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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

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