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Published: Sunday, 9/1/2013

Commentary

Kremlin puts Academy of Sciences in its cross hairs

BY MIKE SIGOV
BLADE COLUMNIST
Mike Sigov. Mike Sigov.
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The Kremlin is about to subjugate the Russian Academy of Sciences — under the guise of fighting the country’s notorious brain drain and while fanning anti-U.S. hysteria.

Despite mass protests by scientists this summer, the Kremlin is set to reform the academy by substituting the member-elected academy president with a government appointee and transferring the academy’s vast property to a number of state agencies. That includes about $1.5 billion worth of prime real estate in Moscow, which so far has been off limits to Russian President Vladimir Putin's minions.

Independent experts mostly agree that seizing that property is one of two prime reasons the Kremlin is set to gain direct control over the celebrated institution that has enjoyed self-governance since its inception by Peter the Great in 1724.

It has since gained a worldwide top-notch reputation, due, in part, to Russia’s launch of the first artificial satellite in 1957 and sending the first man to space in 1961.

The other reason is Mr. Putin’s personal grudge against the academy members who recently voted against extending full membership to one of its corresponding members who happens to be Mr. Putin’s de-facto science adviser and the brother of one of Russia’s oligarchs who is also the president’s close friend.

Despite those reasons, the reform announcement came as a total surprise to the academy members, none of whom had been consulted.

Some of the experts consider Mr. Putin’s grudge to be the primary reason of the upcoming government incorporation of the academy. Notably, Roald Sagdeev, formerly the director of the Space Research Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences, now a professor of physics at the University of Maryland, told Voice of America that he believes that to be the case.

Whatever the primary reason, the important thing is that scientific research would be affected because a Putin functionary would decide research funding and leadership, and — most important for the “reformers” — the use or disposal of property, particularly real estate.

Judging by the fate of Russia’s oil and natural gas industry — the country’s main moneymakers now fully under the Kremlin’s control — there is no doubt that the bulk of the academy’s real estate will be sold for a fraction of its real price to those with “ponyatia,” or understanding, that they have to share their incongruous profits with the powers that be.

More than 2 million people mostly of the middle class, including thousands of promising scientists, have fled Russia in the 13 years that Mr. Putin has run the country. Some emigrated because of meager pay and lack of promotion opportunities while others left because of systemic corruption that precludes business start-ups by outsiders.

There is nothing in the academy’s reform plan that would remedy that brain drain. On the contrary, taking away the academy’s self-determination would only make things worse. But all the appeals of the academy members to the government to let them decide their own fate and work out their own reform plan have gone unheeded.

Sadly, the Putin regime has so far used the Russian Academy of Sciences mainly as a propaganda tool, most notoriously in 2009 when government-affiliated media announced that Russian scientists had deciphered the genome of a Russian — and did it faster than other nations deciphered their own genomes.

That anecdotal incidence has become a laughingstock internationally, because the Russian scientists involved in the research later admitted that they had used long-neglected imported equipment and only after similar research was done by several other groups of scientists abroad.

If the reform is implemented, we will certainly hear more anecdotes of that sort as opposed to real scientific breakthroughs by Russian scientists.

Mike Sigov, formerly a Russian journalist in Moscow, is a U.S. citizen and a staff writer for The Blade.

Contact him at: sigov@theblade.com, 419-724-6089, or on Twitter @mikesigovblade.



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