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Struggle For Russian Academy

Officials want efficiency; academy wants autonomy

by Lois Ember
March 19, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 12

The Russian Academy of Sciences sits on prime real estate in the heart of Moscow.
The Russian Academy of Sciences sits on prime real estate in the heart of Moscow.

The long-simmering battle between the Russian Academy of Sciences, seeking to maintain its centuries-old autonomy, and the Russian government, looking to infuse some efficiency into what it considers a sclerotic institution, will come to a boil later this month.

Founded by Peter the Great in 1724 as part of his modernization push, the academy is the granddaddy of the country's arts and science academies. Unlike the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Russian academy "gets appropriated funding from the government," says Anne M. Harrington, director of the NAS Committee on International Security & Arms Control. That funding supports hundreds of research institutions and tens of thousands of scientists, she adds.

Harrington points out that the Russian science structure, a leftover from the Soviet era, is considered by some to be bloated and inefficient. Government officials concluded about two years ago that the structure needed to be revised "if Russia was to be competitive in new and emerging technologies and if it was ever to have sound science R&D to support a growing economy," she says.

Last year, the Russian Parliament passed legislation setting new standards for all the country's academies that mandated them to enact new charters to incorporate the new standards. In January, the Ministry of Education & Sciences posted a "model" charter on its website and insisted that the academies accept it.

Science academy officials dismiss the ministry's model as overreaching the standards and a usurpation of the academy's independence. Academy members will vote on an academy-crafted charter at their annual meeting beginning on March 26.

The academy charter differs sharply from the ministry's model. The latter, for example, would set up a supervisory committee to make many of the decisions, including the allocation of research funding, that are now made by top academy officials.

Emboldened by the fact that it's an election year, academy members are expected to overwhelming endorse their new charter. It remains to be seen whether top politicians are willing to openly engage well-respected scientists in a political season.



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