John Maddox considers how the Wellcome Trust can save Russian scienceby John Maddox / December 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
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…