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Rossiya, vperëd!
Go Russia!

Career strategies for young European scientists
by Ralf Schreck, Labtimes 05/2011




(Photo: Fotolia/wasaitax)

Post-Soviet Russia is struggling to fix-up education and science. Targeted funding programmes, national research universities and multi-billion infrastructure projects should now set-off a change for the better.

Russia’s rich scientific traditions are undisputed. Tsar Peter the Great promoted education and science as pillars of a modern society in the early 18th century. He established the predecessor to St Petersburg State University and the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences, which later became the Russian Academy of Sciences. During the 20th century, the Soviet Union underpinned its role as a superpower, not only by collecting Olympic medals but also by setting milestones in aviation, space exploration and nuclear power utilisation. The artificial Earth-orbiting satellite Sputnik, the supersonic passenger jet Tupolev or the nuclear power plant Obninskaya were all the first of their kind. Inventions were driven by a large pool of intellectuals but also by a huge military research budget. Russian scientists have, so far, secured 13 Nobel laureates in physics, three in chemistry and two in physiology and medicine. By the end of the Soviet Union, the research base encompassed 5,000 research institutions and close to one million researchers. Two decades later, only 3,500 institutes and 370,000 researchers are left. Lab Times reports on current attempts to revamp education and science in Russia.

Background

Russia is the largest country by total area. Its 142 million citizens place Russia ninth in the world with respect to population size. Twelve cities have more than a million citizens including Moscow with 11.5 million and St Petersburg with 4.9 million. Both cities are also scientific hotspots and accommodate more than a third of Russian research institutes and 40% of research personnel. In late 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved into 15 independent states. Russia became a federal semi-presidential republic. Radical reforms including market liberalisation and privatisation initially led to an economic collapse fostering corruption and crime. Budgets for military and civil research plunged. Hundreds and thousands of scientists and engineers defected or changed to other professions. The International Science and Technology Center (ISTC) was set up in 1992 by the EU, the United States and other countries as a funding agency to support former weapon scientists. Over the years, about 75,000 scientists received more than half-a-billion euros for non-military research activities, thereby helping them to survive and preventing them from sharing their knowledge with terrorists or rogue nations.

Russia’s economy gained speed after 1999, was hit hard by the global financial downturn from 2008 but recovered quickly. Its current economic power is dependent on natural resources including gas, oil, minerals and timber, which account for more than 40% of the governmental income. In addition, a new wave of privatisation is about to fill public coffers. According to the International Monetary Fund, Russia is currently ranked sixth in the world with respect to its gross domestic product and 52nd with respect to the gross domestic product per capita. Besides resource-based industries, traditional industries suffer from old infrastructure and low investments. Corruption, unfavourable tax regulations, excessive bureaucracy and no protection of property rights often prevent larger foreign investments.

Mediocre performance

To diversify Russia’s economy, President Dmitry Medvedev authorised priority development areas in science and technology. Priority funding areas now include nanotechnology and life sciences. Biotech, biomedicine, bioengineering as well as genomic and proteomic technology received platform technology status. Nanotechnology has already been boosted by a large €3.7 billion investment fund and an €800 million federal targeted programme. In the following, a conversion rate of €1 = 40 Roubles (RUB) is used.

Pharma and Biotech are on the rise. A €3 billion governmental programme called “Pharma 2020” was approved to overcome Russia’s dependency on imported drugs and medical devices. Biotech is promoted by the national programme “Development of Biotechnology in the Russian Federation for 2006-2015”. It will take some time, before Russia might be able to capitalise on the novel priority areas.

Russia’s scientific output is not very striking at the moment. Publication numbers, in general, have not grown significantly and relative impact is below the world average in all major fields. In the SCImago Journal & Country Ranking covering the last 15 years, Russia is ranked 12th in the world with respect to number of publications and 19th with respect to citations. In the same period, Russia’s relative share of publications in the world dropped by almost 40%. Patenting is even more disastrous and has decreased over the last decade. For example, Russia filed 0.45 triadic patents per million citizens in 2008, whereas the average in OECD countries was 100-fold higher.

