Surprisingly little media attention has been paid to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s recent attempts to rein in the power of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which has operated with a sizeable amount of autonomy since it was founded by Peter the Great in 1724. Even under the Soviet Union, the Academy managed to defy the authorities by denying unqualified Communist party officials entry and refusing to expel the physicist Andrei Sakharov, who was an active campaigner for human rights and political reform.
Perhaps it was this defiance that spurred the government to take its first steps against the Academy last year, by trying to stack the institution with members of parliament and prominent businessmen, most of whom were turned away for insufficient scientific competence. That move may have failed, but a few months ago, the government took a different tack, declaring the institute moribund and in need of a new charter. The proposed charter would place the Academy’s multibillion-dollar property holdings under state control, give Putin final approval of the Academy president, and put many of the organization’s decisions in the hands of government oversight committees. With this loss of autonomy, research priorities would be taken out of the hands of scientists, and basic research could lose out to more immediately profitable projects.
The scientists, not surprisingly, are quite upset by these maneuvers. In an article printed this week in Britain’s Sunday Telegraph, Vitaly Ginzburg, a 90-year-old Nobel Prize winner and vice president of the Academy, said that, sure, science was bad under Stalin, but not this bad. “In those days you could come up with an idea and create,” he said, “That’s how we put the first Sputnik satellite into space. Now the government thinks science must bring only income and profit, which is absurd.” Key members of the Academy have expressed concern that the government’s moves signal an attempt to seize the institution’s property holdings and dismantle any challenges to Putin’s power. In late March, they voted almost unanimously to approve their own version of the charter, in defiance of the Kremlin’s wishes, which has put the sides in a temporary stalemate.
Government officials say the Academy is in need of fresh blood and blame Russia’s brain drain in part on the institution’s inflexibility. But given Putin’s history of consolidating power, the scientists aren’t alone in viewing this as another chapter of the same old story. The international community is beginning to sound alarms about the future of science in Russia—but in the meantime, government restrictions are leaving Russian scientists nostalgic for the golden age of Sputnik. —Kevin Friedl