Science Not ‘Possible’ Under Putin, Physicist Says

A Moscow scientist has said science in Russia is “not possible under Putin” as the country experiences worsening isolation.

Russia’s troubled relationship with science is nothing new. For years there have been concerns about the country’s historic Russian Academy of Sciences, which was founded almost 300 years ago and has enabled such achievements as the first human spaceflight and the Sputnik satellite.

When communism in Russia collapsed, funding for the academy evaporated and there have been several changes in leadership since. Vladimir Fortov, elected in 2013, did not run for the presidency again due to frustration with lack of support, The Moscow Times reports.

In 2017, new leader Alexander Sergeyev said that “science today is in crisis” and noted a sharp drop in invitations for Russian research papers at international conferences. He also criticized a lack of investment from the state.

Vladimir Putin
Russian president Vladimir Putin speaks during the Council of Lawmakers at the Tauride Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, on April 27. For several years, leaders of the Russian Academy of Sciences have talked about the country’s lack of support for the insitution.

In September of this year, the academy got a new leader, Gennady Krasnikov, an industrial manager. Whether he can rebuild the Russian Academy of Sciences to its former importance remains to be seen. Between protecting staff from the pull of conscription and nurturing science in an isolated state, Krasnikov has been dealt a tough hand.

Alexander Nozik, a physicist at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, told Newsweek: “Right now, the last people who believed in its restoration are outraged because even this choice was taken from the scientific community. Krasnikov’s candidature was enforced by the government.

“Science in Russia was in a crisis for years. Not only because of the authoritarian government, but also because it still uses a mostly Soviet ‘plan-based’ economical model. And this model just does not work well in the modern world.

“The migration from research institutes to the universities performed by [science and education minister Dmitry] Livanov some time ago gave some results, but without international cooperation, this model could not work. So with Putin’s current course on isolation, science keeps dying in Russia.

“I personally do not believe that modern science in Russia is possible under Putin, and all our hopes are connected to his removal from power.”

The current situation regarding Russia’s science is a far cry from as little as 10 years ago when Edward Seidel, now the president of the University of Wyoming, was helping to lead the development of the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology—also known as Skoltech—between 2012 and 2014.

It was an exciting vision for a program that aimed to create a new university of world-class stature, ready to tackle issues important to Russia and the world. Fundamental to its creation were international partnerships with other institutions—something Seidel worked hard to build.

“First and foremost the partnership with MIT was central to the formation of Skoltech, and was absolutely critical to lending credibility to this international effort,” he told Newsweek. “This led to the many partnerships with some of the best universities around the world needed to bootstrap Skoltech from a beautiful concept to a work in progress towards that vision.

“With the political tensions mounting over the years, something was clear even in the time period I was there, these collaborations became more difficult. The war in Ukraine has made it yet much more difficult.

“It led to the dissolution of formal partnerships both through institutions pulling out on their own as MIT has done, or being forced to as sanctions have been placed by both U.S. and Russian governments on both university and corporate collaboration.

“Even though some scientists may somehow generally want to collaborate nonetheless, they may be forbidden or are simply unable to carry on. Further, students will lose interest and ability to come from outside Russia.

“While Russia has wonderful talent, innovation really flourishes when groups from different backgrounds and training come together; in contrast, it suffers without that. The negative impact of these events on scientific and economic development capacity will be felt throughout the region, and for years to come, I fear.”

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