John Maddox considers how the Wellcome Trust can save Russian scienceby / December 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in December 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Wellcome Trust, Britain’s (and perhaps the world’s) richest research charity, is edging cautiously towards providing some support for Russian science. Last month, it held a rather chilling consultation with various leading Russian scientists.
A decade has passed since the old Soviet Union began to crumble. At various times since then, there have been great waves of optimism about the future of Russian science. Now people seem to be more gloomy than ever. And not just because the long winter has begun.
I remember the happier times. After years of being disingenuously refused a visa (the weather is too hot, too cold, the people are too busy, and so on), I was invited to spend three days at the Space Research Institute in Moscow in April 1986, when a Russian spacecraft carried an array of European and American instruments past Halley’s Comet. The instigator of that visit was Roald Sagdeev, who now teaches physics at the University of Maryland.
Six months later, there came a longer invitation-for a month-which had the curious property that my hosts struck out nothing from the programme I had devised, but added two locations (Lake Baikal and Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia).
In 1986, hope and despair were delicately balanced. Glasnost was popular, at least among academics. Nobody quite believed in perestroika. Already there was some grumbling that Gorbachev was a wet, which seemed then (and still seems) unfair.
The manner of my arrival for that long visit still seems like a high level pantomime. I was greeted by two men, one ostentatiously Jewish, the other a Muslim from Tajikistan. They explained that the woman who had been assigned as an interpreter for my visit could not travel because her husband had had a stroke. Only later did one of them confess that there had been no stroke, only a deception.
Then came this question: “Maybe you’re tired after your journey, but otherwise we could visit Andrei Sakharov?” He had been released from exile in Gorki just a few months before. Guess what we did! Sakharov, every inch the saint, answered each question with an elegant three minute essay, restating the premise, argument and conclusion; while his wife, Yelena Bonner, who was tidying the kitchen where we sat, interjected muttered remarks about the “incomprehension of the west”-incomprehension, I guess, of Russia’s plight.
What was Russia’s plight? And is it still the same? In 1986 the diagnosis seemed simple. Although there were then said to be 4m people employed as “scientific workers,” only a tiny fraction of them could have been working effectively. Research institutes were simply too big to be manageable. With significant exceptions, the physical circumstances were appalling.
That was when glasnost was in the air but had become a reality only in the pages of the weekly Moscow News. There are two other reasons why the efforts of 4m people produced so little. First, only the most distinguished Soviet scientists could hope to be invited to the west often enough to keep up with what their rivals were doing. Second, there was nobody in charge. Or rather, everybody was in charge. Institutes belonging to the Soviet Academy of Sciences, ostensibly privileged, had the roughest time. With bad luck, they might well come under a “division” of the academy with a strong “scientific secretary.” “Strong” meant being good at getting money and thus acquiring a licence for capriciousness.
For a time after 1986 it seemed as if the tyranny of the old men would wither away. And it is true that Anatoli Logunov, the rector of Moscow University in 1986 and also chairman of the scientific board of the accelerator laboratory at Serpukhov, is no longer in either job. Nor is Nikolai Basov any longer the director of the then vast Lebedev Institute in Moscow, which had more than 5,500 employees in its heyday.
Not all the signs today are cheerful. Since the tumultuous moment when Boris Yeltsin seized the reins from Gorbachev, Russian science has been in the hands of Boris Saltikov, an upright incorruptible who has done a power of good in the past five years. He is now out. But the academy has just re-elected for a second term its president for the past five years, one Yuri Osipov, whose chief claim on public attention is that he went to the same school as Yeltsin several decades ago. Osipov, in his mid-50s, is not an old man, but he is a true conservative. He told me, three years ago, that his priority in office was to preserve the academy.
Why should the Wellcome Trust bother to help save Russian science? George Soros has just spent $100m plus on doing that, with no clear result. The present crisis arises because the government has stopped paying people’s salaries; they have to moonlight. But what Russia still has going for it is a steady trickle (no longer a flood) of bright young people from the competent secondary schools.
The issue not tackled at last month’s meeting is whether the objective should be to keep that trickle going, or to make orthodox research grants to the people known in the west to be outstanding scientists. My own opinion is that it is the infrastructure that needs what sticking-plaster there may be to spare.