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EDITIONS
Thursday, 26 November, 1998, 11:42 GMT
Science in a cold climate
Presenter James Proctor outside Akademgorodok's Palace of Science
By Graham Hill

"I'm leaving Russia. I see no prospect here and I'm looking for a new life for me and my family - particularly for my family..." Leo Volordarsky is a research chemist in Akademgorodok, a 'science city' of 30 institutes established in 1957 in western Siberia. He's leaving for a new post in the United States, and taking his wife, their 16-year-old son Boris and his elderly father-in-law with him. Russian science is in a critical condition, he says - maybe it will recover, but at 62 he's sorry, he just can't wait.

Back in 1957, science was the jewel in the crown of Soviet Communism, the technological cutting edge which - so the theory went - would lead to the Soviet Union outpacing the United States in economic growth. Through science, went the slogan, would come not only international prestige but also economic abundance.

Soviet-era statues still tower over the town
Fast forward to 1998. The Soviet Union has split apart, Communism has collapsed - and Russian science is in crisis. In the wake of the political and economic turmoil of Yeltsin's Russia, state support has shrivelled. Scientists' salaries in Akademgorodok are late and even when they do get paid, world-class brains can expect on average a thousand dollars a year, about 650 pounds. Equipment is old and needs replacing; there isn't enough material to buy materials. At the House of Scientists, a social centre in Akademgorodok, a doctor of chemistry remarked glumly that what he did was now a hobby, not a profession. Leo Volordarsky is one among hundreds leading a science 'brain drain' to the West - a hideous loss to Russia, a country desperate for innovation and successs.

In Akademgorodok, as elsewhere in Russia, science is having to undergo a revolution. Firstly, it has had to convert from mostly military to peaceful research. And secondly, it is having to switch from state to private funding and get used to foreign collaboration. For many, the Vektor Centre for Virology and Biotechnology, neat Akademgorodok, provides a model for the way forward. It is widely believed to have been a centre for the Soviet germ warfare programme, relying on defence spending for every rouble. Officials insists it only worked on antidotes to biological attack from the West. But in the past few years it has managed to switch to pharmaceuticals and has won orders for diagnostic tests for HIV and hepatitis. Today a remarkable 80% of its income is derived from commercial contracts with western as well as Russian drugs companies.

Nuclear scientists must forge new careers as entrepreneurs
At the imposing Budker Institute of Nuclear Physics in Akademgorodok, director Alexander Skrinsky in following the same path. State investment in his area has fallen to 40% of what it was a few years ago. "Life is uneasy," he says, "but we try to be efficient." "Uneasy" is an understatement. What this nuclear physicist and his colleagues must do in practice is change into entrepreneurs, linking up with companies in the US, Britain, Germany, Japan and elsewhere to do deals which will keep them in business. It's a daunting task. There's the language problem - the language of business after 70 years of Communism mindset. Then there are the simple practical problems of paying for phone calls and getting money for travel abroad. And while you are doing all this, who's doing the research?

Is anyone helping? To all intents and purposes, no. No-one expects anything from the federal government in Moscow and no assistance is being given by the regional Siberian administration. Several western projects have already done their terms, packed up and left. Now the only Western presence helping science in Akademgorodok is the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. But since it came to the nearby city of Novosibirsk in 1996 with a budget of 32 million dollars to spend, it has only felt able to invest in one single science project. Officials speak of their disappointment and frustration., The reason they have been unable to do more is the bank's tough mandate. Officials in Novosibirsk are allowed to deal with the scientific institutes only if they become companies - with the prospect of turning profits. The bank can't help an individual scientist, even one with a very bright idea. There's no financial 'seed corn' help, no 'incubators' for struggling scientists.

These days, everyone must be ready to barter
The blackboard in the main control room of the Budker Institute bears a scrawled message. "Staff are invited to pick potatoes on Thursday, when a truck will be available to transport them." It's come to this - picking potatoes grown by the institute for sale. And scientists themselves can be spotted in Akademgorodok's bleak little street market, eking out a living by selling their own home-grown produce together with jars of pickles. Russa risks becoming a "gherkin economy". The temptations faced by those who have fallen on hard times are obvious. The world outside Russia has long feared that weapons scientists will sell their expertise - or their materials - to Libya, Iraq and Iran - a collective known in Russia as "Club Mad". Other scientists are suspected of being engaged in using their labs to produce illegal drugs.

Women converse in one of Akademgorodok's parks
In Akademgorodok in mid-November, the first snow has fallen and winter has begun - a time when temperatures can plunge to -50 degrees Celsius. The winter is long and life is hard. Amid the grey buildings and whistling birch trees, people scurry about in thick coats and furs, looking sad and demoralised. An Arctic wind blows. For the scientific community here, a chill economic gale is howling. This is truly science in a cold climate.

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