Science meets the market in a Siberian forest

A showcase town for researchers built 50 years ago by the Soviet authorities in a Siberian forest, Akademgorodok is today torn between the demands of the market and the ideals of pure scientific endeavour.

The struggle to remain committed to pure science is felt throughout the town near Novosibirsk, where on the 2km main street alone there are no less than 40 institutes hidden among snow-covered birches, cedars and pines.

The buildings house some of the country’s top mathematicians and computer scientists, nuclear physicists and hydrodynamic engineers, chemists and geologists.

But since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 put an end to massive state financing, the academics have been forced to look elsewhere for support.

“Over the past 15 years, the state has put very little money into science,” said Gennady Kulipanov, deputy director of the Institute of Nuclear Physics.

“Twenty-two percent of the funds come from the state and we must earn the remainder ourselves,” he said.

To do this the institute sells its particle accelerators abroad for scientific and industrial use.

Since 1990, it has manufactured a hundred such devices, of which six only have been sold in Russia, the remainder sold for export to customers in Asia, the United States and Europe.

“It is the paradox of Russia: everyone says ‘Russia is rich, you have plenty of gold and oil’. I answer: ‘I will consider us rich when we start to finance the sciences’,” he said with a smile.

Well aware of the support given to research in countries like Britain and Japan, he said the researchers at his institute, who work closely with colleagues in France and Switzerland, earn just $500 to $1 000 per month.

“But the most important thing is to organise interesting work” so that the young researchers don’t leave, he said.

Other institutes have immersed themselves in the market in the hope of earning enough money to fund their own pure research.

Renad Sagdeyev directs a much more recent institute, the Centre of Tomography, or medical imagery, which he built himself in the early 1990s, taking a chance with self-financing.

“I wanted to create an autonomous institute which earns money itself,” he said of the institute, which took three years to build.

It linked with the German company Bruker, for which it services medical imagery equipment on the Russian market, to finance the pure scientific research of his colleagues, like microtomography, the study of the structure and the chemical reactions of non-living matter.

The average age of its researchers is 38 years, as against 48 in Russia as a whole, according to a study by the Higher School of Economics in 2004.

One of its researchers in microtomography, Igor Koptyug, complains bitterly about the lack of financing of pure science and the “short-sighted vision in favour of industrial research”.

As for the future, Akademgorodok is planning to build a 100 000 square metre techno-park as an incubator for innovative companies as well as a huge conference centre.

Even the Russian Academy of Science, Russia’s most prestigious scientific organisation, to which Akademgorodok belongs, is bowing to the pressures of the market.

Since May it has been following a three-year programme to cut the number of institutes and reduce by 20% permanent posts in favour of temporary contracts. — AFP

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Ursula Hyzy
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