Saint Petersburg Branch of the Russian Humanist Society
Affirmations and the Real Actions in Russia

Notes about Science, Education, and the Current Situation*

                            With anger and bias

                                Not Tacit…

“Basic science should be profitable for the state. This is said more and more often. This is nonsense, of course […]. Basic science cannot be profitable for the state; it cannot in general be profitable. If we want to talk about the future of the country then we have to invest money in it the same as in art”. Golden words. Their author will be named later.

We will call basic science simply science. They don’t talk about two types of science in the West, but about research and development. Louis Pasteur said: “There is no category of science which can be called applied. There is science, and its application in reality is interconnected since the fruit is with the same tree on which it matured”.

Every scientist knows that these fruits mature over decades and no one can say beforehand what branch will become fruitful. However there is no time to wait. In September 2004 the Minister of Finance demanded profits from the administration of the RAN [Russian Academy of Sciences] Institute of Physics based on the year’s results as a condition for a favorable reply to a request to increase [its] budget. The Minister does not need the development of science but a product prepared for sale. This was the prelude to a new act of a permanent war against Russian science begun back in 1992 (“Russian Science in a Time of Crisis”, ZS, 1998 N? 8).

In the fall of 2004 an idea was developed in the bowels of the government according to which it was proposed that 400-700 of the 2342 state scientific organizations be financed from the budget, and 300-500 should engage in “the commercialization of inventions and products”. Only 100-200 institutes in the entire country were to engage in basic research at state expense. The rest were to be privatized. Only those organizations which perform research at “a required qualitative level“ or have unique equipment should remain on the budget.

The idea was prepared without the knowledge of the RAN. It is obvious that the bureaucrats planned that they would decide what institutes would remain alive and judge the “qualitative level” of basic research themselves. However, the sharp reaction of the scientific community led to the RAN being allowed to reorganize the system of its institutes itself. And so that there be no mistake, it was stipulated that the President of the RF personally approve the President of the RAN in his position.

The authors of the idea do not understand that the highest achievements of science are comparable to the summit of a cone of sand whose height will unavoidably be reduced if its volume is reduced. As a rule, even purely theoretical achievements (Einstein being the rarest exception) become possible only because a scientific school and stimulating environment exist. It is impossible to promise to discover a new elementary particle in the next year and the benefit of an a priori determination of the most promising areas is doubtful. The direction of science is determined by the internal logic of its development and the sum total of its current results in which the possibility of a discovery of new knowledge can be seen. Each researcher “stands on the shoulders” not only of his predecessors but also on those of his contemporary colleagues.

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All the activity of modern civilization is due to the successes of the science of centuries and decades past. Without the development of science we will not be able to respond to the challenges of the future, and both education and current technology will decay. More and more useful things have come from even such an unprofitable occupation as admiring the stars - all modern machinery, the theory of nuclear reactions in the stars and in the hydrogen bomb, astronautics, and missile guidance…

But this route has taken long centuries. Nevertheless, less than 50 years passed from Maxwell’s equations to radio communications, the same as from Einstein’s theory to lasers. Only three months passed between the discovery of the fissionability of the uranium nucleus by German scientists and the recognition at the beginning of 1939 of the terrible power of chain reactions of the fission of the uranium nucleus. As Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, said later, in the summer of 1939 twelve people could have agreed among themselves to prevent the appearance of the atomic bomb. It is well known that when in the summer of 1943 Reichsminister Speer asked how much time was needed to create it, Heisenberg replied, 3-4 years. Would 3-4 years satisfy Minister Kudrin?

Then our science turned out to be equal to the challenge. Although we created the first nuclear fission bomb from American drawings this was only to accelerate the work. As regards the nuclear fusion bomb, the Americans exploded only a stationary device the size of a good house, but we detonated the first transportable hydrogen bomb. It turned out to be quite light because the use of a lithium isotope suggested by V. L. Ginzburg permitted enormous cooling devices to be dispensed with. Then there appeared the ideas of Sakharov and Zel’dovich who permitted an increase in the power of bombs almost without limit. Sakharov was confident that this then saved peace on the planet. How much is peace on the planet worth? And after this could one demand that Ginzburg’s pupils in FIAN [The Physics Institute of the Academy of Sciences] bring in profit based on the year’s results?

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Evidently, the requirement for immediate productivity from science is associated with a Philistine conviction that everything useful has already been discovered. But this is not so. Not long ago it was declared from the highest tribune that Russia had developed nuclear missile systems for which there was no defense. It follows that the technology was still intact and that, as before, we intend to ensure the state’s security with our own resources.

