Academy Reforms

Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly called out the Academy of Sciences for allowing high-ranking bureaucrats to join.

“Speaking on Wednesday at a meeting of the Council for Science and Education, President Vladimir Putin said that late last year he asked officials to abstain from elections to the Russian Academy of Sciences… and he appealed to the head of the Academy, Vladimir Fortov.”

However, according to Vzglyad, when the elections to the Academy were held in October, “many of the civil servants disobeyed the President.”

Sergei Leskov writes in Rosbalt that what happened was “an unprecedented event and its underlying causes require analysis and interpretation.”

“The immediate reason for the conflict situation was the fact that… a half dozen [high-ranking] officials were elected to the Academy. A few months ago, Putin gave a written order that officials were not to run for the RAN… that is we are talking about direct disobedience.”

And, as we found out yesterday, the president followed through on his threat, and signed a decree dismissing four of the officials who had violated the ban.

“Putin, as the builder of the power vertical cannot understand how officials openly violated his will, which cannot be misinterpreted. In this sense, the president’s decision to dismiss officials from the civil service… to an academic path is quite logical.”

There seems to be some mass movement of civil servants into the Academy, a position that is for life once a person is allowed entry. The process to gain a seat in the Academy is a rather long and arduous one.

“Each applicant must be nominated, must go through six rounds of interviews, and voting is always secret. The procedure is consecrated in a century of tradition, and, by design, should serve as a barrier to entry into the ranks of the Academy the unworthy public. This ensures the independence of the Academy from the authorities, but on the other hand, it strengthens the state itself, which out of short-term motives in every era tends to dictate its will onto the Academy. There are examples where the independence of the Academy saved her prestige.”

But that’s a rather idealistic view of the situation, Leskov continues.

“…of course you do not have to be a professor of human nature to guess that a secret ballot can be controlled and regulated…. It is necessary to conclude that not only the conceited officials, but also the management of the Academy took a risk in going against the president.”

So why did the Academy decide to go through with this dilution of its ranks by adding new members from the bureaucracy?

“Following the recent ruthless reform [that took place in 2013], when officials deprived the Academy of its rich assets, it [the Academy] felt a threat to its existence. We must fight for survival! According to the laws of Darwinism, social mutations have become inevitable. The strong devour the weak. So we must be strong. One of the coping mechanisms – to attract the alpha male.”

So the Academy added these officials for protection, he alleges.

“Some colleagues of [Academy President Vladimir] Fortov told me: “How could Putin humiliate the president of the Academy?” But we must admit that from the start the Academy itself and its president humiliated himself by swallowing the joke of a reform… When you yourself are willing to be humiliated, do not be surprised when others humiliate you.”

And, Leskov concedes, “…in our country the scientist has always been dependent and humiliated…. it is no coincidence that in our history there are practically no examples where a scientist has become an independent and wealthy man like Watt, Edison, Sikorsky, Gates, Jobs, Musk…!”

If in the Soviet era, it was rare for the elite to become members of the Academy (“it was a violation of party modesty”), then “in democratic times, habits have changed. Nobody has taken statistics, but there is a sense that the current election to the Academy has turned into a promenade show for VIPs.”

“The Academy of Sciences is often criticized for its lack of innovation. This is slander. A striking innovative achievement of the Academy is the trade in academic status…. But today the issue of the professional dignity of the scientist… is not necessary.”

What is happening in the Academy is a microcosm of what is taking place throughout academia in Russia, Leskov concludes.

“Russian academia is gradually and inexorably turning into a citadel of scientific nomenclature. And this leads to further brain drain. Young scientists, instead of living in Russia and moving up the career ladder, are forced to flee in search of the best scientific niches in the West. Youth… sees no prospects. It is characteristic that the Academy did not name [2010] Nobel Prize winner Konstantin Novoselov, who is a Russian citizen, but strengthens the rear of policemen, oilmen, and counterintelligence agents.”

“Once the Academy of Sciences was the most robust repository of moral and spiritual values of society. Today there are no intellectual and moral leaders, like Sakharov…  and none are visible on the horizon.”

*For more details on the “reforms” forced on the Academy by the Kremlin in 2013, see this article from the Institute of Modern Russia.

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