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Russian roulette

Reforms without consultation will destroy the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The Russian Academy of Sciences has seen and survived its share of political turmoil in its nearly 300-year history. Yet recent decades have not been kind: the academy has been in a state of decline since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

When funding, generous in Soviet times, declined drastically in the 1990s, too many of the academy’s ageing — and increasingly unproductive — members became preoccupied with securing personal privileges. Last year, an internal assessment of the academy’s science managed to conclude that each of the academy’s 400 institutes performs world-class research; typically, no external scientists were consulted. In fact, by all measures, only a small fraction of academy institutes can be considered internationally competitive. Many produce only poor science — and outsiders have criticized the organization again and again for refusing to accept the dire reality of its situation.

The problems have not gone unnoticed by the Russian government. Tensions between the science ministry and the academy have risen in recent years, as the government has become increasingly worried about Russian science’s lack of competitiveness. The stand-off approached a dramatic climax last week, when a bill was hastily introduced to the Russian parliament that, if approved, would effectively liquidate the academy in its present form. The academy is ill, of that there is no doubt. But the proposed cure would kill it off. Worse, the bill is marked with the worrisome signs of autocracy that characterize Russian President Vladimir Putin’s current regime.

The planned coup would merge the Academy of Sciences with Russia’s minor medical and agricultural academies, and would provide all members of the united body with equal status as academicians. The present academy would lose the right to manage its property and, more importantly, would cease to operate research institutes of its own. Existing institutes would be evaluated, and those deemed competitive would in future be run by a new government agency on behalf of the academy. Putin hoped to turn the proposal into law without giving the academy time to respond, although the parliament’s final vote has now been postponed to October.

The academy is ill, of that there is no doubt. But the proposed cure would kill it off.

The proposal has caused an outcry from Russian scientists. Researchers have laid down flowers near the academy’s headquarters on Leninski Prospect in Moscow in a symbolic funeral for the institution, which was founded in 1724 by Russian Emperor Peter the Great.

However, it is not the bill’s aim and content that are most troubling, but the hasty and profoundly undemocratic manner in which it was conceived. Vladimir Fortov, the academy’s newly elected president and a reformer who has announced a number of measures to rejuvenate and restructure the organization (see Nature 497, 420–421, 2013) was not consulted. Neither were the institution’s scientific workforce and the trade unions.

Some Western-orientated Russian scientists acknowledge that a number of the proposed changes could be beneficial. In effect, the reform would create a flexible learned body similar to scientific academies in the United States and much of Europe, whose main duties are to provide the government with scientific advice on questions of societal relevance. The task of organizing and funding the research itself would be passed on to a new agency — similar to Germany’s Max Planck Society — that, if properly run, could provide basic science in Russia with much-needed vision and impetus.

But such sweeping changes require more time and preparation than Putin seems willing to grant. An organization that employs more than 45,000 scientists cannot be successfully transformed overnight. Russian scientists have a right to be heard and consulted, and they should have been. For the sake of Russian science, members of the parliament should refrain from hastily passing an ill-prepared bill; they should wait until at least the basic technicalities of what is indeed a much-needed reform have been thoroughly worked out and made public. The government and the academy should set up an expert committee of respected scientists and give it at least 12 months to plan the transition. If the result is to be a system that rewards excellence and can give solid advice to those in power, then Russia can wait one more year.

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Russian roulette. Nature 499, 5–6 (2013).

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