- Space Science
Massive Cost Overrun to Webb Threatens Other NASA Missions
- Andrew Lawler,
- Yudhijit Bhattacharjee
A project intended to revolutionize astronomy now threatens to derail NASA's entire space sciences program. An independent panel reported last week that overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) could reach $1.7 billion, bringing its total cost to as much as $6.8 billion. NASA officials and the U.S. astronomy community are now scrambling to find a way out of the mess, which could defer the telescope's launch for up to 3 years, to 2017.
The stinging indictment of NASA management practices could not have come at a more awkward moment. Republicans promised last week to scale back government spending when they take over the House of Representatives in January (Science, 12 November, p. 896). Congress and the White House remain deadlocked over what to do with the U.S. human space flight program once the last space shuttle is retired sometime next year. And earlier this fall, a National Research Council (NRC) panel laid out an ambitious plan for U.S. astronomy (Science, 20 August, p. 894) that may prove a pipe dream given JWST's fiscal woes.
“I'm shocked by how big [the overrun] is,” says astrophysicist Roger Blandford of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who chaired the NRC committee that produced the Astro2020 report. “And the impact could be severe.” The overrun is $700 million more than NASA now spends each year on all astronomy projects. At particular risk is the Wide-Field Infra-Red Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the committee's top priority. This telescope would examine dark energy and exoplanets and conduct galactic surveys. But its fate is now uncertain given the size and scope of JWST's troubles.
Conceived in the late 1990s as a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, JWST is designed to unfold a 6.5-meter mirror once it arrives at a gravitationally stable point 1.5 million km from Earth. It will beam back images of the earliest stars and galaxies, giving astronomers their first look at the cosmic dawn.
Rising costs are nothing new for NASA projects. But JWST, NASA's most ambitious science project to date, may turn out to be one of its biggest fiscal blunders. In 2001, its estimated price tag was $1 billion. In 2008, NASA confirmed it as a project with a cost of $5.1 billion and a launch date of 2014. This summer, after NASA requested additional funding, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D–MD), chair of a panel that oversees the NASA budget, asked for an independent review.
Led by John Casani of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the review found that even in the most optimistic scenario, NASA would not be able to launch the telescope until September 2015. And that deadline would require an additional $200 million for the project in each of the fiscal years 2011 and 2012. That would put the total cost somewhere between $6.2 billion and $6.8 billion.
In a teleconference with reporters last week, Casani said NASA officials should shoulder the blame. “The fundamental root cause is that at the time of confirmation of the project [in 2008], the budget that NASA was presented with was basically flawed,” he said. It “understated the requirements of the project.” And NASA headquarters failed to identify the errors in the budgeting, Casani said.
“We had done a diligent job in assembling the numbers,” says John Mather, senior project scientist for JWST at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, which developed the project's budget. “But we have to admit that it didn't work out.”
Christopher Scolese, NASA's associate administrator, says NASA headquarters “didn't have the people” to perform the crosschecks and analyses that were required to confirm the budget. To avoid more surprises, the agency has agreed to a series of management changes recommended by the Casani panel, including a new program office for JWST at headquarters.
NASA has already spent $3 billion on the telescope, making it unlikely that the project will be canceled. However, congressional staffers and NASA officials say that a full rescue by Congress is equally unlikely. “We have to work with the Administration and Congress to see what flexibilities we do have,” says Scolese. But he doubts that “we're going to find $200 million” more in 2011.
That means NASA may have to rethink other projects and consider cuts elsewhere in the science program. One option, which it followed after overruns in the Mars program, would be to merge WFIRST with a dark-energy observatory called Euclid that is on the drawing board of the European Space Agency (ESA). Next June, ESA intends to choose from among three projects, including Euclid. Roger Bonnet, former ESA science chief and now director of the International Space Science Institute in Bern, says a single cooperative astronomy program between NASA and ESA might make sense. Blandford agrees: “We've got to examine all the options.”
However, becoming a junior partner on an ESA mission is not an appealing prospect for U.S. astronomers. “The U.S. has had a strong history of leadership in the burgeoning fields of dark energy and exoplanet studies, and I think it would be a mistake to not continue to be leaders in those areas,” says Adam Riess, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
The Casani report did find JWST to be on solid ground technically, giving astronomers hope that the telescope will eventually make it into space. Heidi Hammel, an astronomer at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, notes that Hubble had similar overruns before its 1990 launch. “It proved the absolute workhorse for the broader community,” she notes. “JWST is going to be that kind of tool, too.”
