A Bicontinental Biologist's Project: How to Rejuvenate Russian Science

November 16, 2011

Perhaps no one better represents the hope of rebuilding Russia's scientific prowess than Konstantin V. Severinov. Six years ago, the 43-year-old professor of molecular biology and biochemistry decided to split his time between his homeland and the United States to help revitalize the Russian Academy of Science and improve working conditions for young researchers in Russia, hoping they would continue to work there.

But Mr. Severinov's dedication is often tested. His academic work is consumed by an almost daily struggle to cut through red tape, deal with corruption, and properly equip his laboratories. During visits to the United States, where he has a position at Rutgers University, he often buys the chemicals and spare parts needed to run his experiments, stuffing the materials into his suitcase and pockets for his flight home to Russia.

Such frustrations have led him to an important conclusion—one that he has become very vocal about: While the Kremlin has dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to strengthen research capabilities and bring back expatriates, the money means little without a broader change in Russian science and higher education.

"There is no future for science unless we run a major reform," Mr. Severinov says.  

Tens of thousands of scientists have left Russia since the early 1990s. President Dmitri A. Medvedev has made it a high priority to luring them back, offering financial incentives and funneling public funds into big projects, like an effort to transform farmland outside the capital into a research hub on par with Silicon Valley. Despite such moves, only a few Russian researchers have returned from abroad.

Mr. Severinov runs labs at the academy's Institutes of Molecular Genetics and of Gene Biology. The facilities were "two dead laboratories" when he took them over, he says. While he hoped to improve their scientific output, he found at first that he needed to focus on matters like replacing broken windows, repainting peeling walls, and finding the funds needed to pay Ph.D. students a decent wage.

Using American Connections

Such problems have persisted, making every week unpredictable. On a recent day, Mr. Severinov's most pressing concern is that the nuclear reactor that supplies isotopes for his laboratories has broken down. "Only that one accident froze two of our current projects in molecular biology until December," he says, shaking his head in frustration.

Mr. Severinov's assistants, too, complain about technical and bureaucratic problems. Svetlana Dubiley, a molecular biologist and biochemist, says there are a lot of hurdles when she needs to purchase equipment for the gene institute. "To buy one pen or even a piece of paper for our laboratory, the law obliges us to list the item we need on a special Web site, a virtual auction for purchasing goods," she says. "Months pass by before you receive the state permit for obtaining the equipment. Then you realize you cannot find it in Russia."

The institute cannot afford such simple items as air conditioners for the lab, she says. During many summer days, all the fruit flies needed for experiments die from the heat.

As part of his work, Mr. Severinov uses his ties to American higher education to help support his labs and research. He helped develop a deal between a Russian foundation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to build a graduate-research university outside Moscow. "I become MIT's helper with organizing the concept for their work in Russia," he says. "Imagine coming to set up a project in Uganda—Russia's complicated reality sounded just as new to MIT."

He also teaches and conducts research at Rutgers's Waksman Institute of Microbiology, in Piscataway, N.J. and brings Russian assistants to his lab there.

The experience, however, often sharpens the contrast between the two countries. Russian students who have worked in the Rutgers laboratory say experiments that could take one day there take weeks in Russia.

Such complaints are a concern for Mr. Severinov, who wants to keep students from emigrating. Building a pipeline of young talent is key to reviving Russian higher education—and would be more fruitful than spending money to entice expatriate academics to return, he says.

He has been able to raise his students' state salaries to $600 a month from $50. But increased pay is only part of the solution. Reflecting on his own experience, he says students in Russia need more hands-on research opportunities and engaged instructors to help them.

"The U.S.A. has thousands of biological labs, and in Russia there are only about 50 world-class laboratories like we have," Mr. Severinov says. "The reason is that Russia's biological higher education lacks practicing scientists."

In the past four years, 13 students have completed their microbiological research and defended their dissertations under his supervision. "If not for Dr. Severinov, I would have been stuck in one of the dusty and boring scientific institutes without money, without any hope for future career perspectives," says Anna Lopatina, one of those Ph.D. students. In 2008, Mr. Severinov assigned her to a three-month expedition in Antarctica, where she studied the microbes that accumulate on the snow.

'Wrong Choice'

Despite his best efforts though, some of his students remain pessimistic about the future.

"I made a wrong choice when I stayed to study in Russia," says Ksenia Pugach, a Moscow State University graduate student who has worked with Mr. Severinov. "One-third of my university mates are working in European laboratories, making 2,000 euros [about $2,740] a month, while I live on $500 with cockroaches in my dorm room."

She does not have hopes that Russia's higher education and research capacity will ever catch up with Western universities—"not in my life time, anyway," she says.

Mr. Severinov has taken his reform agenda beyond the classroom. He works with Russia's ministry of education to revise its grant-making and is a member of the board of Rusnano, a government-owned company that spurs the commercialization of nanotechnology. He also has been a public critic of the problems that plague the country's science, talking to the news media and making speeches about them.

His outspokenness has not always won him friends. Mr. Severinov and colleagues describe how some Russian professors are jealous of the attention he receives and of his ability to attract top students. Such animosity among administrators and professors at Moscow State University, his alma mater, led him to stop teaching at the university several years ago, he says.

Other scholars applaud his efforts, calling him a rare commodity in Russia.

"There are so few independent people in Russian science able to tell a boss that he is an idiot, and Severinov says the truth at all levels," says Mikhail S. Gelfand, vice director for science at the Russian Academy's Institute for Information Transmission Problems. "On one hand he is built into the system. On the other, he remains independent."


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