Scientific glasnost

Russia's scientific reputation will continue to dwindle unless it embraces international research.

Ever since the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Russian leaders have been vowing to transform their old-line, industrial society into a modern, knowledge-based economy driven by innovative science and technology. The current Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, has repeated that ambition frequently — not least as a way to overcome Russia's dependence on oil and gas exports. Unfortunately, that transformation continues to be hobbled by outdated attitudes at the top of Russia's academic hierarchy.

A small, but telling example came to light last month when the popular online newspaper published an interview with Yuri Osipov, president of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. Pressed by the reporter about the very low citation rate for articles published in Russian-language science journals, Osipov dismissed the relevance of citation indices, questioned the need for Russian scientists to publish in foreign journals and said that any top-level specialist “will also study Russian and read papers in Russian”.

From anyone else, such a response might be dismissed as an off-hand comment, perhaps reflecting a bit of stung national pride. But Osipov is head of the largest and most powerful research organization in Russia, the employer of around 50,000 scientists in more than 400 research institutes, and the publisher of some 150 Russian-language research journals. What he says and thinks has a big effect on Russian science. Moreover, the undercurrent of scientific nationalism in his remarks is widely shared by other senior members of the academic establishment — many of whom are products of Soviet times, when Russian science was pretty much an all-Russian affair.

Such parochialism is hopelessly at odds with any dreams of a knowledge-based economy. The knowledge in question flows from basic research and technological innovation, which have long since moved beyond being just national endeavours. If nothing else, international scrutiny and feedback are essential for winnowing the good ideas from the dead ends. And, as Osipov himself acknowledged in the interview, English, not Russian, is the international language of science.

Russian science is already lagging behind that of other nations. According to an analysis published in January by Thomson Reuters, Russia produced just 2.6% of the research papers published between 2004 and 2008 and indexed by the firm — fewer than China (8.4%) and India (2.9%) and only slightly more than the Netherlands (2.5%). Moreover, Russia's publication output has remained almost flat since 1981, even as the output of nations such as India, Brazil and China was exploding. The situation is so bleak that in October last year, 185 Russian expatriate scientists signed an open letter to Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warning of an imminent collapse of Russian science unless something was done to improve the inadequate funding, strategic planning and teaching of science.

Self-imposed scientific isolationism can only make matters worse — and accelerate the already large emigration of Russian scientists seeking better opportunities in the West. And those who remain in Russia are also starting to recognize the danger. Many young researchers now eagerly collaborate with Western groups. And many older Russian professors continue to produce excellent science under often difficult conditions.