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'Serfs' up

The Russian Academy of Sciences (RAN) produces the majority of Russian research - but are its members, set to vote for a new president, “serfs”?

From Where I Sit web illustration (16 May 2013)

The election will take place at the end of this month. The incumbent, 77-year-old mathematician Yuri Osipov, has been in post since 1991.

RAN was founded in 1724. Its 11 departments oversee dozens of research institutions and it has around 500 full members and 700 member- correspondents, as well as 50,000 doctors and candidates of science. Its annual budget is 93 billion roubles (£1.9 billion).

The election is being heatedly discussed online in hundreds of Russian- language blogs, forum posts and comments. Some relate to a recent post by Leonid Radzikhovski, a prominent and outspoken Russian journalist. In a blog published on 29 March, he called RAN members “serfs” whose opinions go unheard. Many found this comparison offensive, arguing that RAN’s scientists will contribute to the election decision, enjoy academic freedom, can pursue various opportunities domestically and abroad, and are paid decent salaries.

Others describe Mr Radzikhovski’s observation as remarkably accurate and cite numerous examples of academic servitude and the absence of decision- making power among RAN members “in the trenches”.

Since the body is so big, it is a challenge to hear every member’s voice. However, the first stage of the election process allows each department and research centre to present their candidates for the presidency. Eventually, a forum consisting of 1,200 academics and member- correspondents chooses a president from 12 candidates by majority vote (although the choice also has to be approved by Russia’s president).

One of the candidates is RAN’s only living Nobel laureate, Jores Ivanovitch Alferov, who is 83. His campaign is reported to be built on a popular strategy of uniting to fight the “common enemy”. This enemy is the Russian minister of science and education, Dmitry Livanov. Since he was appointed last May, Dr Livanov has questioned RAN’s efficacy. He has called its structure and management style archaic and said that it is interfering with its members’ ability to produce world-class research. Dr Livanov contends that in the world’s scientific powerhouses, universities and their research centres successfully perform the role RAN plays in Russia.

Many online commentators say they have joined Professor Alferov’s “united” front over fears that Dr Livanov could ruin RAN, destroy almost 300 years of research tradition and undermine Russian science. They say that the minister’s statements pay lip service to the US monopoly in research, which they argue is underpinned by Thomson Reuters’ citation data. They assert that Russia has always taken its own unique route in scientific research: indeed, during the Soviet era, RAN nurtured 15 Nobel laureates; and during the two decades after the collapse of the USSR, thousands of Russian researchers were sufficiently scientifically advanced to secure research appointments abroad.

Yet Dr Livanov has his own small band of online supporters. They criticise RAN’s upper echelons for research passivity and for supposedly favouring political and monetary benefits over scientific priorities. They also argue that RAN’s bureaucratic and financial structure could lead to its demise as a competitive member of the world research community.

Since 1724, RAN has shown both stability and the ability to adapt. The election could open a new chapter in its history - or even signal its end.

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