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Friday, March 30, 2007

You Say you want a Scientific Revolution?

The Associated Press reports on an encouraging sign of rebellion within Russia's scientific intelligentsia:

Russia's scientific elite, in a rare show of disobedience to the Kremlin, on Wednesday voted against a government-proposed charter that would have transferred control of the historically independent Academy of Sciences to the state. The academy has spearheaded fundamental research for nearly three centuries and enjoyed a high degree of autonomy even in Soviet times, when it refused to expel dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov. The Education Ministry had proposed creating a supervisory board consisting mostly of government representatives that would oversee the academy's work, budget and property, including vast real estate assets. Instead, senior members of the academy voted unanimously for regulations that would allow it to keep its autonomy.

The vote was a rare statement of dissent against President Vladimir Putin's government, which has established tight control over Russia's political, economic and social life. First steps toward imposing greater government control began last year when parliament passed a law stipulating that the academy's top executive must be approved by the president and its charter approved by the government. The Education Ministry proposed an academy charter that would create an advisory body made up of nine people, only three of whom would be scientists; the rest would be government ministers, lawmakers and Kremlin officials.

Under the ministry's proposal, the advisory body would control research, decide which scientific projects to pursue and distribute state funding. "Whether people having no relation to science can make decisions about scientific work is a big question," said academy spokeswoman Irina Presnyakova. "The scientific community has enjoyed specific freedoms and autonomy everywhere and at all times," Zhores Alferov, a Nobel physics laureate and senior academy member, said on NTV television.

Founded by Peter the Great in 1724, the Academy of Sciences has cherished its autonomy. In the Soviet era, it refused to accept some senior Communist Party members whom it saw unqualified. The state-funded academy commands a budget of $1.2 billion, has 400 research institutes and some 200,000 scientists across the country. Critics say the government's move is also aimed at gaining control over the academy's lucrative real estate assets, including palaces and other sites in Moscow and St. Petersburg. "The Kremlin and the government have long been eyeing this tasty morsel and of course the academicians don't want to see their financial and moral situation weakened," said Yevgeny Volk, head of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office. Volk predicted a tough battle between the academy's leaders and the government, saying that the authorities could offer additional perks to the academicians in exchange for control over the organization.

Dmitry Livanov, a deputy education minister, said that the ministry wouldn't approve the academy's version of its charter, but added that it was ready for a "constructive dialogue," the ITAR-Tass news agency said. If the Education Ministry and the academy fail to reach a compromise, the government has the power to enforce its version of the charter. However, the Kremlin would likely try to avoid an open clash with the widely respected body that could erode the government's prestige ahead of the parliamentary election this fall and the presidential vote in March 2008. Academy president Yuri Osipov predicted difficulties getting its version of the new charter approved by the government, even though he insisted it fully complied with Russian law, but he vowed to resist government moves for control. "We don't take seriously anything that is made up by outside people having no relation to us," he said on NTV.

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