KOMMERSANT

Brain Drain: Russian Scientists Packing Up Their Beakers And Heading West

Not for the first time, Russian scientists are taking their considerable knowledge and moving abroad. Some of the brainy emigrants cite funding problems and Russian red tape as reasons to move. For others, heading West is simply a lifestyle choice.

Russian scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, USA (Argonne)
Russian scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, USA (Argonne)
Alexander Chyernich and Lolita Grusdeva

MOSCOW -- Even before the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was leaking its most qualified scientists. But when the Iron Curtain came down, the leak turned into a flood. Now the country that sent Sputnik into space and prides itself on scientific prowess is facing another wave of emigration, one that some warn might be a death blow to scientific research and education in Russia.

In the middle of October, several hundred Russian scientists descended on Moscow, demanding changes in the way the Russian government supports scientific research. The organizers stressed that what they really want is freedom from the endless bureaucratic hoops they're required to jump through, not necessarily better pay. The protestors did, however, demand an increase in financing for the Russian Fundamental Science Fund (RFFI), which gives grants to Russian scientists.

Among Russia's young scientists, many are not going to hold their breath for a change. According to them, a new wave of "brain drain" has already begun. "If the situation doesn't change, a year from now there won't be anyone left to come out and protest. Everyone will have left to work abroad," warned one of the demonstrators.

To support their demands, the protesters pointed to the general decrease in scientific activity in Russia. In 2006 the government established a "Strategy for the Development of Science and Innovation in the Russian Federation through 2015." One of the standards set as a marker of success was the number of articles published by Russian scientists in the world's scientific journals. From 2006 to 2009, the number of articles published did in fact rise, from almost 26,000 to 30,000. But then in 2010 the number dropped to 29,000, and has continued to decease. This year is expected to have only 27,000 scientific articles by researchers based in Russia.

"It turns out that in only two years the number of articles published by Russian scientists has dropped by 10%. That is unprecedented," said a researcher at a Physics Institute in Moscow, who like other protesters interviewed, asked to remain anonymous. "That hasn't happened in the United States, where funding is still plentiful for scientists, in Japan, which has suffered through several years of economic stagnation, or even in Greece, which is drowning in its own debt."

Fretting over funds

The scientists insist they're working just as hard as ever, but that conditions – particularly when it comes to funding – have deteriorated and thus hampered their ability to come up with publishable findings. Scientists point specifically to changes that began in 2009, when the government started to limit the amount provided to RFFI for scientific research. At the same time, the portion of research funded through state purchase contracts increased substantially.

The RFFI has been the primary source of funds for research in the natural scientists since the 1990s (social sciences are supported by a separate fund). Before the crisis, the RFFI received about 6% of the total federal budget for research, but in 2009 the earmarks decreased and RFFI's share fell to 3.8%.

Scientists blame the Ministry of Education and Sciences for the shortage in funds, insisting the department does not adequately lobby for researchers when it comes time to divide up government funds. The Ministry of Education and Sciences, however, says that it was successful in securing a funding guarantee for the next three years. RFFI will receive slightly less then $200 million annually over the next three years. But scientists complain that the sum is inadequate, especially in the face of persistent inflation.

Scientists are also upset about an anti-corruption law that requires government money to be spent only through an open bidding process, which in practice just bottlenecks grant requests.

Moving whole laboratories abroad

"Scientists have always left our country, but now we are talking about a large increase in the number of people who are moving away. Nearly all of our friends have packed up their things," said one of the protest organizers. "Dissertation advisors don't discourage young scientist from choosing to leave. Now we're seeing a huge wave of people who are leaving the country. The only thing keeping most of them here is that they haven't defended their dissertation yet."

There are no specific statistics on the number of scientists who leave – emigrants don't generally notify the Russian migration office that they are leaving. But this is not the first exodus. There was a massive wave of scientists who left Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Mathematicians, physicists, and biologists took whole laboratories to the United States. The second most popular destination was Israel, where a previous wave of Russian scientists had already set up shop in the 1970s.

By the beginning of the 2000s, nearly all the top names from Soviet science were working outside of Russia. According to the Association of Russian Speaking Scientists, there are around 100,000 Russian-speaking scientists and researchers working outside of the Russian Federation, counting those who left Russia before and after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Russian Ministry of Education and Sciences puts the number closer to 25,000.

In its defense, the government has made efforts to stem the flow. One of the most ambitious scientific projects recently, a large scientific complex near Moscow meant to be a Russian Silicon Valley, was built precisely to entice scientists to stay in their home county. And since 2010, the Ministry of Education and Science has held a competition for mega-grants. Each winner of a mega-grant receives 3.5 million euros to establish a world-class laboratory in Russia. The government doesn't hide the fact that it hopes this well help lure back scientists who have left the country.

Regardless, Russian graduate students prefer just about any small, unknown laboratory in Europe over the brand-new Russian scientific complex. "A stable trend has been established: 100% of working young people who get the opportunity to work abroad leave Russia," said one scientific analyst. "If a young researcher gets the opportunity to enter the international arena, he or she will do it."

Indeed, the trend extends beyond scientists. In October, 2011, a survey found that 22% of Russian citizens in general were prepared to leave the country. The only thing that sets the scientists apart is that they tend to be much more welcome by the receiving countries. "It's not even really about the lack of financing for scientific projects, but general quality of life," said one of the scientists. "If regular people are not coming back to Russia, then why would scientists do so?"

Read the original story in Russian

Photo - Argonne National Laboratory

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