Russia to reform science funding

April 26, 2002

Russia's first major shake-up in scientific funding and focus for nearly 30 years could transform the image of research institutes as the crumbling casualties of communism's collapse.

A policy designed to attract young scientists to careers in research and to pension off thousands of older institute employees will concentrate scarce resources into nine key fields crucial to Russia's national interest: telecommunications, new materials, electronics, energy conservation, space research, aviation, chemistry, transport and the arms industry.

The reforms, which will increase spending fivefold, were announced last month by Ilyia Klebanov, minister of science, industry and technology. President Vladimir Putin has called them the first step towards rationalising the "senseless scattering of resources" among researchers.

Russia's scientific brain drain, a feature of the Yeltsin years when more than 200,000 researchers, half the total, emigrated to western institutions desperate to buy their expertise, has left the system impoverished and tattered.

The middle-aged backbone of research teams, those scientists and professors in their 30s, 40s and 50s, have all but disappeared, leaving institute directors with staff with an average age of 56.

The reforms will emphasise cooperation and coordination between pure and applied research. Academic university professors will be encouraged to liaise more with research institute directors. Innovation will be promoted through targeted grants, higher salaries for the under-35s and better pensions for the over-60s, to encourage older researchers to retire.

Alexei Ivanov, director of the Scientific Research Institute of Geology at Saratov State University, welcomed the reforms.

Appointed director on his 23rd birthday, Dr Ivanov, now , leads a research team of more than 70 scientists, most of whom are more than 60 years old and some who are in their 70s. There is a small group of very young researchers in their 20s, but none in the critical experienced mid-career group from 30 to 50.

"Salaries for most research posts can barely feed a man - I earn about £10 a month from state budget sources and the rest comes from research grants and commercial commissions," Dr Ivanov said.

He said that he valued the experience and energy of his older employees - many were his teachers - but agreed that attracting young blood was vital to the future of Russian science.

"The solution is very simple: lay down the rules - if you do this research, you will be paid this sum. And then pay it.

"Young scientists need normal payment, stable work and the ability to live a normal life," Dr Ivanov added.

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