Science policy Two years of war

“If the reform of Russian science begins in ten years, then there will be no one to return”

Under what conditions will Russian science be allowed to be back “into the international club”?

Betting on science is a win-win for any modern state. It is important that the future democratic parliament understands this – and that it can clearly formulate an answer to the question of why Russia needs science. The goal is important: let us remember that the lists of cited publications of Russian scientists, like 40 years ago, are dominated by mathematics, physics, astronomy – the sciences needed to make rockets (for comparison: in Canada, about 40% of scientific publications are devoted to biology and biomedicine). T-invariant editor-in-chief Olga Orlova wrote for the Reforum project the history of post-perestroika transformations of science, and now she is the author of a project for possible scientific reforms in the Russia of the future.


Totalitarianism and war have turned the vector of Russian science 180°: it is now moving in the direction opposite to that which it had been going for 34 post-perestroika years. When the need arises to return science to its natural course, any political force that tries to do this must have a plan of action. Below we present a collection of ideas that can be used by those who will be responsible for science policy and the development of specific programs. We proceed from the fact that there are basic principles for the development of modern science, the observance of which will need to be returned.

Not a single science reform project in Russia can be successfully implemented if the answer to the question of what kind of science the country needs in the future is not formulated. The experience of scientific reforms in post-Soviet Russia has shown that the lack of this basic understanding leads to the devaluation of any positive effect of changes.

A striking example is the history of the development of the humanities and social sciences from the 1990s to the 2020s.

In the 1990s, the emerging political and economic system of post-Soviet Russia needed advanced researchers in the fields of economics, sociology, philosophy, political science, history, cultural studies and philology. During the Soviet period, these sciences traditionally served the authorities or were strongly influenced by ideological dogmas, which did not allow them to develop in accordance with world trends. The need for new personnel led to the need to create new educational and scientific centers or transform old ones so that new academic programs appeared in them: Moscow School of Economics and Social Sciences, Higher School of Economics, New Economic School, European University at Saint Petersburg etc., jobs for modern professional researchers and a system for their reproduction appeared.

In the 2000s and 2010s, when the Russian economy “embarked” on resource-based and then resource-administrative tracks, these specialists helped keep the country afloat – integrate it into various global processes, support financial institutions and develop new industries. However, starting from the third term of Vladimir Putin, i.e. from 2012, the final change in the political course separated the development of these disciplines and their influence on economic and social life in the country. This led to the virtual destruction of growth points in these areas – the closure or repurposing of entire scientific departments, the labeling of some of them as foreign agents or undesirable organizations, a break with foreign partners, and a “brain drain”. The war completely changed the landscape of social science and humanities disciplines in Russia. In the year after the full-scale invasion, thousands of leading economists, slavists, historians, sociologists, and political scientists left Russia. The Liberal Arts faculties at RANEPA and St. Petersburg State University were closed, Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities was disbanded. Bard College was given undesirable status.

The leadership of the country’s leading humanities faculties and universities has changed.

Thus, for thirty years we have witnessed how, at first, young post-Soviet Russia greatly needed advanced humanities and social sciences, then it began to need them only in certain areas to solve certain problems, and then they ceased to be needed at all.

The situation was different with exact and natural science areas that solve fundamental, applied and practice-oriented problems. In the 1990s, neither the government nor the economy needed them. Each region looked for ways to survive at its own discretion; in the first ten post-Soviet years, mathematicians, physicists, chemists, and biologists left Russia en masse. In the five years after perestroika, from 1989 to 1994, the number of employees engaged in research and developments, reduced by 1 million 110 thousand specialists, of which 748 thousand researchers and technical workers. Industry science was practically destroyed. The country’s leadership for the most part focused on the import of high technologies, not caring not only about the development of fundamental sciences, but even about their preservation.

In the 2000s, against the background of budget growth thanks to serious oil revenues, the authorities began to understand that the level of development of science is one of the indicators of the image of a civilized country. In 2005-2007 scientific policy of the state begins to focus on international indicators and indicators of scientific efficiency and success, programs for scientific and technological development of certain areas appear (for example, nanotechnology initiative or programs for the integration of foreign scientists into the Russian academic system; remember the megagrants program). In the 2010s, the Russian leadership declared the need for research and development related to the military-industrial complex.

