Russian Academy Faces Tighter Control

Legislative changes giving Russia's government more authority over the Academy of Sciences raise concerns

Sep 13, 2006
Stephen Pincock
Russia's venerable Academy of Sciences could soon come under tighter governmental control, if legislative changes made by the Cabinet last week are ratified by parliament. On September 8, the Cabinet approved revisions to Russia's Law on Science that would give the national president final say over who is chosen to lead the Academy. The move comes as the Academy's 70-year-old president, Yury Osipov, is poised to step down. "Under the new amendments, the elected president of the Academy is approved by the president, while the [academy] Charter is to be approved by the government," Osipov was quoted as saying by the ITAR-TASS news service.The Cabinet's move will make the 282-year-old institution a "state academy." There had been media suggestions that its name would officially change to the State Academy of Science, but Osipov denied those rumors in an interview with ITAR-TASS on Tuesday.The academy has been in existence since 1724, when it was established by Emperor Peter I. At the end of the Soviet era, in 1991, it became a self-governing scientific institution. Unlike small academies of science in the West, it is a huge network of research organizations totally funded by the state. Its budget is controlled by Academy members, which number about 1,000.Reforms have been on the cards for some time, said Carthage Smith, deputy director of the International Council for Science, of which the Russian Academy is a member."The Russian Academy is different to many academies in that it is also a funding agency," he told The Scientist. "Funding agencies are often more directly linked to government than the traditional Western scientific academies."Like other scientific academies in Eastern Europe, the Russian Academy needed to modernize in order to keep up with changes in the international science community, Smith said. Having said that, he added, "it's good for a country to have an independent science body to offer impartial advice" to authorities.So far, neither the government nor the administration of the Academy has made an official statement to scientists about proposed changes, one researcher who asked not to be named told The Scientist. He said the changes would likely have widespread ramifications, with the number of institutions administered by the academy diminishing, and the number of scientists drawing state salaries through it also dropping.According to the Russian news service RBC News, the new bill is being finalized by the Science Ministry and the Russian Presidential Administration, and is expected to be submitted to the State Duma for consideration next week.Britain's Royal Society, another long-established national academy, expressed some concern over the reports.Stephen Cox, Executive Secretary of the Royal Society, said the two societies had been working particularly closely in recent years on the production of joint statements on climate change, African development, infectious diseases and energy security ahead of the G8 summits in Gleneagles and St. Petersburg. "One of the main strengths of science academies, as demonstrated by these joint statements, is that they can offer authoritative advice to policy-makers that is independent of political, commercial or any other type of bias. It would be of great concern to the Royal Society if there were attempts to reduce the independence of any of its sister academies," he said in an email statement to The Scientist.Stephen Pincock spincock@the-scientist.comLinks within this article"Kremlin Seeks Greater Control Over Science," Moscow Times, September 11, 2006."Scientist calls for postponing elections to RAN governing bodies," ITAR-TASS, September 12, 2006."RAN not to be renamed into State Academy of Sciences?official," ITAR-TASS, September 12, 2006."Reform in the Academy of Sciences Frozen," Kommersant, August 29, 2006. News