However, everything ages, even the most up-to-date technology. Moreover, a new breakthrough in theory and consequently the appearance of new inventions about which we cannot even dream about today is possible. Five years ago some scientists predicted the end of science, which some journalists, philosophers, and cultural figures who have not keep up with science still talk about, but this was only a momentary slowdown. Now physics, astrophysics, and cosmology, not to mention biology and cybernetics, have entered a period of a new scientific revolution, the fruits of which will sooner or later lead to an unprecedented increase in human ability. In 1998-2003 astronomical observations led to an astounding conclusion: we understand the nature of only a minute share of the matter of our universe. Only 4% of its mass (energy density) are identified as the elementary particles which we know; another 26% are some other gravitating particles, the hunt for which has been begun by physicists; and the remaining 70% is associated with a new form of energy, the nature of which is yet to be understood!

Enormous successes have also been achieved in the formation of a single theory of elementary particles and universal gravity. This and other theories need to be confirmed in practice. Gigantic telescopes and accelerators which are being built in all developed countries, but not in Russia, are needed for this in particular.

A breakthrough into the unknown is unavoidable, but it will certainly lead to new technologies which are fantastic by current standards. However with the Russian attitude toward science they will not appear here, but in the US, the European Union, or China. One cannot count on acquiring them abroad. Japan, for example, was long ago convinced of the hopelessness of such a route and developed its own basic science. It is also impossible to count on scrimping on science for a decade and, having waited for a doubling of gross domestic product, we will [then] be able to revive it.

In the first place, if this were to continue further the pace of economic development would fall, not rise. Secondly, expensive foreign specialists would have to be invited to revive science and it is not a fact that this would be possible. Today our average age of a doctor of sciences is 60. Talented young people remain in science until they find a place in business or abroad, acting not so much out of self-interest but only because of the lack of the possibility of feeding [their] families and even themselves…

As long as financing of the entire Russian Academy of Sciences remains less than one American university no concentration on selected fields and no reforms will increase the productiveness of science. It is impossible to heal a patient without food even if you give him good medicine.

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The current Minister of Finance headed a Commission to Optimize Budgetary Expenses (the notorious KOBR) in his capacity as Deputy Prime Minister of the RF government. On 10 April 2003 it published a decision about the need to prepare draft “reorganizations, privatizations, and liquidations of state scientific enterprises” and recommended investigating “the advisability of privatizing or liquidating state scientific organizations performing research exclusively (predominantly) in fields not on the list of priority fields of the development of science, technology, and equipment”. Accordingly it was proposed “to reexamine the state objective in the direction of a reduction” in the training of specialists and also deprive the RAN, MGU [Moscow State University], the Hermitage, RFFI [Russian Basic Science Foundation], RGNF [Russian Humanities Foundation], etc. of financial independence. The activity of this Commission together with representatives of the Higher School of Economics led precisely to the well-known fruits of legislative creativity by the summer and fall of 2004.

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Everyone wants to believe in the best future for their country, but it depends on what and how we teach our children. The fate of the country depends on the quality of education. History has confirmed this repeatedly. The illiteracy of 70% of the Russian population was of no little importance in her failures in the fields [of battle] in the First World War.

Universal primary education after the Revolution became law and then the quality of school and higher education became high enough to provide nuclear missile parity and entry into space with our own resources. Since that time our system of education has covered itself with glory. The first concern of American leaders after US citizens heard the “beep-beep” of our first sputnik over their heads was to increase the quality of physics and math education of school children.

Years passed and the US won both the space race and the Cold War, and began to forget the lessons of the past…This situation began to concern Americans. On the 30th anniversary of the first moon landing, 20 July 1999, the American Secretary of Education created a National Commission to Teach Mathematics and the Natural Sciences headed by Senator John Glenn, the first American astronaut. The Commission found that “the level of education of students in math and the natural sciences was unacceptably low”, although “the future welfare of the country and the people” depends on the very quality of education in these fields.

The Commission developed a number of measures to correct the situation, among which were an increase in the number and qualifications of teachers and material incentives to teachers of mathematics and the natural sciences. “The task to which we call the American people is … not an easy one. Not will our goals be met at bargain-basement rates…The downstream cost of not turning this problem around will be exponentially higher than the cost of beginning to solve it now”, it said in the report of the Glenn commission.

The Commission’s conclusions were grasped by President Bush, who declared that “Education reform will be the main area of activity of my Administration”. But by the end of 2001 the US Congress had allocated $4 billion more for education reform than Bush had requested…

It was noted in the Commission’s report that analytic ability and the ability to think logically are primarily instilled by mathematics. However, quite the contrary, the Russian educational reform drafts developed at for some reason in the Higher School of Economics stipulates a sharp reduction in mathematics and the natural sciences in the schools. The chief purposes of school education are to be “instilling independence, a culture of law, the ability to work together and deal with others, tolerance; knowledge of economics, law, management, sociology, political science, and a foreign language”.