- Marine Ecology
Key Indicator of Ocean Health May Be Flawed
- Erik Stokstad
The most widely used metric of how marine ecosystems are faring worldwide can't be trusted, according to a controversial new analysis of fisheries data. If so, then policymakers could be left without a global picture of whether reforms to fisheries management are working. But not everyone agrees with the conclusion.
The metric is the mean trophic level (MTL) of fish being caught, an indicator based on rank in the food web, which is commonly thought to provide a rough measure of the diversity and integrity of ocean food webs. But in a paper in this week's issue of Nature, a team led by Trevor Branch of the University of Washington, Seattle, concludes that the underlying data—seafood reported caught—don't reveal ecosystem health in most cases. “This widely used metric doesn't measure what we think it's measuring,” says Branch. The analysis also challenges an influential interpretation of decreasing MTL—and the way fishing affects marine ecosystems.
This interpretation made headlines in 1998, when Daniel Pauly, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and his colleagues highlighted an alarming decrease in MTL of marine species since 1950. They took trophic levels of each species, calculated from what it eats, and then averaged these levels for all species caught worldwide. The team argued that fishing vessels had been sequentially depleting top predators like cod and tuna, then working their way down the food chain, a process that reduces biodiversity and can perturb an ecosystem. This phenomenon, dubbed “fishing down the food web,” threw a spotlight on the impact of industrialized fisheries and led to grim predictions of “jellyfish and plankton stew.”
The big advantage of catch data is their wide geographic coverage. Fisheries scientists, however, have long pointed out problems with reported catches. The data are murky because they reflect not only what's living in the ecosystem but also the type of fishing gear used and the economics of fishing, for example—factors that can complicate interpretations of the abundance and diversity of fish in the ecosystem.
Branch and his colleagues decided to conduct a comprehensive comparison of catch data with two other sources of data, trawl surveys and stock assessments, which are scientific estimates of abundance within ecosystems. Relying on a recent compilation of surveys and assessments, they calculated trends in global MTL from each. Because catch data yielded a different trend, Branch argues that they aren't a reliable gauge of the state of marine ecosystems worldwide.
Branch's analysis also suggests that humans may not be fishing down the food web after all. In their analysis of catch data, Branch's group found that all trophic levels—from American oysters to bigeye tuna—are being caught in ever-increasing amounts. Although the catch data don't reveal how ecosystems are faring, Branch says they hint at a more optimistic future—one in which higher-level predators aren't wiped out, even if they and all other parts of the food web are scarcer than before.
Pauly says the Branch team's analysis is misleading. He argues that catch data, when pooled globally, must be corrected for the size of the area being fished, which increased dramatically from 1950 to the 1980s as fleets expanded into the high seas and the Southern Ocean. In addition, the trawl surveys and stock assessments are limited in scope and don't reveal what's going on worldwide. Pauly also points out that large, long-lived predators are particularly vulnerable to overfishing.
Branch maintains his conclusions are valid. He recommends that researchers focus not on MTL from catch data but on trends in abundance from trawl surveys and stock assessments. Joseph Powers of Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, agrees, but he sees value in keeping an eye on MTL from catch data all the same. “Even with biases,” he says, “it's still telling you that things are changing and maybe you need to investigate what's causing those changes.”
- Science and Society
GM Mosquito Trial Alarms Opponents, Strains Ties in Gates-Funded Project
- Martin Enserink
For about a decade, scientists have debated how and when to carry out the first test release of transgenic mosquitoes designed to fight human disease—a landmark study they imagined might trigger fierce resistance from opponents of genetic engineering. A stream of papers and reports has argued that a release of any genetically modified (GM) mosquito should be preceded by years of careful groundwork, including an exhaustive public debate to win the hearts and minds of the local population.
But now, it turns out that with little public debate, a company released such mosquitoes a year ago in a fiscal paradise in the Caribbean, where they have been flying under the world's radar screen until last week. At a press conference in London on 11 November, British company Oxitec announced that it carried out the world's first small trial with transgenic Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in Grand Cayman in the fall of 2009, followed by a larger study there last summer. Oxitec chief scientist Luke Alphey also presented the unpublished results—which he declared a “complete success”—at a meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in Atlanta a week earlier.
The announcement has taken aback opponents of GM mosquitoes and surprised many researchers in the field of genetic control of insect vectors. And some say that staying mum was a strategic mistake that provides critics with fresh ammunition. “I don't think they did themselves a favor,” says Bart Knols, a medical entomologist at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. “This could well trigger a backlash.”
Nor does the trial sit well with the collaborators in a big international project, in which Oxitec is a key member, to develop and test GM mosquitoes. The program, funded by a $19.7 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and led by Anthony James of the University of California, Irvine, has spent years preparing a study site in the Mexican state of Chiapas, where it is testing another strain of Oxitec mosquitoes in cage studies. The project, one of Gates's Grand Challenges in Global Health, would “never” release GM mosquitoes the way Oxitec has now done in Grand Cayman, says James.
Oxitec has received $5 million from the Gates program, but the Grand Cayman trial is not part of that. “As a private company, they can push their own agenda,” says James, even though this could possibly hurt the field as a whole. “It's a difficult situation,” he says. “I would completely reject any notion that this was done secretively,” says Alphey, who notes that the trial was well-known within the island's population of 50,000, “but just not picked up internationally.”
Few deny that in the race to develop disease-fighting mosquitoes, Oxitec has an impressive lead. Its key idea, pioneered by Alphey while at the University of Oxford in the 1990s, is to release massive numbers of lab-bred male mosquitoes equipped with a gene that kills any offspring in the larval or pupal stage. When the males mate with females of a natural population, there are no progeny—and if the transgenic males mate more often than the natural ones, the mosquito population will dwindle or even collapse. (And because male mosquitoes don't bite, their release does not increase the risk of disease transmission to humans.)
Oxitec sees a key market in Ae. aegypti, the vector for dengue, a painful and sometimes fatal viral infection for which no drugs or vaccines exist. Many middle- and high-income countries already invest heavily in traditional mosquito-control measures to fight dengue, but the results are unimpressive—so an alternative is welcome. Alphey says the first small field study, designed to test whether the males can compete with their natural counterparts, was done on Grand Cayman in November and December of 2009. It was followed by a larger study, between May and October of this year, in which the insects' population-suppressing powers were also gauged. During that period, the team flooded about 16 hectares in the town of East End with transgenic males, about 10 for every naturally occurring wild male. By August, there were about 80% fewer mosquitoes around than in a comparable control area.
For the trial, Oxitec has worked with the Mosquito Research and Control Unit (MRCU) of the Cayman Islands, an overseas territory of the United Kingdom. The trial abided by the rules of the territory's new biosafety bill that has yet to become law, Alphey says. There were no town hall meetings or public debates because the government of the Cayman Islands didn't deem them necessary. But MRCU sent information about the study to local newspapers, Alphey says, and its 50 employees attended a lunch meeting about the project from which information filtered out to the rest of the island as well. MRCU, which could not be reached for comment, also posted a promotional video about the project on YouTube, but the clip does not mention that the mosquitoes are transgenic.
That's quite a contrast to the process the Grand Challenges project researchers used to select and prepare a site for a possible future release of Oxitec mosquitoes in Mexico. Currently, the mosquitoes are still being tested in cages, but even for that step the researchers spent years diligently consulting with local citizen groups, academics, regulators, and farmers. “We think that is the most ethical way to introduce a new technology like this,” says James Lavery, a bioethicist at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, Canada, who works as a consultant for the project.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is still drafting guidelines for the release of transgenic mosquitoes, a process that will take at least three more months, says Yeya Touré, manager of innovative vector control interventions at WHO. Touré says he knew of the trial in Grand Cayman, and that he is not aware of any wrongdoing by Oxitec.
But environmental groups, taken by surprise, are lamenting what they see as a lack of openness. “If these mosquitoes are completely safe, then why the hush-hush?” says Gurmit Singh, chair of the Centre for Environment, Technology and Development in Malaysia, where Oxitec hopes to start a field trial soon as well. James—who also takes issue with Alphey's press conference to announce unpublished results—says it would be “unfortunate” if Oxitec's release in the Caribbean soured the climate for GM mosquitoes in general. Despite their differences, the collaborators are still on speaking terms, he stresses.