After 2014, the external and internal policies changed sharply; now the rhetoric of import substitution of technologies dominates in the sphere of scientific and technological policy. It was during these years that the idea of ​​the possibility of having a strong national science separately from the world one took root in the government, which drew its main “innovative ideas” from the Stalinist administrative experience. At the same time, the authorities always focused on the successful Soviet experience in the development of nuclear and atomic physics, forgetting about the failure in the field of biology, genetics, and cybernetics. This distorted view of the real state of Soviet science led to the fact that the severance of international scientific ties with Europe and the United States was perceived by the Russian authorities without a sober understanding of the consequences. The government called on scientists to turn to the East and begin to actively cooperate with India, China and Iran.

The current structure of the Russian economy does not allow for the effective use of the potential accumulated by Russian science over the 24 years of Putin’s rule. The interference of security forces and leaders of militaristic ideology in academic processes and in the operational management of science, the search for “spies” among Russian scientists collaborating with foreign colleagues, has led to the absence of long-term prospects on which the real development of science is built.

Thus, the inevitable reform of science, which will have to be carried out by those who come to power in the new Russia, will primarily depend on what political and economic foundation the country will be built on.

But there are a number of steps that will need to be taken in any case – whether the new Russia follows the path of a presidential or parliamentary republic, turns into a real federation or breaks up into several parts, regardless of how the budget will be formed and what will make it larger depend on degree. The development of science is inevitable, because the scientific and technological industry is one of the most necessary tools for the development of any successful economy in the modern world. A government that does not understand this is doomed. If the government wants to survive, it will rely on science and technology.

In our proposals, we proceed from the fact that the reform of Russian science will become part of a larger overall reform of the Russian state.

5 tasks for the restoration and development of Russian science

Task 1. Restoring the integration of Russian science into the international academic system

By 2023, Russian institutional ties with leading scientific countries were practically destroyed. There are many examples. In 2022, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) suspended observer status for Russia due to the situation in Ukraine until further notice, and from the fall of 2024, CERN will completely cease cooperation with Russia and Russian scientists. Russia was limited in access to the international scientific databases Web of Science and Scopus. German specialists refuse to resume operation of their eROSITA telescope in Russia space observatory “Spektr-RG”. Seven countries from the eight members of the Arctic Council suspended their work for an indefinite period, not wanting to cooperate with Russia as the chairman of the council. In Russia drug research programs have been stopped.

The Russian government has canceled a number of agreements on cooperation with the United States, Britain and the EU in the field of science and technology. Russian scientists are prohibited from participating in international native projects and conferences, which are financed from the budget of the EU, Britain and the USA. All this makes it impossible for the development of full-fledged science in Russia. And the restoration of Russia in international scientific projects and EU programs will be a key task of scientific reforms.

However, its solution cannot occur only on the initiative of Russia itself. She will not be allowed back into the “club” without guarantees that the former aggressor will not convince the rest of the international scientific community that she can be dealt with. This means that a number of actions will need to be taken to restore its reputation in the academic world. This will be facilitated by solving the second problem.

Task 2. Achieve the lifting of sanctions on research organizations

By 2023, more than 20 scientific institutes and universities were subject to international sanctions. Among them are the Research Institute of Energy of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), the Institute of Petroleum Chemistry RAS, the Research Institute of Polymers named after academician Kargin, All-Russian Petroleum Scientific Research Geological Prospecting Institute, All-Russian Research Institute of Geophysical Exploration Methods, Institute of Synthetic Rubber named after Lebedev, Siberian Research Institute of Geology, Geophysics and Mineral Resources, Almetyevsk State Oil Institute, RN-BashNIPIneft and Gazprom. The sanctions included such leading scientific institutions as the Institute of Applied Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the P.N. Physical Institute. Lebedev RAS, Institute of General Physics named after Prokhorov, Physico-Technical Institute named after A.F. Ioffe RAS, Institute of Semiconductor Physics named after A.V. Rzhanov SB RAS, Institute of Theoretical Physics named after L.D. Landau RAS, Institute of Physics and Technology named after K.A. Valiev RAS and the Institute of Spectroscopy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Skolkovo Foundation and the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, MIPT, the Institute of Management Problems included in the infrastructure of the Skolkovo innovation center, V.V. Trapeznikov RAS, Institute of Information Transmission Problems named after A.A. Kharkevich RAS, Institute of Marine Technology Problems of the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Russian Federal Nuclear Center – All-Russian Research Institute of Experimental Physics and its branch, Research Institute of Measuring Systems named after Yu.E. Sedakova. In addition, four oil-related educational institutions appear in the updated SDN List: Russian State University of Oil and Gas named after Gubkin, St. Petersburg Mining University (Mining Institute), Grozny State Petroleum Technical University (GGNTU) and Russian State Geological Prospecting University named after Ordzhonikidze.