A rejection of “scientistic and topic-centered approaches” is envisioned and in general “a substantial reduction of the amount of education” (in spite of plans to increase the period of study to 12 years). It is planned that during the middle school week there ought to be: three hours of Russian language, three hours of mathematics, three each of a foreign language, social science, and natural science. No physics or biology, for these are an “dead-end topic-oriented approach”. And Heaven forbid sines and logarithms…

However, let’s talk about sines. In Academician Arnold’s book it cites a shocking list of hundreds of names and issues, which can be dispensed with in school, in the Ministry of Education’s opinion. The planned “General Education Standards” propose not to require students to master even the rudiments of the natural sciences, for example that it is not necessary to know that the Sun is a star.

Alas, our draft education reforms are not made by cosmonauts, but economists, whose groundlessness has long been established in practice. We cite an excerpt from an article by Prof. Yu. Borev published in Literaturnaya Gazeta. He writes:

At the direction of and on the basis of governing directives of Khodorkovsky, the “serious experts” team headed by Ye. Yasin wrote a report “The State and Economic Policy” which was heard in the Duma. Yasin said, “Many opportunities to reduce state spending have been identified in the course of the investigation. Many of them can be used to increase the rate of economic growth and form a free and open economy”. The “many opportunities” proposes a reduction of spending on education and science…The general idea of Yasin’s report is: Russia should not be a country of enlightened, scientifically-educated, productive people. Its function is to be a strategic supplier of oil and other raw material for civilized foreign countries, and neither educated people nor academic science are necessary for this…It appears that the ideas of this report were adopted by the RF government as a guide for action”.

As Academician V. A. Sadovnichiy, the rector of MGU [Moscow State University], said in criticizing Yasin’s report cited in the above article, “Right now the most widely propagandized view of the system of education has become predominantly one of a sphere of services. The term “the folly of education” has come into fashion. This is what any policy of training specialists not meeting the current reaction to market demand is called. If you train specialists, for example, in modern cosmology, you risk becoming one of the clients of the Serbsky [Psychiatric] Institute.”

I. F. Sharygin, head of the Geometry Department of the Moscow Center of Continuous Mathematics Education and member of the Executive Committee of the International Commission for Mathematics Education, comes to the following conclusion, “Essentially, the complete destruction of Russian education and its further lowering below parish school level are being planned. But the population (and specifically the population) of Russia is to service the raw materials complex. And some ought to be able to be speak English. A slave ought to know the language of the master”.

The “poorly educated” among the economists who are nevertheless drafting the education reforms are led by Ya. I. Kuz’minov, the rector of the Higher School of Economics. The senior scientist of this school is the very same Mr. Yasin. His above-mentioned report in the Duma demanded bringing the training of specialists into accord with the current reaction to market demand and a reduction of free education. These gentlemen usually cite American experience. But why do they not follow the example of draft American educational reforms? And how to reconcile their missions with the following golden words?:

“When they talk about a particular problem closely touching on issues of state security this is mainly to stress the importance of the problem. It should be said that not all problems in the field of education need this extra dramatization because education is in itself a system-forming matter. If there is forward-looking effective education, there will be an effective state. Without it, there will not be an effective state”. (Reference to the source will be made later).

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Law N? 122, usually called the law of monetization of benefits, contains many articles directed at reducing financial support to science and education. Many of its articles come down to [the position that] education ought to be paid but only scientific research immediately applicable to obtain a profit for it ought enjoy state support. The scientific community spoke sharply against the draft of the law back in the summer of 2004. A letter to the President of the RF signed by Academician V. L. Ginzburg, among others, was published in Izvestiya. Here is an excerpt from this letter.

“The question is THE FATE OF RUSSIA in the 21st century in connection with the current attitude toward basic science. They have recently begun to talk much about it (but not do [much]). We are possibly the first to direct attention to those extremely rigid periods which were given to correct the situation. The issue does not amount to the science budget or the position of the RAN (as they often say). Half of basic science is in the Ministry of Atomic Energy, the Ministry of Education, Moscow State University, the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, and other state academies. Basic science in Russia has still not lost strength but has already embarked on a path toward extinction. It is time to avoid myths about the possibility of a revival of a strong Russia without it having strong basic science. The situation is like the voyage of the Titanic when the myth prevailed that it was unsinkable and the danger was noticed too late. We can already no longer avoid casualties, but we can still ensure Russia’s buoyancy in the ocean of world history. A misunderstanding of the role of basic science has formed in the RF government and other state structures and what is especially dangerous is the opinion that modern Russia does not need it. For example, at the 24 February 2004 meeting of the Security Council a comparison was made between investing money in basic science and an attempt to “heat the street”. It is mistaken, badly hurts the security of the RF, and very successfully plays into the hands of the geopolitical interests of the US and the EU. Without an influx of fresh basic research ideas, in 5-15 years the innovative process will begin to experience a “dearth of ideas”. The hope of getting industrial ideas from the Internet or from the world’s scientific literature is utopian. Without world-class natural sciences we will have neither an “embryo” of new technologies nor a “flair” for them, nor the scientific atmosphere which could “nurse” them and send them to applied scientific research institutes for “education”, even if someone shares them with us.

