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Russian into print

Russian science goes to market...

(The following Media Monitor essay appeared in the April 2002 issue of the Society’s monthly colour magazine, Geoscientist)

"Er – Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev." [MM’s interrogator nods and smiles in reply] "Trofim Denisovich Lysenko…Oh - bad example… Nikolai Vavilov… Andrei Sakharov… " [He nods again] "Vladimir Vladimirovich Beloussov…"


"Geophysicist. Didn’t believe in seafloor spreading…" [Blank look] "R F Gekker… founder of palaeoecology…"

When asked how many Russian scientists you can name, especially when the questioner is a Russian science journalist in a Moscow basement bar after too many litres of Baltika, recourse to one's erstwhile specialism is not really playing fair. You could know intimately every Russian expert there is on fossil freshwater calcareous algae, but that isn’t the point. The question means: "How many famous Russian scientists (who are also famous in Russia) can you name?" It is a question of knowing the cultural icons. In all kinds of ways, Russia remains a land of icons.

The people of the Russian Federation find themselves - once more - in transition, and likewise their science has had to rethink its role and position in a rapidly changing society. Importantly, Russian science has also – for the first time – begun to come to grips with what the public thinks about it . And hence MM’s presence, on a chilly February night, in the Bar Schwein, desperately trying to identify faces in the great iconostasis of Russian science.

The British Council (in Russian, Britanski Soviet) had invited MM and Peter Green, Director of the European science news website AlphaGalileo, to give a course on aspects of science journalism and PR . In the audience, earlier that day, had sat representatives of 50 or so Russian universities and science institutes, charged with the unfamiliar job of promoting their institute’s work and building public support. How things have changed.

Science and technology occupations suffered falling prestige in Russia during the 1990s, and from 1996 on, the authorities began conducting public opinion surveys to try to get to the root of the problem. Russians have always seen science as one of their greatest national values. However, the economic switcheroo of the last decade has changed things as faith in science’s power to cure all ills has been disappointed.

R&D institutions of the former Soviet Union, which were largely concentrated in what is now the Russian Federation, was guided primarily by political objectives and international prestige. More and more money was allocated with little emphasis on economic return. In those days, no matter how small the sea in which a specialist swam, he or she could be certain that there was at least one other fishy in their waters. This person was likely to be Russian, the world expert, and largely unknown beyond the Iron Curtain. All that has changed; but the institutes are still there, trying to cope.

As the Russian economy melted down through the 1990s, demand for R&D declined along with state support. There was a brain drain, noted by an OECD report of the time, which blithely said "many Russian scientists, especially in the younger generation are becoming quickly integrated into the international scientific community". Universities always did little research in the USSR. Now they do even less, as reserves are focused on the great research institutes. Total R&D personnel fell from 1,943,400 (1990) to 990,700 in 1996. Many research institutes began to turn into private enterprises and with real R&D fading away, younger staff left to find other careers or work abroad, with a consequent "greying" of the scientific profession that is worrying for the future.

But natural sciences, which have always enjoyed high prestige, have not done too badly. The prestigious Russian Academy of Sciences boasts no less than 30 research or research & development institutes in the broad area of Earth sciences, employing almost 7500 staff. There are seven State Research Centres in mining, oceanography, water provision and engineering hydrotechnology. Moreover, that peculiarly Russian phenomenon, "Science Towns", include Novosibirsk, whose noted university includes a strong Earth sciences faculty.

Federal budget appropriations (1997) in the broadly Earth science area under the heading of "Environmental security of Russia" totalled 194 billion roubles (about £4.5billion). This includes such matters as radiation control monitoring and cleanup, and the economic consequences of the rising level of the Caspian Sea. Additionally, in 1996, the Federal budget also allocated 2.2 billion roubles (£50m) to international S&T projects and programmes connected with arctic exploration, global environmental change, ecological safety and environmental protection. These big budgets reveal big ambitions. In a country in whose capital it is possible to flag down ordinary cars and negotiate a taxi ride with the driver, the public needs constant convincing that its money is being well spent.

In the atheistic Soviet Union, faith in science was carefully fostered, and it is not surprising to find that it remains strong, even though the church bells are ringing again. Fifty percent of Russians still think science could solve most social difficulties – eclipsing the Japanese, for example, of whom only 13% think likewise. General knowledge of science is also comparable to, or better than, most other countries. The problem is disappointment that these arguably unrealistic expectations are not being met.

For this reason the Ministry of Science & Technology is beginning a campaign to promote scientific literacy and popularise the achievements of domestic and world science, so creating (they hope) a favourable political climate for the creation of a workforce skilled in those S&T areas the economy needs. This is all very familiar in the UK. The UK is known (and admired) for its progressive approach to targeting scientific research towards politically and socially defined priorities, and for fostering good science communication with the people - which is why the British Council has been ideally placed to help. MM’s initial worries that the differences in both science and media cultures between Russia and the UK would render his experience irrelevant proved groundless.

Major Russian newspapers like Izvestia now regularly sell slots of space for S&T news; so although the methods may differ, the result (dedicated science supplements) is the same as the UK witnessed in the mid 1980s, when – spurred on by the newly founded Independent – UK papers began to devote special weekly sections to science.

The demand for science news in Russia is being met by a go-ahead science magazine publisher and news agency, Informnauka. As well as publishing a subscription-only colour popular science magazine Chimia I Zhizn (Chemistry and Life - picture) Informnauka also syndicates general science news stories to the papers, and now also supplies news copy in English to AlphaGalileo.

Their energetic editor-in-chief, Lubov Strelnikova (picture), personifies the campaigning spirit of this organisation, with its many young keen writers, like Sergey Komarov and University of Moscow Geology graduate Tatiana Pitchugina. The promotion work this team does through AlphaGalileo, for example, earns the company no money. They do what they do because they believe in it. As Strelnikova put it to MM in the Bar Schwein, they do it for science, and for Russia.

Such an uncynical approach is rare among our own hard-bitten hacks. MM doesn’t suppose any of that lot would be so callow as to ask a visiting member of their profession how many British scientists they could name. Contrastingly, there is an eager freshness in the Russian approach that warms the cockles of MM’s otherwise flinty heart. It will be interesting to see how long it survives the long march towards consumerist well being. Cynicism, no less than a Gucci handbag, is a luxury good.

Note: If you want to find out more about the Russian science base, the British Council (with DTI) has published Russia: a Science & Technology Profile by Dr Leonid Gokhberg of the Centre for Science Research and Statistics in Moscow. You can order a copy from the Science Section of UK Partnerships: Tel: 0161 957 7043; Email: