Science in the New Russia: Crisis, Aid, Reform
Science in the New Russia: Crisis, Aid, Reform

Science in the New Russia: Crisis, Aid, Reform

by Loren R. Graham, Irina Dezhina

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The Russian science establishment was one of the largest in the world, boasting many Nobel prizes, a world-leading space program, and famous schools in mathematics, physics, and other fields. However, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the major financial supports for the scientific community were eliminated, with resulting "brain drain." The subsequent expansion of capitalism and globalization revealed that Russian science was ill adapted to compete with other countries in high technology. Science in the New Russia tells the dramatic story of the near collapse of Russian science in the mid-1990s and of subsequent domestic and international efforts to reform and reenergize scientific activity in Russia.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253000330
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 05/28/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 216
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Loren Graham, author of Moscow Stories (IUP, 2006), is a well-known historian of science who taught for many years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. He is the author of many books on the history of Soviet science.

Irina Dezhina is Leading Research Fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Moscow, and the author of many works on post-Soviet politics and society (in Russian).

Read an Excerpt

Science in the New Russia

Crisis, Aid, Reform

By Loren Graham, Irina Dezhina

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2008 Loren R. Graham and Irina Dezhina
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35155-5


Science at the End of the Soviet Period

To the eye of the foreign observer, two of the most notable characteristics of the science establishment of the former Soviet Union were its bigness and its high degree of centralization. Not only was the Soviet science and technology community one of the largest in the world, but it was organized in distinctly different ways from those in other countries. The relative roles of the academies of sciences, the universities, and the industrial research organizations were unusual when compared with those in other nations. Furthermore, Soviet science and technology were organized in larger units than found elsewhere, and under the control of fewer influential individuals.

At the beginning of 1991, the year in which the Soviet Union collapsed, the total number of people officially classified in the Soviet Union as scientific researchers and faculty was 1,520,000. Because of definitional problems, this number cannot be directly compared to similar statistics in other countries, but there is general agreement among Western specialists that by the 1980s the Soviet Union had 10 to 30 percent more scientists and engineers than the United States, depending on the definition of degrees and fields. When one considers that the Soviet economy at its best moment was much smaller (estimates say less than one-half the size) than the U.S. economy, one is tempted to conclude that the Soviet Union had too many scientists and engineers, but such a conclusion would be of course disputable since no one knows what the optimal number of scientists and engineers is for a given economy. But certainly the financial burden on the Soviet Union to maintain this enormous scientific establishment was very great.

These Soviet researchers were distributed in three gigantic pyramids, which for sake of convenience can be called the university system, the academy of sciences system, and the industrial and defense ministry system. Table 1.1 gives a very approximate description of the organization and shares of research personnel and budgetary funds of each of the three pyramids.

From the standpoint of U.S. experience, the most familiar pyramid of the three is the university system. The Soviet Union, like the United States, had large universities, all supported by the government in the Soviet Union, as the majority are partially supported by governments (usually state governments) in the United States. (Of course, the United States also has a number of quite influential private universities; there were no private universities in the Soviet Union.) The superficial similarity of the two government university systems should not blind one to the enormous differences. In the United States the universities are the home of most of the fundamental research conducted in the country. In the Soviet Union the universities traditionally had a much narrower pedagogical role, and the research conducted in them was often of an applied character. Another difference is that even state universities in the United States receive large portions of their budgets from non-governmental sources.

The Academy of Sciences of the USSR was the most unusual institution, from the perspective of the United States. The Soviet Academy of Sciences was the home of fundamental research and the most prestigious scientific institution in the country. In the United States the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering are primarily honorific organizations; they issue reports periodically, but they are neither the locus of laboratory research nor the place of employment of active researchers. The Soviet Academy of Sciences, on the other hand, was the place of employment of the most outstanding fundamental researchers in the country. These scientists spent their lives in its service, and their places of residence, travel and vacation privileges, and health and social services were traditionally controlled by it. No surprise that Alexander Vucinich called it an "empire of knowledge."

The industrial and defense ministerial system was by far the largest of the pyramids. It was primarily concerned with applied science, although it performed some fundamental work as well (just as the Academy of Sciences system performed some applied work). Military research occupied a very large role, not only in this industrial-defense pyramid, but in the universities and academy institutes as well. In fact, the military was given about 75 percent of all resources. Thus, when we say that the Academy of Sciences was the home of fundamental research we are making a relative statement. Even the Academy was heavily influenced by military and applied demands.