Not everybody thinks the release is such a big deal. Oxitec's transgenic mosquitoes are programmed not to have viable offspring, which makes it extremely unlikely that any newly introduced genes would spread, says medical entomologist Willem Takken of Wageningen University in the Netherlands. The company's technology is just a modern version of the so-called sterile insect technique (SIT), he says, in which massive numbers of male insects are sterilized by bombarding them with radiation and then released. Half a century old, SIT has been used safely and with great success against a range of agricultural pests (Science, 20 July 2007, p. 312).
Stickier issues arise with different strategies that don't try to reduce natural populations to zero but replace them with new ones unable to transmit disease, says John Marshall of Imperial College London. To achieve that, researchers try to find genes that make insects resistant to infection and make these genes spread through the entire population. That approach, which so far has proved elusive, is fraught with ethical and regulatory problems because its explicit goal is to spread genes far and wide.
Ethics and communication strategy aside, researchers say the results of the trial, if they hold up under peer review, are encouraging. Oxitec's technique offers the promise of an environmentally friendly way to reduce mosquito populations and, thus, to control disease, says Marcelo Jacobs-Lorena of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. It also has an edge over insecticides because it's hard to see how mosquito populations could develop resistance to suicide genes. He thinks the stealthy trial will have a positive impact on the field: “There's too much caution and too much fear of the unknown. This study may help surmount that.”
From Science's Online Daily News Site
Can Google Predict the Stock Market? Whoever figures out how to predict the stock market will get rich quick. Unfortunately, the market's ups and downs ultimately depend on the choices of a massive number of people—and you don't know what they're thinking about before they decide to buy or sell a stock. Then again, maybe Google knows. A team of scientists writing in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A has shown a strong correlation between queries submitted to the Internet search giant and the weekly fluctuations in stock trading.
Physicists Create Black Hole 'Light' in Lab Thirty-six years ago, Stephen Hawking, the famed British theoretical physicist, predicted that black holes—from which no light should escape—could, paradoxically, emit light. No one has ever observed this “Hawking radiation,” but now, physicists report in Physical Review Letters that they've created something very much like it in the lab.
Whales Get Sunburns, Too In these ozone-depleted times, most of us reach for a T-shirt or a bottle of sunscreen to protect us from the sun's ultraviolet radiation. Whales don't have those luxuries—and they're paying the price. In Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers report numerous cases of sunburned and blistered skin on whales in the wild, sparking concern that the thinned ozone layer may be causing skin cancer in these animals.
Read the full postings, comments, and more at http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow.
- Research Metrics
Handful of U.S. Schools Claim Larger Share of Output
- Jeffrey Mervis
Quality attracts quality in academic research. But is that the best way to achieve economic prosperity?
A new analysis of the U.S. research base by Thomson Reuters points to an increasing concentration of academic research. The report, the latest in a series of such assessments of individual countries, examines both the share of scientific papers written by researchers at a particular institution and the impact of those papers, as measured by the average number of citations per publication.
Two dozen universities hold a combined 42% share of the overall U.S. output for the years 2005 to '09, the report finds (see first table). That's up from 31% during the 1981–85 period. That increased concentration has occurred at the same time the size of the overall pie has doubled, to roughly 1.6 million papers. Harvard University tops both lists, with a 4.2 share of that output, and its margin over second-place University of Michigan has widened in the past 30 years. The 61 U.S. members of the Association of American Universities (AAU) claim an outsized 56% share, up eight points.
Similarly, 19 universities received 47% of all citations to U.S. papers for 2005 to '09 (see second table). Papers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has been ranked first or second during the past 3 decades, have more than twice the impact as the world average. In addition, a handful of universities have maintained their dominance: Only six universities have held one of the top five places in the impact rankings since the 1980s.
The report also documents the growth by Asian and European nations in overall research productivity. It notes that the 27-member European Union surpassed the United States in 1995 and remains ahead, and that the Asian-Pacific countries did likewise for the first time in 2008 as part of their explosive growth (see first figure). It also finds that U.S. scientists work disproportionately in the health and social sciences when compared with the rest of the world (see second figure).
