Vladimir Putin is proposing to set up world-class institutes and broaden distribution of research funding. Credit: S. MORDOVETS/GETTY

As a teary-eyed Vladimir Putin celebrated a triumphant win in the Russian presidential elections last week, the country's scientists expressed mixed feelings about the implications for research.

Putin, leader of the United Russia party and currently prime minister, will in May replace Dmitry Medvedev as president — a post that he previously held in 2000–08. Science had only a marginal role in the election campaign, but Putin outlined his ambitions for research in the newspaper Vedomosti on 30 January.

His government, he wrote, will aim to establish several “world-class” research universities by 2020. Many rectors and chancellors of Russian universities are delighted, and campaigned for Putin. Indeed, there are high hopes for the planned Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, a graduate research university set to be established in a science city outside Moscow, in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. But critics say that Putin's goal is out of reach, given that there are currently no Russian institutions in the top ranks of world university league tables.

Putin also promised a substantial increase in public funding of basic and applied research. The Russian science funding system, often criticized for cronyism and a lack of fair grant-assessment procedures, must become more transparent and open to genuine competition, he wrote. Some researchers are cautiously optimistic, acknowledging that conditions have improved in recent years, thanks to modest funding and salary increases. “I do think that science plays a serious role in Putin's thinking about Russia's future,” says Raul Gainetdinov, a neuroscientist at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa, who left Russia in 1996. “If opportunities at home were to really improve, I'd be more than happy to return.”

But although Russian research budgets have increased since their near-collapse in the 1990s, the country's output of scientific papers has declined since 2000, putting it below India, Australia and Canada, according to a 2010 analysis by global data-provider Thomson Reuters. Funding opportunities are poor, with only a select few scientists able to benefit from flagship projects such as the space programme, or the 'mega-grants' launched in 2010 to attract leading researchers to the country (see Nature 465, 858; 2010). For the majority of Russian scientists, project grants are almost impossible to get.

“I receive a salary from the Russian Academy of Sciences, but there wasn't any money available last year for buying equipment, doing field research or travelling to international conferences,” says Leo Borkin, a herpetologist at the academy's prestigious Zoological Institute in St Petersburg and former head of the St Petersburg Association of Scientists and Scholars. “Young scientists here have basically no opportunity to make ties with colleagues from North America, Europe or Asia,” he says. “It's a very sad and stupid situation.”

Putin has promised to increase the amount of grant money distributed by funding agencies from around 15 billion roubles (US$500 million) a year to 25 billion roubles by 2018. The average size of grants awarded by the Russian Foundation for Basic Research, for example, currently some 350,000 roubles (US$12,000) per year, will be “made comparable to Western grants”, he wrote.

Researchers welcome more cash, of course, but the plan implies that the number of grants might actually go down, notes Konstantin Severinov, who runs independent groups at the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) institutes for molecular genetics and gene biology in Moscow, and Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Putin also intends to break the long-standing dominance of the academy, which employs around 50,000 scientists at more than 400 research institutes. He plans to redistribute some of the RAS's budget — currently about 50 billion roubles per year — to give other institutions and universities more money, as a key part of a sweeping ten-year science plan that he has asked the academy to develop.

Last month, the RAS administration made a start by asking leading scientists at its institutes to compile lists of research results that they expect to produce by 2030, including cost estimates. “This is just not how science works,” says Severinov. To him, the unrealistic request is typical of the stifling bureaucracy prevalent in the Russian science system. “There are undeniably some advances in how science is run in this country. Alas, there are lots of missed opportunities as well,” he says.

Mikhail Gelfand, a Moscow-based bioinformatician who in December spoke to a 100,000-strong crowd of anti-Putin protesters, believes that, under Putin, a “background of omnipresent bureaucracy and corruption” will continue to hamper any Russian science revival. “It would be naive to expect that science alone somehow could, miraculously, blossom in this atmosphere,” he says.