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Newly elected president of Russia’s Academy of Sciences to carry out radical reform

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May 30, 14:58 UTC+4 ALEXANDROVA Lyudmila

MOSCOW, May 30 (Itar-Tass) - Russia’s scientists have elected a new leader of their corporate organization, hoping he will rise to their great expectations. The general meeting of the Russian Academy of Sciences on Wednesday elected its new president, physicist Yevgeny Fortov, 67. He emerged the winner getting 60% of the votes.

The new president is expected to reform the Russian Academy of Sciences, which has seen no fundamental change over the past 20 years. Also, there is hope for normalization of relations with Education and Science Minister Dmitry Livanov, who declared just recently that in his opinion the RAS was not viable.

Fellow members of the scientific community and experts have offered generally favorable comments on Fortov’s election, but at the same time they warn he will have a hard time.

Fortov’s rivals in the election were Nobel laureate Zhores Alfyorov and RAS member Alexander Nekipelov. Fortov collected twice the number of votes cast for Alfyorov. He is to replace Yuri Osipov, who has been at the helm of the Russian Academy of Sciences since 1991.

Fortov is a physicist of world renown, having vast experience of an administrator at senior civil service posts. He is known for pioneering and launching an experiment called Plasma Chrystal, currently underway at the International Space Station. Fortov is one of the leading researchers of Halley’s Comet and the brain father of a new trend in science - non-ideal plasma physics. In the 1990s he was a deputy prime minister, minister of science and technologies and then led the Institute of Thermo-Physics of Extreme Conditions and the High Temperatures Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

In his official election program Fortov promised to reduce red-tape in the RAS and help young scientists raise the prestige of Russian science. He was the only one of all candidates who came out with an idea of reducing the term of office of the Academy’s leadership to two consecutive five-year terms for all chiefs of RAS branches and all the way up to members of the presidium, vice-presidents and the RAS president. His message was clear: time is ripe for the RAS to reform itself and to do so fundamentally by increasing the share of competitive financing, pegging wages to the internationally recognized results of scientific activity, introducing temporary vacancies for young researchers and seeking greater integration with international science.

“The Russian Academy of Sciences is obliged to undertake to provide scientific support for the strategy of upgrading the country and society, to become the leader in drafting a targeted policy in science and engineering, to offer a clear program of social-economic, technological and cultural development and to propose an algorithm of further movement,” Fortov said in his program.

The force of retardation the new RAS president will have to overcome to achieve at least the goals he has outlined is colossal, experts say. Fortov will have to upgrade a gigantic infrastructure. In March 2013 the RAS had about 500 research institutions and more than 55,000 researchers, including 502 RAS members and 749 associate members. The 436 institutions under the Russian Academy of Sciences employ 95,000 (13% of all those employed in science across the country); the RAS gets 13% of the funds the government spends on science, but it generates 60% of the country’s fundamental research products.

In the meantime, the situation in Russian science is far from ideal, to put it mildly.

“The Chinese and the Koreans have overtaken us, we are losing competition to the US and European science. India is hot on our heels. The Academy has long waited for some sort of breakthrough, for some new projects that would show society that in Russia there exists world-class science,” the daily Kommersant quotes the director of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences Valery Tishkov as saying.

“Yevgeny Fortov is still rather young, he has enough time to carry out the reform. An internal reform, not pegged to the Education and Science Ministry, but a reform drafted by the Academy members themselves,” the chairman of the RAS Tyumen Research Center’s presidium, Vladimir Melnikov says with certainty.

Indeed, Education and Science Minister Dmitry Livanov, a physicist himself, has long pressed for the idea of a fundamental reform of the Academy. Last March he triggered a storm of protests from the RAS members saying that the Academy as a form of organizing science had no future in the 21st century. “It will not last, it is not viable. But we still have it. Its existence will continue for sometime - may be long enough, or may be, not,” Livanov said. He remarked that reforming this out-of-date, archaic system - “very ineffective and very unfriendly to those employed there” will require major resources.

After that Zhores Alfyorov and Yevgeny Fortov left the public council under the Education and Science Ministry. Fortov’s program was complemented with a special statement emphasizing the importance of the RAS’s independence.

Nevertheless, after his victory Fortov said that he was prepared to enter into a dialogue with the Education and Science Ministry.

“I am certain that we shall find a common language,” he said.

In the meantime, some scientists acknowledge that Livanov has a point.

“I believe that Livanov overdid it when he said that the Academy should be disbanded,” RAS associate member, biologist Alexei Yablokov, told the daily Novyie Izvestia. “He was wrong to make such harsh comments, but he is right for criticizing the Academy on the merits. The Academy is ineffective. In the Soviet era about 30% of scientific works published in the world were Soviet. These days one can feel happy if works by Russian scientists account for a tiny 2% of all publications in the world.”

Nobel laureate Andre Geim, who since the 1990s has worked abroad, has made a still harsher statement. He said the Academy was a “home for the aged.”

“Instead of grumbling and saying ‘Give us more money, and we shall do whatever you want’ the whole system is to be reorganized,” Geim said, adding that some RAS institutions were doing research at the level of a “childcare center.” The scientist called for “pooling universities and united them with academic universities.”

Geim said that in the Academy there were many decent people who would like to reform it, but they were afraid of doing so.

“One should do something along these lines. I am on Livanov’s side. He wishes to do something. I am on the side of those who understand this, but I am against those who keep saying ‘give us more money.’ I am against such people,” Geim said.