“In the United States you see a concentration by field, as well as by geography,” says Jonathan Adams, co-author of the new report, who quickly adds, “I'm not saying it's a problem.” But the report ends with this provocative question: Are the economic challenges facing the United States “best answered by such concentration, or does its response to the challenge of agile knowledge economies elsewhere in the world require an equally innovative response supported by a more pervasive network of U.S. institutions that draw on the talent spread across the 50 states?”
- Condensed-Matter Physics
New Spin on Solid Helium Bolsters Case for Bizarre Flow
- Adrian Cho
For 6 years, physicists have debated whether solidified helium can flow like the thinnest liquid in a bizarre phenomenon known as “supersolidity.” In fact, just 5 months ago one experimenter reported that a softening of the crystalline helium may explain the apparent signs of the strange resistance-free flow. Now, a team from South Korea and Japan reports online in Science this week (www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/science.1196409) on a new experiment that strongly supports the presence of flow by literally putting a new spin on the original experiment. “If the experiment stands up, … then it's pretty close to a smoking gun” for supersolidity, says John Beamish, a physicist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.
The first signs of supersolidity emerged in 2004 in experiments by Moses Chan of Pennsylvania State University, University Park, and Eunseong Kim, now at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon, South Korea. They fashioned a small can atop a metal shaft and filled it with the isotope helium-4 chilled and pressurized to solidify it. They then set the can twisting back and forth on the shaft.
The frequency of the “torsional oscillator” depended on the amount of mass moving in the can. As the temperature of the helium dipped below 0.2 kelvin, the frequency shot up. That suggested that some helium atoms were letting go of their neighbors and standing still as the rest of the helium moved. To do that, they would have to flow through the helium without resistance. Such “superfluid” flow occurs in liquid helium, and some theorists had speculated it might exist in solid helium, too.
However, similar experiments soon suggested that to flow, a helium crystal must be riddled with defects and imperfections. Other studies revealed that in the same temperature range, solid helium's stiffness changes. And in June in Physical Review Letters, John Reppy of Cornell University reported data that suggested that instead of twisting faster at lower temperatures because of flow, an oscillator actually twists slower at higher temperature as the defect-ridden helium softens (Science, 2 July, p. 20).
Now, Kim, Kimitoshi Kono of Japan's research institute RIKEN in Wako, and colleagues have performed a torsional oscillator experiment in a specialized refrigerator, or “cryostat,” in which they can spin the whole experiment at speeds up to a revolution per second. Working in Kono's lab, they found that as the rate of rotation increased, the shift in the frequency that supposedly tracks the resistance-free flow decreased and eventually vanished.
That's what should happen if the flow is real. Thanks to quantum mechanics, a superfluid abhors rotation. Spin a bucket of superfluid liquid helium, and the liquid will sprout tiny whirlpools called “vortices” spinning to counteract the rotation. Put a torsional oscillator in a spinning fridge, and vortices will tie up the superfluid, leaving less to stand still and reducing the frequency shift seen as superfluid flow sets in. Kim's result suggests that rotation stirs up vortices in solid helium, too, says Sébastien Balibar, a physicist at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.
Measurements taken simultaneously showed that rotation did not affect the helium's stiffness, Balibar says, so changes in stiffness cannot explain the results. “The objection of John Reppy is ruled out,” he says. However, Reppy counters that Kim and colleagues measure the stiffness of helium sequestered in a special channel across their can and that measurements there may not reveal what's going on elsewhere in the solid.
Does this prove supersolidity exists? Kim is cautious, noting that his team has not directly observed vortices. Still, he says, “I can't find a way to explain the experiment with a nonsupersolid scenario.” It may be tough for others to find one, too.
From the Science Policy Blog
A panel has criticized a risk assessment by the U.S. government of a planned lab in Kansas to study the world's most dangerous animal pathogens. It says more information is needed on the potential economic impact of the accidental release of highly contagious pathogens.
The world's supply of oil is increasingly in the hands of OPEC nations, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency that says production from non-OPEC nations has flattened.
