Russia’s Scientists Fall Silent

Moscow has released an initial list of “undesirable organizations” that constitute a “threat to the foundations of the constitutional system of the Russian Federation, its defense capabilities and its national security.” Along with the Open Society Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, the list includes the MacArthur Foundation.

The move, part of Vladimir Putin’s campaign to stifle civil society in Russia, comes as no surprise. What is surprising and depressing, though, has been the overall reaction of Western NGOs and Russian academics to the Kremlin’s action. As one who has been closely involved in efforts to improve ties between Russian and American scientists for more than two decades, I’ve seen few signs of serious protest against Moscow’s campaign to end a long and fruitful era of cooperation. Most people have responded in the same way: Keep your head down and hope that you are not a victim.

In the early 1990s, I served as executive director of George Soros’s International Science Foundation for the former Soviet Union and Baltic States. We helped tens of thousands of scientists remain in the profession by giving them emergency support grants to feed their families. We spent nearly $70 million on the region’s first peer-reviewed research grant competition. And we induced Mr. Soros to allocate another $100 million to establish Internet centers at Russian universities.

After Mr. Soros shifted his focus and curtailed his support for the foundation in 1995, Victor Rabinowitch of the MacArthur Foundation asked several people who had been involved to devise a program to advance research in the natural sciences in the Russian education system. Gerson Sher, who had worked for decades at the National Science Foundation, Loren Graham, a prominent historian of science at M.I.T., and I developed a proposal to establish centers combining research and education at Russian universities — a shift from the Soviet model, in which universities emphasized teaching while the Academy of Sciences and industry institutes conducted research.

In 1997, we refined the proposal at a conference at Georgetown University with several Russian colleagues. When we presented the program to the education minister, Alexander Tikhonov, in March 1998, he was enthusiastic, stating that his ministry would match every dollar that MacArthur and its partner in the project, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, contributed.

That August Russia was hit by an economic crisis, but we were able to keep our programs going. We established a governing council with seven Russian and seven foreign members that made all decisions by consensus. We selected 16 Russian universities to receive grants of $1 million over three years. We also established the first technology transfer offices at Russian universities, helped Russian scientists learn how to deal with equipment suppliers, and provided funding to attend international conferences. These efforts were based on the conviction that we could help a country with an outstanding scientific tradition to continue to contribute to the international community.

Andrei Fursenko, the minister of education and science from 2004 to 2012, was a strong supporter. As MacArthur Foundation funding began to taper off, he asked for our help in developing four more research and education centers to be funded by his ministry, which subsequently established many more of these centers. Mr. Putin, campaigning to reclaim the presidency in 2012, praised them as a “Russian and international model of combining science and education” and proposed establishing them at 10 of the military’s institutions of higher education.

In June 2014 I met with Mr. Fursenko in Moscow. He expressed concern about Russian scientists refusing to revise their articles to respond to criticisms and suggestions from peer reviewers — a major reason behind their declining share of publications in international journals.

Earlier this month, I saw Mr. Fursenko again. I expressed my concerns over the Kremlin’s recent actions. He told me bluntly that things have changed. He said that this was because “America cannot tolerate any partner who does not behave as an obedient child listening to a parent’s strictures.” Russia, he said, is tired of this.

What produced this dramatic shift? Some might point to Russian revanchism, the seizure of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine. But these are symptoms of a broader reversal. The Kremlin, suspicious of the West’s democratic values and what they might bring, now finds the risks of cooperation to be too great.

Pushback, though feeble, is not entirely dead. After Kendrick White, an American entrepreneur and innovator who had been working with Nizhnyi Novgorod University for many years, was dismissed late last month for actions that were “harmful” to Russia, the National Association of Business Angels demanded an investigation. When the Kremlin designated the Dynasty Foundation — the one Russian family foundation supporting scientific research — as a foreign agent, some Russian scientists and ordinary citizens protested. Unfortunately, Dynasty’s board has voted to end its activities.

The United States government, understandably, is wary of reinforcing Kremlin claims that American NGOs are being used by Washington to establish a fifth column in Russia. Its response has been measured. But this is a battle the Russian academic community and other professional groups must fight. It is up to Russian scholars and foreign NGOs to defend their work, loudly and clearly.

Rather than hushing up after its assistant director was turned away at Moscow’s international airport, the Kennan Institute should be encouraging its Russian alumni association to mount a vigorous protest. The MacArthur Foundation’s grantees number in the thousands. Banded together they would represent a powerful voice.

If proponents of cooperation keep silent, the damage to Russia’s scientific establishment — and to the country’s future prosperity — will be even more extensive.

Harley D. Balzer is associate professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University, former executive director of the International Science Foundation, and served on the governing council of MacArthur Foundation’s BRHE program.

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