The list of these organizations is constantly updated and will grow as long as Russia is at war with Ukraine.

The basis for inclusion in the sanctions list is the involvement of a scientific organization in critical areas of industry and technology that could strengthen the military and economic potential of warring Russia. Almost all of these institutes are among the leading scientific centers in their fields. Their return to the international field is the most important step for the development of Russian science. However, in order to achieve their exclusion from the general sanctions list, it is necessary to provide strong evidence of their further non-participation in the defense-industrial complex. It is necessary to develop state regulations that exclude the possibility of interaction between these scientific organizations and law enforcement agencies for an indefinite period. In order for such regulations to be developed, sanctioned institutions must undergo an international audit involving experts from the EU and the USA. To do this, you need to solve the following problem.

Task 3. Carrying out an international audit of all scientific organizations and universities in Russia

Carrying out such a procedure should become an indispensable condition for the admission of Russian state scientific institutions to any international projects, programs, databases and collaborations. This means that the administrative apparatus of these organizations will be forced to show interest in obtaining a “license” for new activities. The purpose of international auditing should be to determine the scientific and technological level of the organization, the level of its social significance in the regional or federal economy and the level of development of academic freedom and ideological neutrality. The effectiveness of such an audit can only be ensured by highly professional experts with an impeccable reputation and knowledge of Russian academic realities. A key role in such a process can be played by the huge Russian-speaking scientific diaspora, representatives of whichsince 1991 have been successfully working in international universities and which has been replenished with several thousand brilliant specialists from various fields who left Russia after February 24, 2022. On the other hand, the composition of expert groups in each field should be formed by leading scientific associations and scientific societies that will delegate its members to participate in these groups.

There are currently 724 universities and 1,618 research institutes in Russia. To conduct an audit and examination of these institutions, it will take at least two years and significant funds. Whether the new transitional government will be able to obtain credit for such an audit from international funds is a big question. There is a high probability that the answer will be negative, and Russia itself will have to pay for its implementation. Then you will need to solve the next problem.

Task 4. A sharp increase in public and private funding for science

In 2022, Russia spent 229 billion rubles (approximately $2.860 billion) from the state budget on fundamental science, and 339 billion rubles (approximately $4.2 billion) on applied science.

In terms of the absolute scale of spending on science ($49.9 billion), Russia is among the top ten 6 leaders, closing it, but in terms of the share of such expenses in GDP it ranks only 43rd place (0.94% in 2022). At the same time, the expenditures of the European Union countries on research and development (R&D) from 2012 to 2022. increased by 45% and amount to more than 352 billion euros, or 2.22% of GDP. With the outbreak of the war, priorities were revised: funding for the national project “Science and Universities” in 2024 was reduced by 4.3% compared to the 2023 budget. In February 2024, in his pre-election address to the Federal Assembly, Vladimir Putin touched on most social spheres, but did not say anything about science or about the planned expenses for it. This is the clearest signal to the scientific community about priorities in government policy.

Only a multiple increase in the research and development budget can radically change the situation. Let us note that in no country in the world such a “financial zigzag” towards science can be carried out solely at the expense of the state budget. Private business should be involved in supporting the scientific sphere. Attracting private capital to the scientific field has been declared a priority throughout the 24 years of Putin’s presidency. However, this problem was never solved. In the field of applied science in the field of R&D, before the war, Russia was in 16th place, second to Hungary and Estonia. 1 researcher in the applied field accounted for $102 thousand per year, and 67% of this amount was provided by government money, 30% by corporate money and 3% by foreign capital. The state spent $27 billion on applied science, companies – a little more than $12 billion. This ratio did not in any way ensure a stable connection between applied science and the technological sphere.

Two factors may change the situation in the future. Firstly, the liberalization of the Russian economy, increasing the level of competition and thereby increasing the need for innovation on the part of private business. Secondly, increasing the share of private capital in the overall structure of science financing. This will require the development of special programs that would allow those companies that were subject to international sanctions and were involved in the military operations in Georgia and Ukraine to “clean up” their reputation and restart their reputation, but want to continue operating in the Russian and global markets under new conditions. Such a program should become part of another large program – the demilitarization of the Russian economy.

Task 5. Demilitarization of the economy

Any reforms are expensive. There is no hope that the world community will want to spend money on reforming science in a country that started an aggressive war and then lost it. You will need to find these funds yourself. Since one of the economic consequences of the war in Ukraine was the accelerated transition of Western Europe to alternative energy sources, as well as a reduction in trade with Russia, oil, gas and customs duties, which made up a significant part of the Russian budget, will cease to be so in the coming years. Russian reformers will not have much room for maneuver; they will have to very quickly decide on priorities within the country and negotiate loans outside it.

One of the main conditions for lending from international institutions will be the radical demilitarization of the Russian economy, reform of the security forces and militaryrevenge The release of these funds will make it possible to transfer them to other sectors. One of the first such sectors should be science and higher education. Qualitative changes in the reproduction of human capital will allow Russia to convince the world that it no longer poses a threat to other countries.

Human resources – return or grow?

Suppose we come to the government of the transition period with a general concept of reforming Russian science. The first question we will be asked is: who will do all this? Do you want to give away the reform at the mercy of officials, academics and administrators who voted for the war, rewrote the history textbook and taught the course “Fundamentals of Russian Statehood”? To answer this question, you must first answer three others:

  • What to do with lustration of scientific administrators and officials?
  • How to bring back those who left Russia but would like to return?
  • How to quickly train new scientific personnel?

1. Lustrations

Experts agree that there is no way to carry out mass lustrations in the academic sphere no possibility, no meaning (more on the topic – here andhere).

Firstly, a significant part of those leaders who publicly supported the war, fired scientists who left the country and continued to work and teach remotely, did this forcedly, under pressure from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education.

Secondly, measures to isolate Russian scientific organizations followed so quickly that Russian scientific administrators did not have time to make a choice and change their trajectory. Western countries made it clear in the very first weeks of the war that they were not expecting scientists from Russia. Therefore, we practically did not observe the departure of management personnel abroad; only a few were able to leave the country. Some of the remaining tried to minimize the damage from foreign policy changes, while others began to adapt to new conditions. But there was also a part that said that they had long been waiting for the hour when Russia would finally rise from its knees. This part should be identified during the international audit and removed from administrative activities in science. The audit and examination report of each scientific organization must include the item “List of persons subject to lustration and not allowed to hold leadership positions in scientific and educational organizations.”

2. Return of scientific emigrants

In the early 2000s, when free oil money began to appear in the Russian budget and talk arose among Putin’s entourage about the revival of Russian science, the decision quickly matured to attract representatives of the scientific diaspora to the country who had managed to realize themselves professionally in the West and might be interested in additional money and graduate students from Russia. In 2010, the megagrants program appeared; the general course towards integration into world science, which proclaimed by the Russian government through the mouth of the Minister of Science and Education Andrei Fursenko, implied close cooperation with those who already had a good understanding of modern science and wanted to help bring the domestic science into line with its standards. A noticeable impetus for the implementation of this course was the 5-100 program, adopted in 2013 and implying the entry of at least 5 Russian universities into the top hundred leading universities in the world.

All this contributed to the integration of Russian science into international science. By the end of the 2010s, not only in the capital, but also in regional universities and institutes, laboratories and projects began operating with the participation of foreign scientists, mainly immigrants from the former USSR. With their help, Russia became a participant in various international projects, some of them returned to Russia for permanent positions.

Can this process be repeated?

The answer depends on two factors. The first is when exactly Russian science will be able to return to the global market. The second is what age group of scientists we are talking about. The vast majority of mature scientists who left Russia after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine received temporary positions in foreign universities with a strong reduction in academic status. The likelihood that in the coming years they will be able to restore opportunities in the international academic market similar to those they had in Russia is extremely small compared to thosewe who left Russia in the 90s and early 2000s. Over the past 20 years, competition with scientists from the countries of Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, and South America has intensified. When an American university is faced with a choice between a promising young scientist from India or an older professor from Russia, the choice is almost always not in favor of the Russian. So if in the coming years these scientists have the opportunity to return to their previous positions in Russia, then they will return – this is confirmed by many T-invariant interlocutors.

If the reform of Russian science begins in ten or more years, when most of these people leave the international academic market due to age, then there will be no one to return.

The probability of return to Russia for those who left their homeland at the age of 20-40 is higher, the better conditions Russia can offer. Russian youth will want to return to Russia exactly to the same extent that a German postdoc will find it suitable to work at a Russian university. And this no longer depends on whether Russian universities will become attractive in five years or ten. It depends on whether they become attractive at all.