Last month, Senator Charles Grassley (R–IA) complained about certain trips by National Cancer Institute scientists that were paid for by nonfederal sources. ScienceInsider analyzed records for some of the trips and found that many were to give talks sponsored by domestic universities or scientific societies.
Scientists on the Spirit Mars Rover team fear that the plucky robot has finally died after 6 years of exploration. Wind could still blow dust off its panels, says team leader Steve Squyres of Cornell University, so “we listen, [but] it could be a long wait.”
A bipartisan deficit panel has called for making permanent the U.S. research and development tax credit. It's an exception to the slew of spending cuts and removal of tax breaks that characterize the interim report from the chairs, who must release the final recommendations by 1 December.
Advocates for indigenous people have managed to get a 100-person scientific expedition to a remote area of Paraguay postponed. Critics of the journey, sponsored by the Natural History Museum in London and coordinated with local tribes, feared the trip could spread diseases to indigenous people or lead to violent exchanges.
For 2010 election coverage and more science policy news, visit http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider.
- Newsmaker Interview: Subra Suresh
A World of Changes Prepares Subra Suresh to Tackle Change at NSF
- Jeffrey Mervis
To understand how far Subra Suresh has come since growing up in the south of India, consider this:
In 1977, the 21-year-old Suresh took his first trip on an airplane. The flight took him from Madras (now Chennai), India, to Ames, Iowa, where he began a graduate program in engineering at Iowa State University. Thirty-three years later, in his first week as director of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), Suresh twice flew halfway around the world—to a meeting of national funding agencies in Belgium and to Hawaii for an event that gave him the chance to meet with a powerful U.S. senator—and within 36 hours he was back in his 12th-floor office at NSF headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.
As the first Asian-American to lead NSF, Suresh's own story is part of the rise to prominence of scientists from that region. The older of two children in a lower-middle-class family, Suresh began first grade at the age of 4 after his mother, who still lives in Chennai, decided that having two kids at home “was too much to handle.” He scored high enough on the grueling national entrance exams to be admitted to one of the top-rated Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campuses, making him the first in his family to attend university. After graduating from IIT Madras with a degree in mechanical engineering, he chose Iowa State in large part because it agreed to waive his application fee. Throughout his graduate education, which culminated in a doctoral degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Suresh wrote weekly letters to his mother because the cost of a phone call—$4 per minute ($14 in today's dollars)—was prohibitive.
Three decades later he had become dean of MIT's School of Engineering, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, and co-founder of a company created to commercialize one of his discoveries. But you might not know it by listening to Suresh, a trim, soft-spoken 54-year-old man of medium height. “Subra isn't bombastic and doesn't brag about how great he is, but he's pretty sharp,” says Karl Gschneidner, a retired professor of engineering at Iowa State who still runs an active research program. “He was one of the best students I ever had,” he adds, pulling out his grade book for the class that Suresh took in 1977 and in which, not surprisingly, he earned an A. Asked what it takes to ace his course, Gschneidner says: “Knowing a hell of a lot, and answering problems the right way.”
Suresh will need to draw upon those traits—and much more—to succeed as NSF director. On the plus side, he joins an agency held in high regard by the White House and Congress: On 18 October, his first day on the job, he attended the first-ever White House science fair and received a shout-out from President Barack Obama. Obama has promised a 10-year doubling of NSF's 2008 budget of $6 billion, in line with a 2007 law—the America COMPETES ACT—that would expand federal support for basic research and science education at NSF and three other agencies. The bill enjoyed broad, bipartisan support and grew out of a 2005 National Academies' report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, that had been embraced by the Bush Administration. One of the first actions by congressional Democrats after taking power in January 2007 was to match the president's request for an 8% increase to NSF's research programs in a supplemental funding bill that froze the budgets of most federal agencies.
But the political and fiscal climate has changed dramatically since those heady days. This spring, a reauthorization of the 2007 COMPETES Act became mired in a partisan debate over its overall cost and the new federal programs it would create, and a shrunken version passed the House of Representatives with only 17 of a potential 177 Republican votes. The president has requested a 7% increase in NSF's 2011 budget, but few expect it to survive the final version of an annual spending bill that may be approved next month by the lame-duck Congress. A resurgent Republican party, which will control the House when the next Congress convenes in January, ran on a pledge to roll back federal spending to 2008 levels as part of an effort to reduce this year's $1.3 trillion budget deficit.
