Government reform of the Russian Academy of Sciences is timely (Nature 499, 5–6; 2013). But it must also be realistic. Simply imposing foreign models could be costly, inefficient and have disastrous consequences for the country's scientific community.

The Russian government contends that the academy is inefficient, so we suggest an international audit of its output. The results could then be compared with those of recent, costly government initiatives to commercialize science, such as the nanotechnology firm Rusnano and the Skolkovo Innovation Center near Moscow.

The government has a poor record of agency reforms: at the defence ministry, for example, changes triggered corruption, sale of the property to private investors and degradation of the army. We propose a moratorium on changes to the academy's buildings to prevent its arbitrary closure.

The proposal to merge the academy with other minor academies in Russia, which differ in their aims and scientific potential, could result in a lower scientific status for members and an over-representation of the biomedical sciences. If the merger goes ahead, members would still need to be selected on the basis of scientific merit alone.

The Russian Foundation for Basic Research could be given a major role in funding the merged academy's research, which would be better than creating a relatively unstructured government agency.

In our view, publications and other impact-based criteria used to evaluate the productivity of individual scientists and research teams should involve the Russian and the international scientific community.

A demand for rapid innovation must be underpinned by fundamental science. Lessons can be learned from 1948, when the government followed up agronomist Trofim Lysenko's empty promises to improve agriculture and effectively destroyed Soviet genetics, one of the world's best genetics schools.