Modern Russia’s first private science-funding organization, the Dynasty Foundation, is closing down after falling out of favour with the Kremlin. The foundation — which has been widely praised as a force for good in Russian science and which supports hundreds of young Russian researchers — said on its website that the decision was taken at a board meeting on 5 July.

Dmitry Zimin, who created the foundation 13 years ago after making his fortune at one of Russia's largest telecommunications firms, had told Russian media in May that he planned to stop funding the organization after the Ministry of Justice had designated it a ‘foreign agent’, sparking shock among Russian scientists.

That label — which to Russian ears carries Soviet-era connotations of espionage — was created under a 2012 law. It is reserved for non-governmental organizations that receive funding from abroad and are deemed to be involved in vaguely defined “political activities”. Tanya Lokshina, the programme director for Russian at civil-rights group Human Rights Watch in Moscow, told Nature in May that the law was “an outrageous attack on free speech”.

Three Russian scientists outlined their objections to the situation in a Correspondence to Nature published in June. “Like many other Russian scientists, we believe that these events will have dire immediate and long-term consequences for Russia’s science,” said Fyodor Kondrashov, a group leader at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain who organizes Dynasty-funded summer schools, and two colleagues. "The controversial law that claimed the Dynasty Foundation is intended to curtail perceived foreign influence in Russian politics. This case suggests that the future of Russian science depends on political forces to a greater extent than the government seems prepared to acknowledge.”

Organizations under scrutiny

The foundation had planned to spend some 435 million roubles (US$7.6 million) on fellowship grants, educational projects and summer schools this year, and will fulfil its obligations to fellows for 2015, says Konstantin Severinov, a molecular biologist at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology near Moscow, and a professor at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey. He has been helping to coordinate some of the foundation's fellowships and grants in the life sciences.

Severinov says that the fellowships are highly selective and prestigious, helping to prepare talented postdocs for independent careers; the grants allow Russian scientists to attend competitive overseas courses such as those at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, New York. Russian government programmes do not provide comparable opportunities, he adds.

Politicians are also regarding with fresh suspicion overseas organizations that operate in Russia — including the Russian arm of the MacArthur Foundation, a US organization headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, which is famed for its annual ‘genius grants’. It was one of 12 organizations labelled ‘undesirable’ this week by Russia’s upper house of parliament. If Russia’s prosecutor-general agrees with that designation, it may ban any of those organizations from operating in the country, under a law passed by President Vladimir Putin in May.

Lokshina wrote on 8 July that multiple lists of would-be “undesirables” have been drawn up by politicians, and have helped to create “a climate of hostility, fear and suspicion”.

On the same day, MacArthur Foundation president Julia Stasch, wrote on the organization’s website that the foundation did not engage in or support political activities. “We are hopeful that, upon review, the Prosecutor General will conclude that our activities have always been in compliance with Russian law,” she said.