Even NSF's $3 billion windfall, part of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in February 2009, could have a downside. No House Republican voted for the stimulus package, and observers worry that academic researchers will face the same “Where are the jobs?” question leveled at the entire stimulus package, which critics view as a waste of taxpayer dollars. Then there's the unavoidable budget cliff facing scientists who received 2-year stimulus money and who next year will be seeking continued support for their projects from NSF's regular budget.
How will a new director, NSF's 13th since it was founded in 1950, fare in such a politically charged climate? “He brings his knowledge and passion for research, along with a very creative and broad view of science and technology as an administrator,” says Thomas Magnanti, who hired Suresh as chair of MIT's department of materials science and engineering. In 2007, Suresh succeeded Magnanti as dean of engineering. “He's got to take those skills and apply them to working with the entire scientific community, as well as Congress and the Administration,” says Magnanti, who last year was named founding president of the Singapore University of Technology and Design.
Last week, in his first public interview since taking office, Suresh indicated that he's already begun to do exactly that. Even before his Senate confirmation in September to the 6-year post, Suresh began asking colleagues about the myriad issues that he will face at NSF. In the few weeks since becoming director, he told Science, he's begun to “calibrate” those opinions with the 1500 scientists and engineers who manage NSF's programs and now work for him. The goal, he says, is to find “low-hanging fruit, … ideas that we can start to implement within a few months, with the existing budget.”
He's careful not to overpromise. But he clearly feels that some changes are warranted. “Individually, each may look small and insignificant,” Suresh explains. “But together, they could have a huge impact on the morale and efficiency of the organization.”
One example of a possible early change is a tweak to NSF's peer-review system. A modest step, he says, would be a pilot project using modern communications tools to overcome obstacles in scheduling panel meetings or on-site visits for pending proposals. “I'd like to find a way to tap the best experts in the world,” he says, “rather than just settling for whoever is available that week.”
A more significant step that Suresh signaled he might be weighing is a reassessment of NSF's requirement that investigators describe the “broader impacts” of their grant proposal. That second criterion (scientific merit is the first) has been a thorn in the side of many researchers, who complain that it's unrealistic for NSF to expect them to devote time to, say, improving science education, raising public literacy, or increasing the number of minorities or women in science and engineering while they carry out their research. Suresh hinted that he'd like to give grantees some wriggle room.
“I think the spirit of the broader impacts criterion is good,” he explained. “But the question is, on whom do you place the burden? A large program has multiple entities that can ensure or follow through on the broader impact. But an individual investigator, especially a young investigator, may not have the opportunity or resources to demonstrate broader impacts. So the question is whether you can put the requirement not just on the individual but on a program that includes a collection of individuals. Perhaps you could also have some accountability by the institution itself.”
Another issue on Suresh's mind is what he called “the leaky pipeline” that drains the U.S. scientific enterprise of talent at every level, from undergraduates through senior academics. “I hope to be able to say something more about that before long,” he told Science. These and other ideas were on the agenda of a 2-day retreat Suresh held last week with senior NSF managers.
Although Suresh says that he still has a lot to learn about how NSF operates, he's already plenty savvy about ducking questions on sensitive topics with political ramifications. For example, he declined to say whether he favors changes in programs aimed at a broader geographic distribution of limited NSF dollars, a popular cause within Congress that some scientists believe waters down the quality of NSF's portfolio. He said, “I'm not sufficiently up to speed” on NSF's proposal in this year's budget to combine several programs serving underrepresented minority college students, which the House and an important Senate panel have told NSF to drop. Finding the proper balance in NSF's portfolio between grants to individual investigators and large centers and between funding research and infrastructure, another perennial topic among academic leaders, is a problem “with multiple dimensions,” he noted. All the elements are worth “nurturing,” he added.
Suresh says he's looking forward to discussing these and other issues with the National Science Board, the 24-member presidentially appointed body that sets NSF's general policies. The board, which has 10 seats unfilled because the White House has yet to nominate replacements for members who have completed their 6-year terms, can also help him rally support for any proposed major changes. And it's a good bet there will be some.
“MIT was a visible position,” says Suresh. “But this job gives you a chance to have an impact not just at one institution but across institutions, and potentially around the world. I'm looking forward to the challenge.”
