What awaits Russian science?
A recently passed law on reforming the Russian Academy of Sciences is aimed at segregating scientific research from academic property management. The government argues the move will free science of an irrelevant burden. Academics, for their part, are convinced the new law will stall scientific progress by making research dependent on bureaucracy.
On June 28, 2013, the Russian government submitted to the State Duma the draft federal law "On the Russian Academy of Sciences, Reorganizing State Academies of Sciences, and Amending Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation." On Sep. 18, the State Duma passed the bill in its third and final reading. The bill was signed into law by President Vladimir Putin on Sept. 27.
A fairly radical reform is now awaiting Russia's academic sector, which has been historically associated with the natural sciences.
There are two principal provisions in the new law:
1. "The Russian Academy of Medical Sciences (RAMS), Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences (RAAS)… shall be annexed to the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) on the commencement date of this Federal Law";
2. "The organizations previously reporting to RAS, RAMS, RAAS… shall report to a special federal executive body authorized by the Russian government to exercise the functions and powers as the owner of federal property allocated to the aforementioned organizations" (As has already been announced, the executive body in question is the newly formed Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations, or FASO for short).
In other words, the primary goal pursued by the authors of the reform (and there can be no doubt that the relevant political decision was taken by President Putin himself) is to preclude the administration of Russia's academies from having a say in how budget funds intended for scientific research should be distributed.
We should note that the property mentioned in the law is indeed immense. RAS currently encompasses 436 research institutes and organizations, together employing 48,000 research fellows. RAAS has 198 research institutions and over 300 science services organizations at its disposal. RAMS controls 33 research and educational establishments.
To be completely precise, the Russian academies will not find themselves completely isolated from budget allocation decision-making. However, they will now have to have their budgets assessed and will be made accountable to the special government agency for the money spent on basic science. Most academics treat this as nothing short of bureaucracy barging in on scientific research.
One amendment to the bill proposed by the academic community was turned down at the last moment. The new law introduces a three-year moratorium on electing new members to the reformed Academy of Sciences; however, even before the bill was submitted to parliament on June 28, RAS had announced that the next scheduled round of elections would be held in December 2013.
The Academy then asked the legislators to permit this last round to be held prior to the three-year ban. Unfortunately, parliament declined the motion. One can only feel for the aggrieved potential candidates so close to gaining RAS membership.
The academic community's scathing criticism of the new law boils down to the following three points:
1) Academies will be robbed of their independence in choosing the priority areas of scientific research;
2) Government officials will never be able to manage academic property effectively; in fact, their ulterior motive is to embezzle that property, primarily the academies' real estate and land;
3) The way the reform was planned in complete secrecy from the academic community is outrageous.
Shortly before the State Duma passed the bill in its final reading, the Contemporary and Future Science in Russia conference (a public organization uniting RAS scientists, which was set up in the summer of 2013) prepared an urgent address to the academic community, which reads, inter alia:
"On September 17, the Russian State Duma is planning to take an unprecedented decision that will destroy the Russian Academy of Sciences, causing irreparable damage to Russian science and to our country in general. The bill's version, No. 305828-6, which was submitted by the presidential administration to the Federal Assembly, calls for re-subordinating RAS institutes to a newly created bureaucratic structure that is a priori incapable of handling science…"
In the meantime, a less alarmist portion of the academic community has been busy drafting a statute on FASO. This is where real intensive work is currently being done, although it might not be obvious to the public. The most important provision in the draft statute reads as follows:
"The Agency head shall take any decisions only with the approval of the scientific coordination council."
The council, for its part, will be manned by "scientists conducting scientific research on a universally recognized international level, including those working abroad; scientific organizations reporting to the Agency; and other scientific organizations."
Andrey Vaganov is the deputy editor-in-chief of Nezavisimaya Gazeta.