Ex-Soviet states quit science academy

April 9, 1999

The countries of Central Asia are dismantling their Soviet science structures. Last year, Turkmenistan quietly dissolved its Academy of Sciences. Now Kazakhstan plans to do the same.

The Soviet academies - both the pan-USSR one and the smaller academies of the constituent republics - combined the role of a premier learned society (analogous to the Royal Society) and a network of research institutions. The All-Union Academy was also a key channel for scientific exchanges.

When the USSR collapsed, the All-Union Academy reverted to its pre-Communist name and function as the Russian Academy of Sciences. The academies of the other 14 republics began to function independently.

They have developed ties and exchange schemes with learned bodies abroad. At home, the title "academician" has remained the top scholarly honour and continued to merit (at least in theory) a state stipend and fringe benefits.

For the Turkmens and the Kazaks, all this will end. The Royal Society has "frozen" its exchange scheme with Turkmenistan. Once it is notified officially of the Kazak decision, it will doubtless suspend that programme also.

The decision to close the academy was reportedly made by the Kazak president and his science and higher education minister, who will take over the academy's research institutes.

Whether academicians will be allowed to keep their title and benefits is unclear. But unless an equivalent society is set up, scholars will have no honour to aspire to and Kazakhstan could lose the scientific contacts it desperately needs.

Kazakhstan has inherited severe environmental problems - nuclear test sites, the harmful debris from space launches, the dried-up Aral Sea and salinated land. Other channels of international scientific aid and cooperation exist, but to close the academy would be to end one of the most fruitful and prestigious.

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