Low pay driving scientists to leave Russia

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 them back.

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 at $59,200.

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.

Prolific writers

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 science journals.

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 winter coat."

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."

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune

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