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Thursday, October 4, 2007

Russian science: What the scientists say


SOURCE. Iurevich and Tsapenko (as item 2), pp. 54-69 (chapter written together with I. Dezhina)

While only a small minority of Russian scientists receive support from abroad, (1) most have sought such support at one time or another. Almost every scientific collective, the authors remark, now has its "experts on foundations" who bombard potential foreign sponsors with appeals for money.

To explore the attitudes of Russian scientists to foreign support, the Central Institute for the Study of Public Opinion (TsIOM) surveyed 250 natural and social scientists from the main regional scientific centers, including Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Saratov, and Chelyabinsk. (2)

(a) Benefits and drawbacks of foreign support

"With regard to the general influence of foreign support on Russian science, moderately positive assessments predominate." Thus 13 percent of respondents consider foreign support of Russian science absolutely essential; two-thirds think it useful but not essential; and 13 percent regard it as humiliating or harmful.

In what ways does foreign support benefit Russian science and Russian scientists?

* In the view of 49 percent of respondents, foreign support increases the QUANTITY of scientific output.

* In the view of 35 percent of respondents, foreign support improves the QUALITY of scientific output.

* In the view of 52 percent of respondents, foreign support facilitates the creation of new scientific research programs.

* In the view of 62 percent of respondents, foreign support makes its recipients more independent of the directors of their institutes.

* In the view of 37 percent of respondents, foreign support revives the interest of Russian scientists in such traditional attributes of a scientific career as the publication of articles and monographs and the acquisition of academic degrees, inasmuch as these increase one's chance of getting a grant.

* In the view of 60 percent of respondents, grants from foreign foundations are a very substantial supplement to the income of Russian scientists (typically $100-200 per month). However, 65 percent of respondents note that grants are not large enough to cover trips abroad or the purchase of new equipment. They get "eaten up" by their recipients without changing the situation of Russian science as a whole. The system is "oriented toward growing vegetables not fruit trees."

* Many respondents also stress the moral dimension of foreign support, which makes the beneficiaries feel that they are a part of world science and that at least someone values their work.

The two most commonly mentioned negative effects of foreign support are:

* that -- in the opinion of 43 percent of respondents -- it undermines good relations among scientists by sowing divisions between the envied recipients of grants and their less fortunate colleagues, and

* that the hunt for grants takes up a large part of scientists' time, distracting them from their research.

The authors note some differences in the attitudes expressed by various categories of respondents:

* Men tend to be more skeptical about the benefits of foreign support than women are.

* Older and senior scientists, especially institute directors, tend to be more skeptical than their junior colleagues.

* Natural scientists, who are unable even with foreign support to buy the equipment they need, feel that social scientists receive a disproportionate share of the available funds.

* Contrary to expectations, no significant difference was found between the views of scientists who received foreign support and the views of scientists who did not.

(b) Attitudes to different forms of foreign support

The basic form of foreign support is the award of individual (or less often collective) grants on a competitive basis. Most respondents -- 86 percent -- approve of this practice. But a number of criticisms were also frequently voiced:

* Some grants should be awarded on the basis of nomination.

* More joint research projects with foreign collaborators should be funded.

* Some areas of science that are seen as politically relevant get disproportionate support at the expense of other less politicized but no less important areas.

* More support should be given to new scientific directions and open-ended exploratory research.

(c) Motives attributed to foreign sponsors

Only 12 percent attribute purely altruistic motives to foreign sponsors, seeing them as "Santa Claus," while 40 percent believe they "are trying to buy up our ideas on the cheap" and 14 percent suggest that their goal is to protect Western scientists from competition by stemming the emigration of Russian scientists. Only a few attribute to foreign sponsors the motive of preventing Russian scientists from working for "rogue states" like Iran and Iraq or long-term strategic motives like turning Russia into a "civilized neighbor" of the West.

16 percent suspect that Western secret services may be involved in foreign funding of Russian science, but they do not regard this as such a terrible thing. Some argue that the West has an interest not in undermining but in stabilizing the Russian state.

(d) Perceptions of foreign foundations

Although most Russian scientists are interested in obtaining foreign support for their work, they are poorly informed about foreign foundations. Few respondents were able to name more than two or three foreign foundations. (3) By far the best known and most highly regarded is the Soros Foundation, which is mentioned by 83 percent of respondents. The Ford and MacArthur Foundations are quite widely known. German and other non-American foreign foundations are rarely mentioned.

Only 35 percent of respondents think that they have an adequate understanding of the mechanism by which grants are allocated; 54 percent say they have a vague idea, and 7 percent admit that they have no idea whatsoever. Many confess that they find the allocation of grants by the MacArthur Foundation in particular "a complete enigma." This ignorance, the authors comment, is "fertile ground for the circulation of all sorts of rumors and the attribution to foreign foundations of dubious aims."

What, in the opinion of respondents, are the main factors influencing a scientist's chances of obtaining a grant?

* the personal connections of applicants (68 percent)

* their skill in writing applications (55 percent)

* their objective scientific achievements (29 percent)

* their formal status, i.e. post occupied and academic degree (27 percent)

* their informal authority (22 percent)

The majority of respondents see the process by which grants are awarded as subjective, chaotic, and corrupt. Here are some typical statements:

-- "The main thing here is the administrative apparatus of distribution, which keeps part of the money for itself."

-- "This sphere is quite corrupt."

-- "Our grant bureaucrats have concentrated in their hands power that Soviet bureaucrats never dreamed of."

-- "I do not exactly know this mechanism, but I have the a priori opinion that it's a mafia grouping."

Resentment is directed especially at the many employees of foreign foundations who are Russian emigres or people from specific politicized institutions such as the Institute for the Study of the USA and Canada. Respondents say that the emigres left Russia a long time ago and have a poor knowledge of the contemporary state of Russian science.

Thus the appreciation that respondents feel for the support offered by foreign foundations is marred by their acute dissatisfaction with the way that the foundations operate.


(1) The authors' estimate is 4 percent, but it is not clear whether this refers to all those who have ever received foreign support or to those receiving such support at a particular moment in time. "Scientist" is used in the broad sense of the Russian "uchenyi" to include not only natural and social scientists but also scholars in the humanities.

(2) Of the 250, 200 completed questionnaires while 50 were interviewed in depth. The time of the survey is not specified, but appears to have been some time in the early 1990s.

(3) Curiously, some respondents thought that purely Russian foundations such as the Russian Foundation for Fundamental Research were foreign foundations. Perhaps they were not aware that Russian foundations actually exist.

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