In international university rankings Russia is often underrated. Too many publications in mediocre Russian journals or low numbers of international students and academics earn no Brownie points. The 2010 QS Ranking lists five Russian universities: Lomonosov Moscow State University (93), St Petersburg State University (210), Novosibirsk State University (375), Tomsk State University (401-450) and Moscow Higher School of Economics (451-500). In life sciences Lomonosov Moscow State University (98), Novosibirsk State University (280) and Kazan State University (351-400) were represented, whereas in natural sciences Lomonosov Moscow State University (29) and St Petersburg State University (110) were prominent.

Russian science system

Education, science and innovation have drawn the interest of Russia’s political leadership. They lead major national advisory bodies, thereby gaining much influence over the allocation of research funds. For example, the Commission for Modernization and Technological Development of Russia’s Economy is headed by President Dmitry Medvedev. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin assumed control of the Governmental Commission on High Technology and Innovations in 2010, whose final decisions are binding for all subordinate bodies. Research policies are implemented at the ministerial level and by a couple of federal agencies. The Ministry of Science and Education, which is headed by the former physicist Andrei Fursenko, is dominating, although other ministries such as the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Information Technologies and Communication or the Ministry of Energy have substantial research budgets at their own disposal. Several federal agencies, such as the Federal Space Agency Roskosmos, the State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom or the Russian Cooperation of Nanotechnologies Rusnano and foundations, such as the Russian Foundation for Basic Research report directly to the Government or the respective ministry.

Over the last decade, Russia’s annual expenditure for research and development (R&D) increased more than five-fold in absolute terms. However, the relative expenditure, expressed as a percentage of the gross domestic expenditure, remained the same at about 1.1%. Roughly 70% of all R&D funds are used for engineering, 18% for natural sciences and 3% for medical sciences. Two-thirds of the R&D budget is derived from the governmental budget. The military R&D budget is not made public. Research funds are distributed via three major pathways: by direct allocation from the state budget to research organisations or by indirect allocation either via ministries involved in research activities or via federal agencies. The share of project-based funding, targeted funding and competitive funding is on the rise. More than 75% of all institutions involved in R&D are under public ownership. In some statistics this is not obvious, since, to a large extent, activities are performed in company-like structures owned by the State. Research-intensive private companies only have a small share. The State academy sector in Russia is dominated by the Russian Academy of Sciences, which is, with its more than 450 research institutions and 55,000 researchers, the leading and most prominent research performer. Smaller branch academies are, for example, the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences or the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences. Base salaries for researchers have been increased several-fold in the last years. However, scientists are forced to stay at the bench as long as possible, due to very low pensions, and thereby clog the promotional pipeline for younger scientists.

Russian Foundation for Basic Research

The Russian Foundation for Basic Research (RFBR) has been providing competitive funds for basic research in the areas of natural and exact sciences since 1992. It was established by presidential decree in 1992 as a self-governing, non-commercial body subordinate to the Russian government. Its budget has been set to a maximum of 6% of the annual federal budget for science. The majority of funds is earmarked for research projects without any predetermined topic. Emphasis is also placed on young scientists and international cooperation. Joint calls with more than 30 foreign research organisations have been made, with the German Research Foundation being the most active partner. In addition, publications, travel to meetings abroad or equipment are supported. Members of the Russian Academy of Sciences dominate the all-male RFBR Board. RFBR receives more than 70,000 applications per annum and 2,000 primarily domestic scientists serve as reviewers. Last year, the average grant size for research projects was €9,250. This is far too little but for many scientists it’s the only way to get external support and keep going. No good news for the future of RFBR: after the all-time high of €180 million in 2009, governmental allocations for RFBR are predicted to shrink to €110 million in 2012. In addition, a gradual shift of funding activities from curiosity-driven research to topics prioritised by the Russian Government was announced.