Most researchers in the industrial-defense pyramid were not located in individual plants or "companies" (as they would be in the United States), but instead, like their colleagues in the academies of sciences, they usually worked in centralized institutes in large cities. In the period of the most intense growth of the Soviet scientific establishment (1960–1972) the number of these institutes increased from 4,196 to 5,307.7 After 1972 the number of institutes remained approximately stable, but the existing institutes continued to grow in size. The average institute in 1991 had a staff of 270 researchers, but some of the most important had research staffs of several thousands. The directors of these institutes were traditionally very powerful, even autocratic, figures appointed from above, although in the last years of the Soviet Union, under Gorbachev, an attempt was made to introduce democratic elections of directors.

In the above paragraphs we have several times compared the Soviet system of the organization of science with that of the United States. We have made these remarks on the assumption that many readers of this book will be Americans for whom such a comparison is informative. It would be perfectly legitimate to propose, however, that the most appropriate model of comparison for the Soviet system would be that of one of the continental European countries, such as France or Germany, where the role of the government in administering and financing the science establishment is very large, as was the case in the Soviet Union and is the case in Russia today. Later on in this book we will raise this issue in more detail and make brief comparisons of Russia to these other countries. At this point, however, we will merely note that many Russian science policy analysts today are aware of these different models of comparison. On the one hand, they often note that Russia's science system is more similar to those of several European countries than it is to the United States; on the other hand, they believe that U.S. experience is especially valuable for Russia. The United States and the USSR were, after all, the two Cold War superpower rivals in science and technology, and they have been heavily dependent on defense-related R&D to build up their capabilities in science. Therefore, both countries face, to a certain extent, similar problems, such as knowledge transfer between the government and public sectors, and linking military research more closely with civilian needs. Furthermore, Russian science policy analysts know that France and Germany are also trying to copy some models and practices from the U.S. science establishment, demonstrating interests similar to their own.

How Good Was Soviet Science?

The Soviet scientific system possessed both strong points and weak points. Among the strong points were generous governmental and social support for the natural sciences, both financial and psychological; a strong educational establishment, many of whose most academically talented graduates went into the research institutes; and the ability, through political control and the command economy, to concentrate successfully on a few high-priority projects (e.g., nuclear weapons, space). Among the disadvantages of the Soviet scientific system were the separation of research and teaching (a result of the division of functions in the three pyramids already described); the distortion of priorities, particularly toward the military; the low productivity of the research system (especially when one considers the enormous resources devoted to science), a flaw that was connected to the absence of genuine peer review; political restrictions (secrecy, repression of dissidents, prejudice against some ethnic groups, such as Jews, and suppression of certain fields, such as genetics from 1948 to 1965); the pervasiveness of corruption, and, finally, an emphasis on "reverse engineering" of Western innovations. (The reverse engineering approach was not always a disadvantage, since Soviet engineers proved adept at first copying and then sometimes improving on Western technology).

In some fields Soviet science was outstanding. In 1977 the National Academy of Sciences in the United States conducted a thorough study of the quality of Soviet science. Most of the members of the evaluating committee were distinguished U.S. natural scientists who were familiar with Soviet work in their fields.

The striking aspect of the evaluations given by U.S. scientists of Soviet work in a number of fields was the excellence they found there. Lipman Bers, past president of the American Mathematical Society, professor of mathematics at Columbia University, and a native reader of the Russian language, described Soviet mathematics in the 1970s as equal to mathematics in any other country of the world, and said that Moscow probably contained more great mathematicians than any other city on the globe. Bers was fully aware of past and continuing persecution of scientists in the Soviet Union (this was the time of refuseniks in Soviet mathematics, the firing of mathematicians who applied to emigrate to Israel). But, he said, the strength of Russian mathematics was so great and the pool of talent so deep that repression could not destroy it.

In a similar mood, David Pines, professor of physics at the University of Illinois, reported that "in the area of theoretical condensed matter physics, USSR scientists have been doing some of the most innovative and important work in the world for two decades or more." Hans Frauenfelder, another physicist from Illinois, wrote that "the level of the best work in solid state theory in the USSR is outstanding and at or near the frontier."

Similarly strong comments were made about other fields in the field-by-field reports submitted by outstanding U.S. scientists, most of them members of the National Academy of Sciences. Fields of Soviet science selected for particular praise by U.S. scientists in the late 1970s included, in addition to mathematics, plasma physics, theoretical seismology, climate research, and theoretical astrophysics.

Soviet science was obviously very good in some fields. However, if one takes into account the enormous financial effort being made by the Soviet Union to excel in science, the conclusion seems inescapable that it was underperforming. György Péteri of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology has attempted to measure "how hard countries were trying" in their research efforts by plotting the ratio of the density of research staff (full-time equivalent number of research workers per 10,000 inhabitants) against the level of economic development (GDP per capita). He made these calculations for eighteen different countries, both capitalist and socialist, for the year 1985. According to his analysis, two countries — East Germany (the German Democratic Republic) and the Soviet Union — were the most extreme examples of what he called "systemic overstretch." These two countries were trying extraordinarily hard in science and investing a great deal of capital, both personal and financial, in research.

