Why has the reform of the Russian Academy of Sciences stirred up such controversy? Could this reform foreshadow a reshuffling of the Russian government?

Under the bill, scientific organizations with the Academy will be supervised by an authorized executive agency. Photo: ITAR-TASS

The reform of the nearly 300-year-old Russian Academy of Sciences – the country’s leading academic organization that oversees Russia’s scientific research – broke the summer lull in Russian politics, sparking unusually intense debate and even personal attacks.

It would be as if the top professors and university presidents in the U.S. suddenly began arguing with each other and with the Obama Administration. The uncharacteristic nature of this conflict shows that tensions in Russian society are running high and that many Russians may not currently have the most positive political outlook.

It is not beyond reason that the topic of the reform was released to the public with the explicit purpose of encouraging debate and ‘blowing off steam’ during a politically uneventful summer. This would enable the ‘autumn political season’ - which is expected to be quite turbulent - to proceed in a less tense environment.

The essence of the reform

A fundamental reform of the Russian Academy of Sciences was announced at a government meeting on June 27. The essence of the reform is that the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Academy of Agricultural Sciences will be merged into a single ‘Super Academy.’

Control over academic institutions will be handed to a new state agency that will report to the government. This change implies that the current Academy will lose its main privilege, which is to independently spend the money allocated from the federal budget. This lost privilege would essentially turn the Academy into an ‘academic club.’

While many say the reform came like a bolt from the blue, this is hardly believable. The vibe of reform could be sensed in the expert community – if not the whole of Russian society – at least seven years ago. It seemed everyone was talking about the crisis of research science in Russia, as well as the major drop in return on investments in the Academy.

The Russian academic community has been rocked by scandals about plagiarism in dissertations for over a year now, which is an obvious manifestation of a grave crisis in academic science.The Academy was only partially implicated in those scandals. However, whatever they may be saying, these problems are fully indicative of the processes going on in the Russian academic elite, with its core in the Russian Academy of Sciences. 

Awaiting the reform

There is talk that the financing of fundamental science in Russia has been decreasing, while the Russian Academy of Sciences has not been getting enough money. This is mostly true; however, there are some exceptions. The budget of the Siberian branch of the Academy kept growing even in 2013, when many in the Russian economy started tightening their belts.

They also tend to forget that the substantial increase in financing during the ‘fat years’ prior to the meltdown of 2008 did not have any tangible results. Moreover, the money injected in the Academy not only ‘slipped through a crack’, but also aggravated the decline by creating an illusion that no change was required to maintain the status quo.

The impact of budget allocations provided on a competitive basis via various funds proved to be marginal; however, it was starting 2013 that the state investments in science from 2003 to 2007 were supposed to pay off. This never happened, though, and the academic community continued to transform into a club of government critics and street protesters.

At the same time, non-Academic research teams, including some university centers, were showing positive results. Under the circumstances, it is quite a logical and valid move for the reform to focus on structural changes. It is hard to develop further without consolidating the structure of fundamental science and liquidating some of the institutes that have either been created artificially or have long been dead.

Does the state have the right to reform the Academy? Naturally, it has the right to reform the institutes and organizations that it finances, and it has the right to adjust their operation as long as it thinks that it is not effective enough.

Apparently, the Academy is inefficient. Its operations over the last eight years have proven that it is incapable of reforming itself and improving its effectiveness. Moreover, the very fact that the Academy failed to work out a concept of reform and restructuring suggests that its chief executives have lost their sense of institutional self-protection.

It was obvious back in winter that the government was preparing a major initiative to reform the Academy of Sciences; however, the Presidium of the Academy discussed everything but reform. Even more interestingly, President Putin’s proposal to take the reform under his personal control had a dual effect. The Academy’s bureaucracy got scared.

Role of property in the reform

On the other hand, the reform of the Academy keeps within the framework of banal property management. Those criticizing the reform insist that its authors are mostly interested in the property managed by the Academy. This is partially true: The property of the Russian Academy of Sciences is de facto state property that had been given to the Academy with a view to having scientific results.

The only thing they fail to tell us is that those speaking in favor of the immunity of the Academy are also interested in its assets. If we read some comments by critics of the reform, we’ll see that property is the only issue that they vigorously reject. There are surprisingly few comments about ways to increase the effectiveness of the Academy.

The problem is that the property run by the Academy has long been used with no formal control and for non-scientific purposes. Many of the premises managed by the Academy are occupied by private companies – both bona fide and dubious businesses – rather than scientific workers. Some taxes on lease revenues fail to reach the state budget, but this money doesn’t go to staff scientists, either.

Will the declared reform be enough?

The reform as we see it now seems to pay too much attention to structural changes – modifications to the configuration of the Academy and its activities. As a result, the efficiency of its work has taken a backseat. It is the structure of the Academy that will be reformed, rather than its essence – this is why the reform is cautious, half-hearted and limited in scope.

It won’t be enough to encourage the development of fundamental science, all the more so because you can’t rule out that some of the state tasks will be sabotaged following the reform.

The most important question is this: Will the Ministry of Education and Science and the Russian Academy of Sciences be able to not only put the reform in place, but also improve the effectiveness of the Academy? There are reasonable doubts, given the animosity between those engaged in the reform.

Unexpected consequences of the reform

Against the backdrop of the media campaign launched by the Ministry of Education and Science to advertise its initiatives, which was followed by personal debates between the minister and the president of the Academy, the reform has begun to be perceived as a conflict inspired by the authorities. The academics managed to present the situation as the result of ‘arm-twisting’ by the government, thus shunning responsibility for the outcomes of the reform.

If the reform should fail, there will be only the government to blame; in other words, the possible political dividends of a more rapid decision concerning the Academy will be lost, while the government will become a target of severe criticism by all the stakeholders.

Under these circumstances, the only way out could be to sack the most active and polarizing public figures involved in the current round of the reform. Moreover, efforts to resolve the possible conflict around the Academy becomes an almost ideal reason to reshuffle the government and get rid of those who started to get on people’s nerves or lost their management potential. In other words, the reform may become the first step that leads the way to drastic changes in the Russian government.