In Box

Putin on a Lab Coat

Over the last decade, Russian scholars have lamented the death of the Soviet Union’s once-proud science machine. In 1999, the Russian government devoted only 2.2 percent of its federal budget to civilian basic science, down from 7.4 percent in 1992. Little surprise that some 20,000 Russian scientists left their homeland permanently during the 1990s to ...

Over the last decade, Russian scholars have lamented the death of the Soviet Union’s once-proud science machine. In 1999, the Russian government devoted only 2.2 percent of its federal budget to civilian basic science, down from 7.4 percent in 1992. Little surprise that some 20,000 Russian scientists left their homeland permanently during the 1990s to find work abroad.

But reports of the Russian scientific community’s death have been exaggerated, according to Irina Dezhina and Loren Graham’s working paper, "Russian Basic Sciences After Ten Years of Transition and Foreign Support" (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2002). Dezhina, senior researcher at Moscow’s Institute for the Economy in Transition, and Graham, professor of the history of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, maintain that financing from international foundations and scientific associations "has been essential in helping Russian science to survive."

The authors highlight the impact of transnational foundations, including the International Science Foundation — funded by multibillionaire George Soros — which provided almost $130 million in research grants to natural scientists in the former Soviet Union between 1993 and 1996. This and other support helped Russians attend scientific conferences abroad, create a peer-review process for grants, and replace aging lab equipment. As a result, the brain drain has slowed, and the total number of science researchers in Russia actually began to increase in 1999.

In 1999, Russia’s executive branch even delivered on the money it had budgeted for domestic science. And in March 2002, President Vladimir Putin chaired a meeting of national security and science officials in which they drafted a new program for scientific development up to 2010 that stresses the need for private investment and for targeted research in areas such as information technologies, space technologies, and electronics.

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