Thus, without basic science the country is doomed to a deep dependence of the economy and the weaponry for the army on the market conditions of international relations for the period required for its revival, that is, the next 50-100 years or more. This is the historical experience of the leading countries of the world applied to the conditions of Russia in the 21st century. The minimal period, 40-50 years, is determined by the time to accumulate the “know-how” of scientific schools and requires exorbitant expense. It is much more efficient to preserve and develop what we have. It is necessary to begin to save basic science right now: in 4-5 years it will already be too late…

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One more episode of the attack on science - the proposal of the government to abolish the accreditation of scientific organizations. As V. L. Ginzburg and V. N. Kudryavtsev observe (Nauchnoe Zakrytie [Scientific Shutdown], ZS, 2004, N? 33), this means in practice that scientific work will no longer be recognized as a separate field of activity. “The draft created within the walls of the Ministry essentially destroys science in Russia. It places it lower than any commercial enterprise…”. Now anyone can do anything. “First we organize a private development and invention group, then we buy a promising laboratory secondhand with an impoverished professorship, and then, look, we privatize a serious institute and make it into the oligarchy”.

Oversight, the chief element of which was the Academy of Sciences, is being disbanded. After the abolition of accreditation of scientific organizations the hands of countless con men and swindlers will be untied, many of whom demand a great deal of money to immediately turn into reality inventions which promise much but never work in practice. These pseudoscientists will get a good “cover” under which they can demand money from the state on a legal basis. An “Academy of Higher Magic and Occult Sciences” will have equal rights with the RAN…

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Are we dealing with basic incompetence or with faithful adherence to the principles of social Darwinism? A third [alternative] is possible, as has already been said - serving foreign interests. But even all this together…

Yu. Golovin wrote in Literaturnaya Gazeta (8-14 May 2002): “Once one of these ‘reformers’ said this to me, ‘We spit on all your intellectual crybabies about miserable Russia, about poor old men and homeless children. Others will deal with them. Our mission is the redistribution of property. And we will do this even if half of the population dies in poverty, for the other half will then thank us’. Mr. Chubays said this in 1992.

Gaydar economics turned out to be a typical pseudoscience. The conclusions could have been drawn back at the end of 1992 when instead of the doubling of prices promised by Gaydar, they grew 26-fold. However, it turns out that he knew this but also knew that “then the people would not have followed us”. It turns out that he was not a pseudoscientists but simply a liar (see the article by V. A. Abalkin in the book “Nauka i Vlast’ [Science and Power]”, Moscow, Nauka, 2001).

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It has long been time to understand that we don’t need reform of education or science but measures to save them. The average age of professors in higher education is 67. The middle generation of scientists has practically disappeared. When they grow up people are leaving the country or science since they are unable to feed a family. After the teachers die off young people suitable for export will soon disappear…

Why in 1927 was Russia the first in Europe to reach the prewar level of production and the highest level of prosperity in all its history of a population which would soon be ravaged by Stalin’s dictatorship? And this was after the First World War, the Revolution, the Civil War, and the terrible famine of 1921. Why did China turn into the second-ranking country in the world in industrial might and in 10-15 years will soon reach real prosperity from starving isolation? Was it perhaps because in both cases a policy was adopted of combining private and state management? This is what A. D. Sakharov hoped for when speaking of a new Russia.

It has been proven from experience (including the experience of the New Deal of President F. D. Roosevelt) that a market economy is capable of coming out of a crisis only together with a socially-oriented domestic policy. And not without reason have science and education been declared a national development priority in China.

Now it is time to say where the golden words highlighted in boldface at the beginning and in the middle of the article came from. They were said by RF President V. V. Putin at the VII Congress of the Russian Union of Rectors in December 2002 (see the book “Obrazovanie, Kotoroe My Mozhem Poteryat’ [The Education Which We Might Lose]”, p. 57. The words left out the first citation indicated by […] were

“My opinion and the opinions of the leaders of the government do not agree with this opinion.”

However the deeds do not agree with these words. One is left to hope that the forces which are really thinking of Russia will prevail in the country’s leadership. And not only [thinking] about in the present day. Churchill once said that he did not became prime minister to preside over the collapse of the British Empire.

A deplorable socioeconomic policy and a trend toward the abolition of science and the dumbing-down education are much more dangerous for Russian than terrorism.

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* The text is given in abbreviated form

Yuriy Yefremov

Translated by Gary Goldberg

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