In a country where science used to be a matter of national pride, the
average salary for a researcher is $1,644 a year. That has triggered a brain
drain resulting in a telling statistic: The average a
By Alex Rodriguez, Tribune foreign correspondent.
Moscow bureau researcher Andrei Osipov contributed to this report
May 9, 2004
PUSHCHINO, Russia -- Alexei Zuikov, a cell biologist
in one of Russia's premier science communities, was explaining practical
uses for his research into animal hibernation when a colleague bounded into
the room carrying two empty plastic bags.
"Here is your sack. The car is waiting--let's go," the colleague said.
Zuikov explained. The campus where
he works, the Institute of Cell Biophysics, abuts a potato farm. The machine
used to harvest potatoes invariably misses some, so the farm lets the institute's
scientists gather what is left.
Scrounging for ways to make ends meet--or even for tomorrow's meal--has
become part of the daily routine for many Russian scientists. They tinker
with the complexities of microbial DNA by day and drive a cab or delivery
truck at night. Their skills are first-rate, but bare-bones budgets hold
The plight of Russian science is a bitter pill for a country that prides
itself as one of the world's leading centers of scientific knowledge and
home to the winners of 10 Nobel Prizes in science fields, including one last
year for physics. Russian scientists make an average of $1,644 yearly; the
U.S. Labor Department puts the average annual salary for an American scientist
As a result, the Russian science community's best and brightest have been
streaming to the West, lured by a better lifestyle, better equipment and,
of course, better pay. The Russian Academy of Sciences has estimated that
as many as 60,000 scientists left the country to work abroad in the decade
after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Thousands of other frustrated Russian scientists stay in the country but
change careers. A Russian Academy of Sciences sociologist, Valery Stepanov,
has estimated that 80,000 to 100,000 scientists leave their careers every
year to pursue non-science work.
The brain drain is robbing Russia of its next generation of young scientists.
Today the average age of a scientist in Russia is 56.
"With the number of young scientists and specialists decreasing, there is
a real danger of losing the continuity of generations in science," Russian
President Vladimir Putin said earlier this year. "The path of young scientists
is thorny, and it depends on academic bureaucracy rather than research results."
The predicament of Russian science is vividly evident in Pushchino, a Moscow
suburb of 22,000 amid the dense stands of Russian birch that fill the southern
bank of the Oka River. Home to Russia's pre-eminent microbiologists, Pushchino
has long been synonymous with the heyday of Russian science.
Thousands of articles by Pushchino scientists have been published in internationally
prestigious science journals. The community's cutting-edge research includes
work in identifying bacteria that can help absorb oil spills and in genetics,
though a Pushchino institute's claim that it cloned a mouse 15 years before
Scottish scientists cloned a ewe named Dolly was roundly rejected by major
A large hotel that during the Soviet era was regularly jammed with scientists
attending symposiums has become a boarding house that accommodates down-on-their-luck
local residents. Scientists like Zuikov are forced to take two or even three
jobs to make ends meet.
When he is not in the laboratory, Zuikov, 26, works as a stock clerk at
a gift shop and takes carpentry jobs. His wife, Olga, is taking postgraduate
courses at a local university.
"Long ago, we quit the nasty habit of buying a dress or anything else other
than food," Olga Zuikova said. "I dread this winter. I don't have a decent
The salaries of most scientists in Pushchino are staggeringly low given
the complex and often vital projects they take on.
Irina Sereznyova, 36, is a stem cell specialist who researches tissue replacement.
She makes $69 a month.
"This is what I live on," Sereznyova said. "Most of the money goes to the
project. Very little goes to my salary."
Many young scientists who go to Pushchino to study do so only because they
know they can find older scientists there with links to institutes in the
U.S., Canada or Europe.
"Pushchino is now just a springboard, a way station for young scientists
heading to the West," said Valery Sobelev, chief of the Scientists Trade
Union for the Russian Academy of Sciences. "It's a tragedy."
Much of the problem lies in the Russian government's lack of commitment
to science during post-Soviet years. In communist times, the Kremlin disproportionately
allocated money toward science because science was a matter of national pride.
But in the early 1990s, the Kremlin slashed the funding. Sobelev recalled
President Boris Yeltsin's prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, once proclaiming
that Russia had only 300 scientists whose work was worth funding. The rest,
Gaidar said, were wasting government money.
Russia also has a problem in the way it pays for its science, Sobelev and
others say. While Western countries rely on grants that encourage competition
among scientists, Russia's Soviet-style approach allocates money bureaucratically
among institutions, regardless of the quality or utility of the research.
Western collaboration on some Russian projects has begun to force Russian
scientists to submit grant proposals--and produce results once they get the
funding. Accustomed to Soviet days when paychecks were not linked to productivity,
many older scientists bristle at the idea of grants.
"This system of competition is very new for us," said Mikhail Weinstein,
deputy director of the Center for Ecological Research and Bio-Resources Development
in Pushchino. "We were taught during the Soviet era that competition is the
dark side of capitalism."
Some Russian scientists were lucky enough to get out of Russia before the
Soviet collapse and establish themselves in the West. One of those scientists,
Alexei Abrikosov, defected to the U.S. 15 years ago and joined Argonne National
Laboratory near Darien, Ill., where he still works.
Nobel Prize shared
In 2003, Abrikosov shared the Nobel Prize for physics with fellow Russian
Vitaly Ginzburg and University of Illinois physicist Anthony Leggett. During
a telephone interview, Abrikosov said the best advice he could offer young
scientists in Russia is to find a way to leave.
"I'm not a patriot of any country," Abrikosov said. "I'm a patriot of science.
So of course I would tell young Russian scientists to look for opportunities
abroad. They cannot stay in Russia to work on science. If they do, they will
spend most of their time trying to find other ways to make money."
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