian science. (Incidentally, these people are “ineffective and out of date” only in ministerial eyes. It needs to be said that the Russian sailors whom the British observers viewing the sinking of the Varyag* saw through periscopes also seemed “ineffective”). We note that the reform will not only weaken Russian science but will also strengthen Western science, including increasing its dollar effectiveness: the West will not pay a cent for the training of highly-qualified specialists who have gone abroad.

The fact that a science reform is being conducted by the government simultaneously with an education reform is significant. This is not a coincidence - both “modernizations” will ultimately serve the same purpose. If the science reform is directed at the elimination of the existing science resources then education reform will ruin the mechanism of regenerating scientific knowledge and reduce Russian education to a pitiful likeness of a university. It is noteworthy that those young people who are entering higher educational institutions right now are those who were born at the dawn of perestroyka, that is, those who have lived their entire lives under reforms.

Higher education is moving confidently in the direction of a fee-paid basis. The cost of this will be such that many cannot afford it. The number of places in state higher educational institutions is to be reduced by an order of magnitude. A bachelor’s degree will be widely introduced representing 3-4 years’ of simplified programs of study compared with the existing ones. As regards the consequences of these innovations, than one cannot fail to note that in the near future the quality of higher education will decline precipitously and its accessibility will fall sharply. The legislative introduction of the bachelor’s degree says that the state no longer requires specialists having a full mastery a particular field of knowledge. By and large reliance is placed on a minimal accumulation of knowledge and skills allowing a person to occupy only the lowest rungs of the career ladder in a non-industrial society. Little doubt remains that it has been decided to reshape society into a pre-industrial system.

The same trends are also being observed in school education. The introduction of the EGEh [Standardized State Examination] and the switch to multiple-choice examinations (requiring not the correct answer but the choice of the right one) have direct analogs with American schools: the so-called SATs and multiple choice [translator’s note: both terms given in English]. It should be noted that the employment of these very methods has been associated in the US with a catastrophic fall in the educational level characterized at the present by the so-called “functional illiteracy” of more than 20% of the population. The literacy problem in the richest country in the world is so acute that it was actively used in the latest presidential election campaigns, which offered competing programs to overcome it. The extraordinarily low level of Western education (among other reasons) allowed Russian scientists to complete successfully with their European and American colleagues on their own territory until recently, although the latter had obvious advantages in language and social adaptation. In moving the American system to Russian soil the government is creating a nonviable hybrid. America doesn’t teach scientists itself but it pays scientists the highest salaries in the world and opens new jobs for them, thus attracting scientists from abroad. The RF government will not be able to do this inasmuch as today it is already refusing to retain even those who agree to work on Russian science for pennies and is cutting 9 of 10 jobs.

These are the principal conclusions from an analysis of the government concept for the reform of science and education. We turn now to its possible consequences. As already stated, at the present time science in Russia has not yet passed the point of no return; it can still be revived. There will be nothing to revive after the final completion of the reform by 2008, and to a considerable degree even by 2007. We will discard demagogic statements about “effectiveness” and a shortage of resources and take a step back from the present, and try to find a place for the proposed reform in historical perspective. If we count from Peter the Great’s academy Russian scientists have been building their science for three centuries, and although it began from Western models in the final account it grew into a distinctive cultural phenomenon unique in global magnitude giving Russia an opportunity to defend itself and create its own economic life independently from the West. The elimination of Russian science will result in a long-range inability to defend the territory of the country and maintain an industrial society within it. That which was built over three centuries will not be able to be revived quickly, but as the experience of the third world shows, under no circumstances will the West hand over their scientific and technical achievements to Russia. Thus, we are talking about the next point through which the RF is passing, making one more irreversible step toward Africanization.


* An outgunned Russian cruiser scuttled by its crew during the Russo-Japanese War to avoid capture after sinking a Japanese destroyer and damaging two cruisers.

Dmitriy Krylov, Doctor of Biology, Employee of the US Department of Health and Human Services

Translated by Gary Goldberg