Russian Academy of Sciences

The Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) is the largest and most prominent research organisation in Russia. The RAS operates as major research policy advisor, research funder and research performer. In addition, it publishes more than half of the scientific publications in Russia and is involved in higher education with close to 8,000 enrolled postgraduate and doctoral students. The head office is located in Moscow and there are three regional branches: RAS Siberia, RAS Far East and RAS Urals. The RAS is a self-governing organisation. However, over recent years, the Russian government has tried, with some success, to gain greater influence by setting limits to the number of RAS institutes, their members and their salaries as well as ruling that the RAS has to introduce evaluation, transparency of funding decisions and competitive funding. Out of roughly 20 thematic RAS programmes, only the Molecular and Cellular Biology programme coordinated by Georgy Georgiev have, so far, established a transparent performance-based funding procedure. The programme was quite successful with respect to scientific output and motivated several expatriates to move back to Russia. However, not everyone in the RAS seems to be in favour of the programme, whose budget was cut by a quarter last year.

At 469 locations, the RAS is operating more than half of all research institutions in Russia. They are distributed all over Russia and vary widely with respect to size and scientific productivity. Out of more than 100,000 employees, 55,000 are researchers. Approximately a third of all scientists in Russia with a title equivalent to a PhD are employed at the RAS. At the top of the hierarchy are the 75-year old Yuri Osipov, RAS President since 1991, and the RAS Presidium, whose more than 40 members are appointed by the President. The Presidium has the final say when it comes to budget allocations and appointments of directors of research institutes. The RAS General Assembly elects its RAS lifetime members based on scientific merit. There are currently 471 full members, 726 corresponding members and about 200 foreign members. The annual RAS budget is above €1 billion and is derived two-thirds from the federal budget and one-third from entrepreneurial activities and other sources. If you compare the RAS with other large research organisations in Europe, such as the German Max Planck Society or the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, it becomes apparent that their budget per scientist is anywhere between four and eight times higher. There are so many additional things to be said about the RAS and its structure, influence, funding programmes and future. However, transparency never was a RAS strongpoint, as they seem unable to maintain an English web page or provide feedback to enquiries via email.

Spending XXL

Besides the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and the 2018 FIFA World Cup, various large modernisation projects have been driven forward to spruce up Russia’s image. Flagship projects include National Research Centres, large-scale facilities and the Skolkovo innovation city. Up to seven National Research Centres will be financed. They should represent the forefront of interdisciplinary science and technology and contribute to commercialisation activities. In addition, graduate and postgraduate education, internationalisation and operation on new legal and organisational principles are on the agenda. The Kurchatov Institute (KI, www.kiae.ru) in Moscow was selected as a pilot National Research Centre. Upon mergers with several institutions, it has become one of Russia’s largest institutions and is directly subordinated to the Russian Government. Vladimir Putin announced the allocation of an additional €250 million over the next three years for its further development. KI was founded in 1943 to develop nuclear weapons. Nowadays, energy production and energy efficiency as well as industrial nanosystems and nanomaterials are its main areas. It operates its own five nuclear research reactors and recently launched NBIC, the “Kurchatov Centre of Converging of Nano-, Bio-, Information and Cognitive Sciences and Technologies”.

Russia is actively participating in international large-scale projects. However, the facilities in use, such as the large hadron collider operated by CERN or the experimental nuclear fusion reactor ITER near Marseilles, are all located abroad. Now, Russia wants to set up its own facilities and six projects have been short-listed. Initial costs are estimated to be up to €1 billion per facility or about €3.4 billion for all projects. Final funding decisions also depend on co-financing commitments of foreign countries. Whereas half of costs for the NICA heavy ion collider have already been secured from foreign partners, financing of other projects including the PETA-Watt laser is still in limbo.

