Russians go on hunger strike over science policy

October 18, 1996

Two eminent Russian scientists have ended a two-week hunger strike begun in protest at their government's policy on science.

One of them, a leading member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, warned that Russian science was on the brink of collapse within months unless swift action was taken to reverse years of chronic underfunding.

The two are Vladimir Strakhov, 64, director of the Institute of Earth Physics in Moscow, and Igor Naumenko-Bondarenko, 69, head of its union committee. Both had been under medical supervision and called off their action after President Yeltsin broadcast an appeal to tax dodgers from the sanatorium where he is awaiting heart surgery.

Science and culture, along with pensioners and the army, were losing out, the president said, seizing on national publicity for a Moscow rally in support of the hunger-strikers to make a political point on tax-dodging.

"I am appealing to those of you who do not pay taxes. The fate of this 64-year-old academic is on your conscience."

Professor Strakhov said that poverty-level wages, failure to support the budgets of research and teaching institutions and official neglect of a once high-status and well-funded community, have brought national science to its knees.

Only a radical reversal of what amounts to a criminal policy of neglect would save it.

"Russian science has reached its death throes and the government either hasn't noticed or does not want to.

"A criminal pittance is awarded to the overwhelming majority of scholars.

"It does not even reach subsistence level, leading to the rapid loss of scientific personnel. In high-quality scientific work a lag of five to six years is essentially equivalent to complete death. After this time nearly all work is irrelevant to the world scientific community. Russian science is already lagging behind by five years."

The government had to act promptly to stem the loss of the nation's brightest scientific brains and introduce measures to attract new blood into research, he said. Capital funding to provide new and modern equipment and facilities for research and scientific experiments was essential if world-class results were to be expected from the nation's scientists.

In an open letter to Viktor Chernomyrdin, the prime minister, Vladimir Fortov, the chairman of the state committee for science and technology, and other government leaders, including Alexander Liv****z, the finance minister, Professor Strakhov and his colleague appealed for the development of a "sensible state plan for the reconstruction of Russian science, considering the long-term needs of the country".

The budget for scientific research work should be ringfenced and increased annually to reach 4 per cent of the federal budget, as provided for in a law already adopted technically by President Yeltsin last month, they said.

Messages of support, and expressions of concern for the possibly grave affects on the health of the two men, one a diabetic, the other with a chronic kidney complaint from a war wound, flooded in from branches of the academy throughout Russia.

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