x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Russia seeks a cure for its brain drain

The president's call for revival in the sciences is met with scepticism from those in the field who say better pay and resources are needed.

MOSCOW // The Russian scientist Andrei Sarychev spent almost a decade working at various US universities before family reasons prompted him to return to his homeland two years ago. The adjustment has not been seamless, and not only because of the smaller salary and funding for research: there is also resentment from those in the Russian scientific community who never settled in greener pastures abroad, said Mr Sarychev, 58, chief scientist at the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Electrodynamics at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

"It's just simple human jealousy," he said. "The hardest has been establishing relationships with colleagues, with people who stayed here during the thin years. Some think: 'What does that rich guy know?'" Improving collegiality among its best brains, however, is the least of the Russian government's problems in reviving the country's once-formidable sciences. Its most pressing task right now is trying to get specialists like Mr Sarychev to return in the first place.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing social and economic turbulence in the 1990s spawned an enormous brain drain in which Russian scientists fled the country en masse to seek work abroad. Russia's education and science ministry estimates that more than 20,000 scientists moved abroad for good between 1989 and 2002, with another 30,000 working on temporary contracts in foreign countries. Other estimates suggest more than 100,000 scientists may have left Russia in the wake of the Soviet Union's demise.

With Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, touting the importance of modernising the country and developing an "innovation" economy to wean the country from its reliance on energy exports, the Kremlin has been pressing for a revival of Russian sciences, promising increased salaries and funding for research in order to encourage Russian scientists abroad to return home. The Russian education and science minister, Andrei Fursenko, painted what many saw as an overly optimistic portrait of the situation this month, telling Ekho Moskvy radio that Russian scientists living abroad are ready to return "in avalanche fashion".

Mr Sarychev and other Russian scientists, however, are sceptical of such claims and said Russia faces numerous obstacles in returning to the forefront of scientific discovery, such as its Soviet forbearer. "The conditions have not been created for such a revival," said Alexander Karasik, a professor at the General Physics Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences. "There is not enough financing, and there aren't enough resources for conducting experiments. There are a lot more resources abroad, and we're not going to reach that level anytime soon. There have been some small advances, but not nearly enough."

Even a senior scientist can expect to make just around 30,000 roubles (Dh3,800) per month, while junior researchers make considerably less, Prof Karasik said. The meagre salaries have also created obstacles in recruiting young people into the sciences, because they see opportunities to make more money in other professions. Russian education officials said just nine per cent of young people are interested in the profession, while just three per cent of high school graduates go into the sciences, a sphere that promised great prestige in the Soviet era.

"There's a clear lack of interest among young people," Mr Karasik said. "The money they can make in the sciences just doesn't compare to what they can make working in computers or banking." Mr Medvedev, the Russian president, has made "modernisation" a national buzzword recently thanks to a manifesto he published last month on a Russian news portal. In the article, titled "Forward Russia!", he said Russia would "invite the best scientists and engineers from various countries of the world" as well as foster homegrown talent.

"[W]e will explain to our young people that knowledge that others don't have is the most important competitive advantage, as is intellectual superiority and the ability to create things that people need," Mr Medvedev wrote. While the Russian government has made steps in the right direction by increasing salaries and offering grants for Russian scientists abroad to return, this is hardly enough to bring compatriots flocking home, said Alexander Nevsky, a senior researcher at the Institute for Experimental Physics at the University of Düsseldorf.

"That is just utter nonsense," Mr Nevsky said in a telephone interview from Germany. "This is just political blather, it's not serious." Mr Nevsky, 46, was a senior scientist at Russia's famous Akademgorodok, a Siberian scientific town that houses some of the country's top scientists, until he opted to leave for better pay and working conditions in western Europe a decade ago. He said the system in Russia is too deeply broken to be fixed by simply bringing back top Russian minds from abroad and that the lack of grant money has frustrated his attempts to organise programmes between German and Russian students.

Mr Nevsky said he would consider returning to work in Russia - even with a pay cut - if he could be assured of access to the type of equipment and resources he has now in Germany. "It's not so much about the salary, because the salaries abroad are not so exorbitant," he said. "But there should be the right conditions to work." Mr Sarychev, of the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Electrodynamics, concurred, saying earning power is not everything.

"Everyone thinks you make so much money in America, but once you pay your bills, there's not much left over," he said. cschreck@thenational.ae