The Innovation City Skolkovo (Innograd Skolkovo) has become President Medvedev’s most prestigious project. In the media the project is often referred to as the “Russian Silicon Valley”. The goal is to build an ultra-modern centre for the development and commercialisation of advanced technologies within the next five years. The estimated costs of €5 billion are split between the Government and private investors. Siemens, Nokia, Intel and other global players have already signed partnership agreements. Construction of a techno park and a new city for about 20,000 permanent citizens on a 400 ha area close to Moscow is about to start. Priority areas include energy efficiency, IT, space/communication, biotech/biomed and nuclear technologies. A Foundation for the Development of Skolkovo with several bodies including a scientific advisory council was recently established. The Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (SIST) should become one of the leading education and research centres. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) agreed to assist in setting up a world-class graduate research university. New regulations including tax breaks, three-year renewable work permits for highly-skilled foreign specialists and abolition of upper salary limits should help to attract foreign capital and talents.

Russian universities

University level tertiary education in Russia is offered by about 1,100 institutions, out of which 450 are non-State institutions. Six million students are enrolled in public institutions. Foreign students account for about 2% and are primarily from countries of the former Soviet Union. Corruption is prevalent and quite a few students complain that only cash is paving the way to the best universities and excellent grades. A nationwide exam was introduced in 2009 to make the access to universities more transparent. Based on exam grades, the best performers are selected and receive state funds, whereas the rest has to pay tuition fees beyond €3,000 per year. The Moscow Times just ran a story on a large-scale scam at the Russian State Medical University in Moscow. Three-quarters of state-supported entrants have been estimated to be fakes and were later replaced by real students with low grades and parents willing to pay up to €10,000 in bribes. In 2007, the two-tier, four-year Bachelor (Bakalavr)/two-year Master (Magistr) cycle was introduced without major changes to the curricula. Postgraduate degrees are awarded on the basis of scientific merit: ‘Kandidat Nauk’ is more or less equivalent to a PhD title, whereas ‘Doktor Nauk’ takes about five to 15 years and resembles the German habilitation. There are approximately 4,200 new ‘Kandidats’ each year and one out of four makes it to ‘Doktor’. St Petersburg State University installed a series of incentives for young scientists last year. For example, getting a PhD title below the age of 30 comes along with a one-time payment of €1,250. In addition, PhDs in the same age group publishing a paper listed in the Web of Sciences are rewarded with almost €400.

From ‘Kandidat’ to ‘Doktor Nauk’

The number of research-intensive universities in Russia has been low. This is about to change. Large programmes to intensify research efforts and improve the research infrastructure at universities are underway. In addition, cooperation between universities and the business sector is being promoted. Main measures include the creation and support of 30 National Research and 10 Federal Universities, as well as a €2.5 billion Federal Targeted Programme entitled “Scientific and Academic Staff for Innovative Russia”. The competition for National Research Universities was launched in 2009. Educational institutions with the potential to become world-class academic institutions are supported with up to €45 million over a ten-year period on top of their regular budget. In the first two rounds, 27 institutions were selected. In addition, Lomonosov Moscow State University and St Petersburg State University have priority funding status. Another initiative aims to support up to ten Federal Universities in under-resourced areas, which receive each up to €750,000 per year for a three-year period from the federal budget. The Federal Targeted Programme “Scientific and Academic Staff for Innovative Russia 2009-13” focuses on improving the education and number of PhD students in hi-tech disciplines and long-term financing of researchers at universities. In addition, mobility and about 2,000 new research projects per year are supported. The number of Governmental and Presidential scholarships for under- and postgraduate students is about to be increased to 5,000 and 3,000, respectively. And there are plans to send 10,000 Russian students a year to leading universities abroad. They will receive full support but have to pay penalties if they do not return to Russia.

The programme “Measures to attract Leading Scientists to Russian Educational Institutions” received wide media coverage. Due to the considerable grant size of close to €4 million for a three-year period, which is way above the average grant awarded by the Russian Foundation for Basic Research; the programme was referred to as ‘megagrantov’ (mega-grant) competition. The competition was open to foreign and Russian scientists, who are willing to spend at least four months per year at a Russian university and implement a first-class research project involving at least seven students. In the first two rounds, more than 1,000 applications were made. Each proposal was reviewed by two national and two international experts and finally selected by the Grant Council of the Russian Government. Almost half of the first 40 winners were from the US or Germany. Among the awardees were Nobel Laureate Ferid Muard, Fields Medallist Stanislav Smirnov and MIT professor Anthony Sinskey. Results of the second call will be announced later this year. However, it remains open as to whether megagrantov will be continued in the future.