The mature Soviet Union possessed a very large scientific establishment, by some calculations the largest in the world. However, no matter what criteria of excellence one chooses — number of Nobel Prizes awarded, frequency of citation of Soviet research, number of inventions registered abroad, or honorary memberships in foreign scientific societies — the achievements of Soviet scientists were disproportionately small. In the fields of natural science (physics, chemistry, physiology, and medicine) from 1901 through 1990, citizens of the United States won 145 Nobel Prizes, compared to 8 received by citizens of Russia and the USSR (after the collapse of the USSR, in the year 2000, Zhores Alferov won a prize in physics for work done in the Soviet period, and Vitaly Ginzburg in 2002 also won such a prize, making the total 10). If one ranks the countries of the world in terms of the number of their citizens who received Nobel awards in this period, the Soviet Union ranked sixth, after the United States, the UK, France, Germany, and Sweden. And the Soviet Union seemed to slip badly in its last decades. Between 1976, when Peter Kapitsa received a Nobel award, and 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, there were no Nobel Prizes given to Soviet natural scientists.

If one looks at the sale of licenses for technology, the poor performance of Soviet research is particularly clear. The United States, in sharp competition with Western Europe, Japan, and other advanced industrial countries, sold approximately thirty times as many licenses for technology annually as the Soviet Union in the last years of its existence. A similar picture emerges from a study of honorary memberships in prestigious scientific societies. In 1986, five years before the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the Royal Society in London had 87 foreign members, of whom 6 were citizens of the Soviet Union and 44 citizens of the United States. During the next two years, 3 of the Soviet members died, leaving only 3. The situation for the Soviet Union was slightly better among foreign members of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, in which 16 members were Soviet citizens in 1986, out of a total of approximately 250 foreign associates.

Each criterion for comparing science in the Soviet Union with that in other countries has, of course, its flaws. The Russian language was known by few researchers outside the Soviet Union, and consequently the achievements of Soviet researchers were more frequently overlooked than those presented in more accessible languages. Furthermore, comparisons of citation rates of scientific publications in the United States and the USSR are inaccurate because so much of Soviet science was secret and therefore could not be cited. Also, it is hardly surprising that so many more U.S. scientists were members of the Royal Society than Soviet scientists; the common language and many ties shared by British and U.S. scientists make such shared honors inevitable.

Nonetheless, no matter what criteria of excellence one chooses, Soviet science failed to measure up to that of several other countries — and that fact has significance. After all, in the first decades of Soviet history the view was fairly widespread, both in Soviet Russia and among left-wing scientists in Western countries, that Soviet science would become the best in the world. The Soviet leader Nikolai Bukharin wrote in 1931, "It is not only a new economic system which has been born. A new culture has been born. A new science has been born." Soviet sympathizers in the West such as J. D. Bernal and J. G. Crowther wrote books praising Soviet science as superior in essence to that in the West. Bernal wrote in 1939 that Soviet technology and science would serve humanity much better than that of "the present indefensible and chaotic system of science and industry in the West." As one observer commented, Bernal was "inclined to accept the claim of Soviet Marxism to represent science in general." The distinguished U.S. historian of medicine Henry Sigerist was so impressed with Soviet medical science in 1937 that he wrote that it was the "beginning of a new period in the history of medicine." Even as late as 1968 the British historian of science Joseph Needham remarked that "all those in the thirties who believed that the natural sciences could only come to their most perfect fruition in a socialist society probably still think so now." Against the background of such hopes the conclusion is inescapable that Soviet science and technology did not meet the grand goals its early supporters posed. Indeed, such statements about Soviet science as those quoted in this paragraph now seem naïve and grossly uninformed.

Rather than being the best science in the world, science in the late Soviet Union was crying out for reform. It was a system that emphasized quantity over quality, seniority over creativity, military security over domestic welfare, and orthodoxy over freedom.


Excerpted from Science in the New Russia by Loren Graham, Irina Dezhina. Copyright © 2008 Loren R. Graham and Irina Dezhina. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Acronyms

1. Science at the End of the Soviet Period
2. Breakup of the Soviet Union and Crisis in Russian Science
3. Major Directions of Reform in Russian Science
4. Foundations: A Novelty in Russian Science
5. Developing a Commercial Culture for Russian Science
6. International Support of Russian Science: History and Evolution
7. Strengthening Research in Russian Universities: A U.S. and Russian Cooperative Effort
8. Impact of International Activities on Russian Science
9. Conclusion


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Johns Hopkins University - Bruce Parrott

A thoroughly researched, carefully reasoned analysis of an important subject . . . The authors have a sure sense of how science functions both in Russia and in various advanced Western countries. . . . an important study.

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