Once a science superpower, Russia is now a fading light

Report highlights 'shocking' decline in output in traditional research strongholds. Phil Baty writes

February 4, 2010

Russia is no longer a world leader in science and intellectual thinking, according to a new report that details a "shocking" decline in its research output.

The Global Research Report on Russia, by Thomson Reuters, reveals that the country's annual research output has fallen from 29,000 papers in 1994 to ,600 in 2008.

The decline is also apparent in areas where it once excelled, such as the physical sciences.

The research base is in trouble but there is "little sign of a solution", the report says.

"Russia has been a leader in scientific research and intellectual thinking for so long that it comes not only as a surprise but a shock to see that it has a small and dwindling share of world activity as well as real attrition of its core strengths."

The report, produced by Evidence, a UK-based subsidiary of Thomson Reuters, is one of a series focusing on the so-called Bric countries - Brazil, Russia, India and China - which "are in the process of advancing to the forefront of the world's economies".

Russia, however, is punching below its weight in terms of research. It has, the report points out, experienced "drastic political, economic and intellectual changes" since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Budgets for science have fallen sharply, and the country's scientists as a group are ageing.

In October 2009, scores of academics put their names to an open letter to Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian President, warning of a "looming collapse" in science. Among the problems they cited were inadequate funding, a lack of strategic planning and a decline in the prestige of science as a profession.

Paling in comparison

Using information on tens of thousands of academic journals held on Thomson Reuters' databases, the Global Research Report compares Russia's output with that of other nations.

Between 2004 and 2008, the country produced about 1,000 papers in all fields of science, which accounted for about 2.6 per cent of all papers published in the journals indexed by Thomson Reuters.

This figure placed Russia ahead of only one Bric nation, Brazil, which produced 102,000 papers and recorded a 2.1 per cent share.

India cranked out 144,000 papers (a 2.9 per cent share), while China's output, 415,000 papers (an 8.4 per cent share), was more than three times that of Russia's.

Russia's research output was closer to that of the Netherlands, which produced 125,000 papers.

"It is sure to come as a surprise to many analysts that Russia, often a byword for its focus on technology and science, now has a publication output that is on a scale with countries that have fewer resources as well as a shorter history of strong research investment," said Jonathan Adams, director of research evaluation at Thomson Reuters.

The document also examines how Russia's research output has changed over two recent five-year periods.

Its largest research areas, the "traditional strongholds" of physics and space science, have experienced a decline both in terms of their share of the world's total output and in the absolute number of papers.

Between 2004 and 2008, Russia turned out 34,548 papers and accounted for 7.39 per cent of global output in physics - its biggest field. Both those figures, however, marked a decline compared with the period 1999-2003, when Russia produced 37,796 papers and claimed 9.68 per cent of world output.

In space science, the country produced 4,122 papers (6.9 per cent of world output) in 2004-08, down from 4,143 (7.66 per cent) in the preceding five-year period.

In every area where Russia recorded an above-average share of world output during 1999-2003, that share fell in the following five years, the report shows. It did, however, gain strength in neuroscience and behaviour, increasing its share from 0.88 per cent to 1.16 per cent.

The country's biggest international research partner, as measured by the number of collaborative publications in 2004-08, was the US, which pushed Germany into second place.

Picking out some bright spots, the report argues that the picture of research in Russia is "not all doom and gloom".

The country has maintained its share of research in emerging academic fields such as life sciences and the environment, and it still has some key international partnerships.

Rankings rethink

The release of the Thomson Reuters document coincided with an article in International Higher Education, the journal of the Boston College Centre for International Higher Education, reporting that Russia's poor showing in world university rankings had "stimulated a critical analysis of the current state of higher education and research" in the country.

Anna Smolentseva, a senior research fellow at Moscow State University's Institute for Educational Studies, says that measures have been introduced to help build world-class institutions, including a scheme to designate some as "national research universities" meriting extra funding and autonomy.

But, she adds: "In Russia, practices of academic freedom, peer review and transparency in decision-making and competitions are still insufficient, and such a cultural component might become an obstacle in a search for excellence."


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