Private foundations

Private foundations, which are not controlled by the Russian government, add to the limited funding repertory of Russian scientists. Foreign foundations such as the MacArthur Foundation or the George Soros International Science Foundation have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in Russia. Private Russian foundations have just recently emerged. Pockets that can spare the change for philanthropy are abundant. According to Forbes magazine, Russia is home to more than a third of Europe’s 300 billionaires. The Volneo Delo (Free Deed Foundation) of Oleg Deripaska or the Vladimir Potanin Foundation nourish science and education with more than €10 million each year. Worth mentioning are also the foundation of Nobel Laureate Zhores Alferov or the Dynasty Foundation. The Dynasty Foundation was set up by Dmitry Zimin to support students and young scientists as well as to popularise science. The current focus is on mathe­matics and fundamental physics. The €6.7 million annual budget also covers two-week, short-term visits by foreign scientists. Last year, the Dynasty Foundation bridged a funding gap in the RAS Molecular Biology Programme by providing grants to 50 young scientists. A list of additional foundations is available from the Russian Donors Forum.


In contrast to other lab equipment and chemicals, ethanol can be obtained more quickly and easily. (Photo: iStockphoto/ CREATISTA)

Get to know Russia

Without an ongoing cooperation with Russian scientists you might not be too familiar with the way science is done over there. It is not easy to get a balanced overview. After wading through Russian web pages using online translators and getting no feedback on several emails and fax messages, you might start thinking that Russians just want to be left alone. Once, I was surprised to get an instant response to my mail from a top official, “Dear Mr Shreck! I have received your letter and will answer soon.” Well, I was put on a mailing list but nothing else happened. News portals, such as Science and Technology in Russia (www.strf.ru) or POISK news (www.poisknews.ru) and news agencies, such as RIA NOVOSTI (en.rian.ru) present more the official view.

Science blogs and web forums are quite popular but for an outsider it is impossible to see the light. Reading deadpan reports might not be one of your favourite activities but the ERAWATCH profile of Russia and the “Reviews of Innovation Policy-Russia 2011” published by the OECD are a good start. A couple of web portals have been set up to foster scientific cooperation between Russia and EU countries and are also toeholds for further exploration: the Science and Technology Gate RUSEU, ERANetRUS or ACCESSRU. In addition, you may obtain some details in your home country by universities, research organisations and funding agencies that have bi-lateral agreements or close ties with Russia.

If you are into scientometrics, the WhoIsWho of Russian science might help to find the best institute in genetics or the most productive molecular biologist. The astrophysicist, Boris Stern, started the project in 2001 for mathematics and physics but later it was extended to biology and other disciplines. It is based on citation frequencies of articles published by Russian authors in journals listed in the Thomson Reuters Web of Science. With an online translator you can easily access the data. Also, the above-mentioned S&T Gate RUSEU provides a searchable database with key institutions.

Outlook

Brain drain, isolation, an over-aged scientific community and a lame Russian Academy of Sciences, which has not fully arrived in the post-communism era, are often made responsible for the decline of science in Russia. Reform processes are slow and often impeded by bureaucracy and highly influential conservative forces. But let’s not get carried away! No-one was really expecting Russia to establish an efficient and modern research system compatible to international standards within 20 years. Mainly driven by economic needs, education, science and innovation in priority areas are currently boosted by large investments. The announcement of prestigious mega-projects makes good press.

To be sustainable, such projects require a long-term commitment and they have to be backed up by novel organisational and legal structures. Those who do not benefit, complain that non-applied research in non-prioritised fields will eventually become extinct and that the political leadership of the country has lost contact with the scientific community. Internationalisation efforts beyond joint research projects and short-term visits need to be further developed and financed. Scientists from abroad are keeping a close eye on how their colleagues are doing in the mega-grant programme. In the meantime, they highly appreciate the one or other up-to-date web site in English and some valid email contacts for communication.

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