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March 30, 2010

Russia 2007: Science After the Party

In 1994 a Russian named Efim Zelmanov was one of four winners of the Fields Medal, the highest honor in math. Since 2002 he has been a professor at the University of California, San Diego. This trajectory from the frost of Russia to the sunny pleasures of La Jolla is not unusual. More than 10,000 scientists and engineers have emigrated from the former Soviet Union to the United States in the past two decades. If one includes Israel and other Western nations, that number goes even higher.

In subjects ranging from theoretical physics to sensory physiology, from dams to rockets, from petroleum geology to dif­ferential geometry, Russia once ranked among the world leaders. Peter the Great es­­tab­lished the Academy of Sciences in 1724; in the centuries that followed, researchers made lasting contributions in several key areas, among them Dmitry Mendeleyev's 1869 periodic table of chemical elements, Ivan Pavlov's work on digestive en­­zymes and conditioned re­­flexes, and Nikolay Lobachevsky's non-Euclidean geometry. In 1957 the USSR launched the first artificial satellite into orbit, taking the United States by surprise.

The situation in 2007 is much grimmer. Along with the diaspora of talent, financing has collapsed. Total government expenditures on science dropped from 1.03 percent of the Soviet GNP in 1991 to 0.3 percent of the Russian GNP in 1996 (this in the face of a massive contraction of the economy in general). Perhaps more dra­matic was the elimination of other inducements initially implemented in the Stalin years to reward scientific excellence: free dachas, higher salaries, privileged access to foreign travel and goods.

The news is not all gloomy. At its height the Communist party exerted significant control over what could be studied—and how. Some of the control was practical: You needed to keep your nuclear weapons scientists isolated to prevent espionage. But in the case of genetics, to take the most extreme example, the intrusion was more ideological. In 1948 the government formally banned the study of that subject. Geneticists were fired, sometimes arrested, and the discipline was completely eradicated until 1965. Now that the Soviet Union is gone, so is the ideological control.

No restrictions but also no money: That is the Faustian bargain that Russian scientists now face. If you come up with a great idea, you can pursue it—as long as you can find the resources to pay for it. If you can't and the idea is good enough…well, there are plenty of institutions in the West that would be willing to talk with you. —Michael D. Gordin teaches the History of Science at Princeton University.