Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Russia’s Scientists Fall Silent


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Moscow has released an initial list of “undesirable organizations” that
constitute a “threat to the foundations of the constitutional system of the
Russian Federation, its defense capabilities and its national security.” Along
with the Open Society Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy,
the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, the
list includes the MacArthur Foundation.

The move, part of Vladimir Putin’s campaign to stifle civil society in
Russia, comes as no surprise. What is surprising and depressing, though, has
been the overall reaction of Western NGOs and Russian academics to the
Kremlin’s action. As one who has been closely involved in efforts to improve
ties between Russian and American scientists for more than two decades, I’ve
seen few signs of serious protest against Moscow’s campaign to end a long and
fruitful era of cooperation. Most people have responded in the same way: Keep
your head down and hope that you are not a victim.

In the early 1990s, I served as executive director of George Soros’s
International Science Foundation for the former Soviet Union and Baltic
States. We helped tens of thousands of scientists remain in the profession by
giving them emergency support grants to feed their families. We spent nearly
$70 million on the region’s first peer­reviewed research grant competition.
And we induced Mr. Soros to allocate another $100 million to establish
Internet centers at Russian universities.

After Mr. Soros shifted his focus and curtailed his support for the
foundation in 1995, Victor Rabinowitch of the MacArthur Foundation asked
several people who had been involved to devise a program to advance research
in the natural sciences in the Russian education system. Gerson Sher, who had
worked for decades at the National Science Foundation, Loren Graham, a
prominent historian of science at M.I.T., and I developed a proposal to
establish centers combining research and education at Russian universities —
a shift from the Soviet model, in which universities emphasized teaching while
the Academy of Sciences and industry institutes conducted research.

In 1997, we refined the proposal at a conference at Georgetown University
with several Russian colleagues. When we presented the program to the
education minister, Alexander Tikhonov, in March 1998, he was enthusiastic,
stating that his ministry would match every dollar that MacArthur and its
partner in the project, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, contributed.

That August Russia was hit by an economic crisis, but we were able to
keep our programs going. We established a governing council with seven
Russian and seven foreign members that made all decisions by consensus. We
selected 16 Russian universities to receive grants of $1 million over three
years. We also established the first technology transfer offices at Russian
universities, helped Russian scientists learn how to deal with equipment
suppliers, and provided funding to attend international conferences. These
efforts were based on the conviction that we could help a country with an
outstanding scientific tradition to continue to contribute to the international

Andrei Fursenko, the minister of education and science from 2004 to
2012, was a strong supporter. As MacArthur Foundation funding began to
taper off, he asked for our help in developing four more research and
education centers to be funded by his ministry, which subsequently
established many more of these centers. Mr. Putin, campaigning to reclaim the
presidency in 2012, praised them as a “Russian and international model of
combining science and education” and proposed establishing them at 10 of the
military’s institutions of higher education.

In June 2014 I met with Mr. Fursenko in Moscow. He expressed concern
about Russian scientists refusing to revise their articles to respond to
criticisms and suggestions from peer reviewers — a major reason behind their
declining share of publications in international journals.

Earlier this month, I saw Mr. Fursenko again. I expressed my concerns
over the Kremlin’s recent actions. He told me bluntly that things have
changed. He said that this was because “America cannot tolerate any partner
who does not behave as an obedient child listening to a parent’s strictures.”
Russia, he said, is tired of this.

What produced this dramatic shift? Some might point to Russian
revanchism, the seizure of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine. But these are
symptoms of a broader reversal. The Kremlin, suspicious of the West’s
democratic values and what they might bring, now finds the risks of
cooperation to be too great.

Pushback, though feeble, is not entirely dead. After Kendrick White, an
American entrepreneur and innovator who had been working with Nizhnyi
Novgorod University for many years, was dismissed late last month for actions
that were “harmful” to Russia, the National Association of Business Angels
demanded an investigation. When the Kremlin designated the Dynasty
Foundation — the one Russian family foundation supporting scientific
research — as a foreign agent, some Russian scientists and ordinary citizens
protested. Unfortunately, Dynasty’s board has voted to end its activities.

The United States government, understandably, is wary of reinforcing
Kremlin claims that American NGOs are being used by Washington to
establish a fifth column in Russia. Its response has been measured. But this is
a battle the Russian academic community and other professional groups must
fight. It is up to Russian scholars and foreign NGOs to defend their work,
loudly and clearly.

Rather than hushing up after its assistant director was turned away at
Moscow’s international airport, the Kennan Institute should be encouraging
its Russian alumni association to mount a vigorous protest. The MacArthur
Foundation’s grantees number in the thousands. Banded together they would
represent a powerful voice.

If proponents of cooperation keep silent, the damage to Russia’s scientific
establishment — and to the country’s future prosperity — will be even more

Harley D. Balzer is associate professor of government and international
affrairs at Georgetown University, former executive director of the
International Science Foundation, and served on the governing council of
MacArthur Foundation’s BRHE program.

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