3. Where to get new scientific personnel?

It will not be possible to quickly make Russian universities and research institutes attractive to scientists from advanced scientific countries. But the issue of the reproduction of scientific personnel will have to be resolved very quickly: this is an extremely important process in reforming science. Launching new academic programs takes time, but you can try to land on Russian soil those that are already working in other countries. We can again turn to the experience of the 90s, when training under joint programs with Western universities appeared in Russia. A special role here can be played by those universities that have already opened Russian-language programs for students in the Czech Republic, Germany, Cyprus, and Israel.

Another urgent measure that will partly help solve this problem could be a targeted increase in temporary research rates outside the budgets of universities and institutes for the development of academic mobility. In any case, this task can only be solved in close cooperation with the international academic community.

What will happen by itself if you launch a science reform?

1. Decentralization of Russian science

The geography of Russian science today is approximately the same as it was 50 years ago. The most powerful scientific centers are concentrated in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Perm, Kazan and several other large cities. Some expansion of scientific geography occurred in connection with the development of regional universities thanks to the 5-100 program. However, there are enough regions in Russia in the development of which science plays almost no role. It is difficult to imagine a politician who would consider this state of affairs normal for such a huge country as Russia. Is this a significant factor and is it necessary to do something special about this, to develop a separate program for the decentralization of Russian science? In our opinion, it is not at all necessary. The process will start by itself as a consequence of the decentralization of the Russian economy as a whole, inevitable in the event of the political changes that we expect in the coming years. Strengthening the economic independence of the regions will necessitate the training of qualified personnel locally, which, in turn, will require the development of regional universities and strengthening of their scientific potential.

2. Restoring the Institute of Scientific Reputation

The decline in the prestige of the scientist’s profession and the low assessment of his status in society is another trauma that many experts point out when analyzing the dramatic state of post-Soviet science. This in itself is not a problem and does not affect the level of development of science: in Germany and Austria, being a Doctor of Science is extremely honorable, in the USA it is not, while science in the USA is more developed than in Germany or Austria. But if in Germany and the USA the status of a scientist in the eyes of society has been what it is for 150 years, then in Russia it collapsed in a matter of years. The scientific poverty of the 90s and the trade in academic degrees, the creation of factories of fake dissertations led to the fact that society, which previously treated people of science with great respect, ceased to value scientists and their degrees. Another blow to the reputation of scientists is that the authorities completely ignored expert opinion when making decisions.

A scientist in post-Soviet Russia is a person who is underpaid, who is little valued, and his opinion can either be bought or ignored. But traditions of respect for intellectual work do not disappear in a couple of decades. In our opinion, increased competition in the labor market, including in the field of expert assessment of government and commercial projects, will restore the prestige of science as quickly as it fell in the 1990s. When the scientist’s opinion has decisive weight or brings added value to government or commercial spheres, society will again learn to hear this opinion.

3. Integration with business through the system of Application Development Centers and RnD Centers

The lack of interest of Russian business in scientific developments is a common theme in all meetings related to science in the last 20 years. Officials and scientists never tire of reproaching businessmen for not wanting to invest in domestic applied research; businessmen prefer to remain silent or perceive investments in such projects as a social tax. Although the reason has long been known to all participants in the dialogue: the lack of competition in priority sectors of the Russian economy or the lack of full-cycle production leads to the fact that it is unprofitable for companies to spend money on innovative solutions. With rare exceptions, business in Russia does not perceive domestic developments as a potential source of increasing the competitiveness of their companies. Talks about how to “marry science and business” (as they like to say in the Academy of Sciences) will have no basis in reality until business begins to live in an intensely competitive environment and, accordingly, begins to look within the country for cheaper and effective solutions for your development. We are returning to the beginning: the outlines of the reform of Russian science will become clearer and more obvious the more clearly the government and parliament in the Russia of the future understand what kind of science the new economy needs.


The war devalued or dampened the severity of many problems that were solved in the process of reforming Russian science (we wrote about it here). Now there is no significant difference in what exactly will happen to the RAS, how many grant funds there will be in the country and how the Higher Attestation Commission will function. This is not what will determine its development. Restoring academic freedom and academic mobility, international cooperation and the institution of academic reputations can be achieved in different ways if funds are found to revise the fundamentals and assess the existing scientific and educational potential of the losing country.

The question on which the fate of Russian science really depends is what kind of country the creators of the Russia of the future will build, what values they will agree on with society. A society that values human life and human freedom will require the development of a human-oriented economy, and this, in turn, will require the development of medicine, computer science, artificial intelligence, philosophy, astrophysics and other fields of knowledge, without which it is difficult to imagine the modern world.

Text: Olga Orlova


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