Policy Memos

From Crisis to Transition: The State of Russian Science Based on Focus Groups with Nuclear Physicists

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Conventional wisdom holds that Russian science is in a state of crisis. Russian scientists themselves claim that “it would be more accurate to describe its current condition as comatose.” The collapse of the Soviet system led to a sharp contraction of state funding for science. Formerly privileged scientists suddenly confronted miserly salaries (often paid late), plummeting social prestige, deteriorating research facilities and equipment, and few prospects for improvement. Many departed the field of science for more lucrative opportunities, both within Russia and abroad. The number of inventions, patent applications, and publications by Russian scientists declined. Reports of desperate nuclear physicists seeking work as tram operators and conducting hunger strikes dramatized the rapid collapse of one of the contemporary world’s most successful scientific establishments. Even more alarming was the 1996 suicide of Vladimir Nechai, director of the second largest nuclear research center in Russia (Chelyabinsk-70, now known as Snezhinsk). Nechai, a respected theoretical physicist who spent almost 40 years working on Soviet and Russian nuclear programs, killed himself because he could no longer endure his inability to rectify a situation in which his employees had not been paid for more than 5 months and were “close to starvation.”

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About the author

Professor of Sociology
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, University of California