Questions on Russia's Research Reforms

Experts question whether new National Science Project will have wide impact beyond creating "a few islands of research excellence."

March 7, 2019

A new multibillion-dollar strategy from the Russian government to boost the country’s global research standing is a welcome step but is unlikely to have a broad impact on its higher education system, experts have predicted.

The Russian government recently announced that a new National Science Project would be one of 13 initiatives aimed at boosting the country’s stagnating economy and placing Russia among the top five global economic powers.

President Vladimir Putin said that 300 billion Russian rubles (about $4.6 billion)) would be allocated for the project over six years.

The prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, said that the project would establish 15 “world-class science and education centers” throughout the country, provide more support to young researchers and upgrade at least half of all research equipment.

Its goals include making Russia one of the world’s top five countries for the number of academic publications, patents and researchers and for research and development output. The government hopes that the project will increase the attractiveness of Russian higher education among leading domestic and international academics alike and see growth in R&D expenditures overtake the growth rate of its gross domestic product.

The Ministry of Science and Higher Education has also promised to simplify bureaucracy in the research system and has proposed changing legislation to make defending a thesis obligatory for postgraduate students.

Igor Chirikov, senior researcher at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, said that it was “a very positive sign” that science had been chosen as one of the project areas, but he described the ambitious goals as “unrealistic considering the amount of allocated funding.”

Russia’s R&D spending lags behind more than 25 countries, for instance, he said.

Chirikov added that although the project could help to boost fundamental research, which has been “chronically underfunded,” and to “create a few islands of research excellence,” it “won't be able to tackle existing problems of the research sector.”

Such issues include a brain drain of scholars, bureaucratic barriers in the organization of research and the low engagement of the university sector in research, which was historically concentrated in the institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS).

Margarita Balmaceda, professor of diplomacy and international relations at Seton Hall University and an expert on Russia, said that she was “concerned about a possible decrease in the autonomy of Russian higher education institutions” as a consequence of the project, noting that there has already been a “gradual but unequivocal” decline in the funding and power of the RAS.

Anatoly Oleksiyenko, associate professor in higher education at the University of Hong Kong and co-editor of a recent book on the Soviet legacy in Russian and Chinese universities, said that there were “too many governance challenges in the Russian higher education sector for good academic research to take place these days.”

“The Soviet legacy of mistrust, excessive oversight and data fabrication prevails across many institutions. Besides, the current political environment provides no good support to building trustworthy and sustainable partnerships with centers of excellence in the West, on which some successful projects of Russian universities depended during the previous two decades,” he said.

However, Isak Froumin, head of the Institute of Education at the Higher School of Economics, said that the project was a “very positive development” and that the “relatively small investments could initiate bigger changes in the culture of Russian higher education and research.”

“I believe the policy will lead to the creation of ‘islands’ of modern research culture, which could play an important role in the gradual transformation of the whole system,” he said.

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