Russian Science Odyssey

Review of

Science in the New Russia: Crisis, Aid, Reform

Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008, 193 pp.

The complex rivalries and connections between Soviet and U.S. science and technology were a subject of intense worldwide interest during the era of “big science” and throughout the Cold War, and Science in the New Russia: Crisis, Aid, Reform is exceptionally important because it not only reviews those historical legacies but offers a detailed account of developments in Russian science policy and international cooperation since the fall of the U.S.S.R. in 1991. The volume is the result of an extended professional collaboration between Loren Graham, who has published definitive works on the history of Soviet and Russian science and taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, and Irina Dezhina, an internationally recognized scholar who is currently affiliated with the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. The book is also useful because it summarizes much of Dezhina’s original research that has been published only in Russian-language sources, as well as internal evaluations of major international reform programs that often are not publicly available. Graham and Dezhina have also worked together, along with numerous other U.S., Russian, and European colleagues whose work is acknowledged in the volume, to shape and guide many of the large-scale international science reform projects described here. However, their insightful and thoroughly comparative analyses transcend the details of any specific reform or assistance program and remain rigorous and balanced throughout.

The authors ground their analysis in the historical legacies of the Soviet science establishment and offer a balanced assessment of the Soviet system’s very real strengths (most notably, massive state investment and a vast network of institutions and personnel; and its high-level theoretical research in key fields such as mathematics, plasma physics, seismology, and astrophysics) and its enduring weaknesses (such as the chronically weak links between theoretical work and applied research, the negative effects of party-state political interventions and censorship, and the system’s rigid generational hierarchies). The most important and persistent legacy of Soviet science is the seemingly dysfunctional separation between its three organizational “pyramids,” with theoretical and advanced research still dominated by the Russian Academy of Science and its research institutes (with similar academy structures in agriculture, medicine, and pedagogy); technical and applied research separated into economic or industrial branch ministries, much of which has been lost as enterprises have been privatized or experienced cuts in state funding; and a third pyramid of state universities and specialized professional institutes, which focus on undergraduate and graduate education but often with only weak research capacity. Finally, another enduring legacy was the pervasive militarization of science in the Soviet system, which bred yet more organizational barriers and lack of transparency.

Although the late 1980s witnessed a great intellectual opening and the exposure of this system to the full effects of internationalization, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to catastrophe. The circulation of scientific elites within the formerly highly interdependent socialist bloc ended abruptly, and state funding plunged, in some cases to as little as 20% of former budgets. The authors develop and detail an array of interconnected themes: the existential threats to the survival of Soviet science in the early and mid-1990s, along with the massive brain drain out of the profession and/or out of the region; the unprecedented international assistance programs that sought to alleviate these crises; and the fitful attempts to comprehensively rethink and reform post-Soviet research institutions and Russian science policy.

The most useful aspect of the volume for international readers will be the authors’ detailed descriptions and evaluations of the massive and historically unprecedented international assistance programs that sought first to support and then to transform post-Soviet science, higher education, and research. These programs, funded by an array of governments and multilateral organizations, amounted to several billion U.S. dollars (when related programs in energy, nuclear nonproliferation, and agricultural research are included), and offered support in the form of individual grants, international travel and long-term professional exchanges, the purchase of scientific equipment and publications, collaborative research projects, and institutional support. These reform efforts had the enduring effect of establishing the principles of competitive grant funding and peer review in Russian science and higher education, regardless of the legitimate concerns that remain about how such mechanisms are actually implemented. The authors offer detailed descriptions of the most important of these programs, such as the George Soros–funded International Science Foundation in the mid-1990s, which paved the way for much of what followed in its insistence on open competition and peer review; the European-funded International Association for the Promotion of Cooperation with Scientists from the Independent States of the Former Soviet Union (1993–2007); the International Science and Technology Center (1992 to the present), which began with a focus on military conversion and later shifted toward commercialization and technology transfer as the Russian government restored funding for defense research; and an array of private foundation–funded programs.

Perhaps the most important of these foundation-funded public/private programs, in which both Graham and Dezhina have played key roles, is the still-functioning Basic Research and Higher Education program (BRHE), operated by the Civilian Research and Development Foundation (CRDF) and co-funded by the Russian Ministry of Education and Science, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. BRHE (along with a parallel program in the social sciences) was unique, and arguably uniquely influential, in its emphasis on co-funding and joint governance, its focus on building research capacity within leading Russian universities to overcome the academy/university divide, and its targeted support for young researchers and faculty members. The influence of BRHE can be seen in the increasing willingness of Russian partners to assume a leading role in funding and sustaining the program as well as in the growing replication of BRHE’s model of interdisciplinary Research and Education Centers in many other leading Russian universities. In a profound sense, the authors’ detailed and balanced analysis of the long-term beneficial effects of these international programs constitutes a convincing refutation of critics within Russia who depict such aid programs as deliberate attempts to degrade or to prey on Russian science and technology as well as of critics in the West who have depicted such programs as ineffective or ultimately wasted.

Finally, the authors complete their key themes of crisis, aid, and reform with a detailed analysis of the attempts within Russia to reform research institutions and science policy since the early 1990s. These attempts at reform, which took place amid conditions of acute economic crisis and brutal political conflict, were fitful and arguably largely unsuccessful in the 1990s, but they have continued and become increasingly coherent and comprehensive since 2001. These years witnessed the formation of two new funding mechanisms, the Russian Foundation for Basic Research and the Russian Foundation for the Humanities, modeled in part on international examples, even as debates continue about the adequacy of their budget funding; attempts to clarify patent law and intellectual property rights; the creation of dozens of technology parks and literally hundreds of technology transfer centers; the establishment of new funding mechanisms for technological innovation and entrepreneurship; and increasingly ambitious attempts to create a “national innovation system” based on market principles and in partnership not only with state economic enterprises but now with new private businesses as well. Efforts were also launched to disseminate new information technologies throughout Russian education and government and to restore state funding for scientific research, most notably through a series of massive federal grants for innovative university projects and investments in areas such as aerospace and aircraft design, biotechnology, and nanotechnology.

Thus, the authors come to a cautious optimism about the future of Russian science and its ability to contribute both to national recovery and to global cooperation. A key turning point came after 2001, when the highest reaches of the political leadership seemed to recognize the necessity of a coherent science policy and adequate state or public investment for the competitiveness of the Russian economy and began ambitious efforts to better coordinate venture capital with technological innovation, as well as to link together the research capacity of Academy institutes with the educational programs of universities.

Overall, this is an exceptionally thorough and useful book, which highlights the remarkable progress that has been made in Russian science in less than 20 years; illuminates the very real potential of mutually beneficial international cooperation; provides a clear roadmap of the equally real challenges that remain in science policy and professional practice; and suggests that after many years of isolation, Russian science might soon reclaim its status in the world community and thereby just possibly be able to more directly contribute to the resolution of our common scientific and technological challenges in the 21st century.

Mark Johnson is a visiting associate professor of history and education at Colorado College.

Cite this Article

Johnson, Mark S. “Russian Science Odyssey.” Issues in Science and Technology 26, no. 1 (Fall 2009).

Vol. XXVI, No. 1, Fall 2009