↵* In a 10 November 2010 interview with Science.
Russian Science: Waking From Hibernation
- Daniel Clery*
Russian science has moved beyond survival mode and is trying to recapture its research glory. But as the government backs universities and applied research, what does the future hold for the Russian Academy of Sciences?
Late last month, Russia's Ministry of Education and Science announced the first results of a novel attempt to revitalize science in the country's universities. It had offered “megagrants” of up to $5 million to attract top researchers from around the world to set up new labs at Russian universities. The first 40 successful applicants included some big names: 1998 medicine Nobelist Ferid Murad of the University of Texas, Houston, and mathematician Stanislav Smirnov of the University of Geneva, Switzerland, the 2010 Fields Medal winner. “This could build a very good bridge between France and Russia in this area,” says another winner, Gérard Mourou, director of the Laboratory of Applied Optics in Palaiseau, France, and a pioneer of ultrahigh-intensity lasers.
How much the megagrant winners can boost Russian science remains an open question, however. Foreign winners are only required to spend one-third of each year in Russia, acknowledges Andrei Fursenko, Russia's minister of education and science (see p. 1038). “Four months is too low a commitment for this money,” says Alexei Khokhlov, vice-rector of Moscow State University.
And the program notably failed to lure two big fish: this year's winners of the Nobel Prize in physics, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov. The discoverers of graphene were both born and educated in Russia but are now working at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.
Indeed, the Nobel Prize announcement last month generated much debate in Russia about why many of the country's best and brightest scientists—tens of thousands of whom fled abroad during the economic crises of the 1990s—are still now gracing foreign universities and their work benefiting other economies. “I was never interested myself ” in the Russian megagrants, says Geim. “It's difficult to run two labs efficiently.”
Russian science has come a long way since Geim and Novoselov left in the 1990s, a time when some researchers moonlighted as taxi drivers to earn enough to eat. Salaries have slowly risen, and around the mid-2000s, the government—acknowledging that Russia couldn't live off its natural resources forever—launched programs to boost research-led industries such as nanotechnology. Russian researchers at home and abroad have welcomed such programs but complain that the government continues to provide inadequate funding for basic research and has failed to institute needed reforms—particularly in the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), which, they maintain, clings to its Soviet-era privileges and hierarchies while supporting large numbers of unproductive institutes and researchers.
Some have been trying to get RAS to employ transparent, peer-reviewed funding to promote the best and most active researchers. And the government countered its critics this year with a string of programs to encourage more research in Russia's universities, outside the control of RAS. But while Russian scientists have been generally supportive of such efforts, they are reserving judgment on whether it will be enough to preserve what is good in Russian science. “Those at the top are trying to do their best to restore science in Russia. But it always gets muddled, and corruption is endemic,” says Geim.
At the height of the Soviet Union, science was prestigious. RAS, which carried out most basic research, was well-funded and ran hundreds of institutes. More research was done in science cities scattered across the vast expanse of the Soviet Union, often geared to military applications. And each centrally controlled industry had a generous budget for R&D that funded more institutes. “In Soviet times a scientific career was the career; all the best people went there. If you take the best and brightest, you should do very well,” says economist Sergei Guriev of Moscow's New Economic School. Fursenko says there was a joke in Soviet times: “What is science? A method to satisfy your curiosity at the government's expense.” In 1990, just before it collapsed, the Soviet Union employed almost 2 million scientists, engineers, and technicians at more than 4600 institutes.
Four years later, when Science published a special issue on Russian research (Science, 27 May 1994, p. 1259), many once-bustling laboratories were empty, dark, and inactive. Researchers couldn't afford reagents, consumables such as liquid nitrogen, or even electricity to run their experiments. The UNK, a huge particle accelerator at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino, which was meant to rival those at CERN and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, lay unfinished with 5 kilometers of its 21-kilometer tunnel still undug and warehouses full of magnets. At Gatchina near St. Petersburg, construction of the PIK reactor, a source of high-intensity neutrons for materials research, physics, and chemistry, had stalled with only 75% of the project completed.
Researchers' salaries were no longer enough to live on and so, with restrictions on travel eased, many fled to jobs abroad—including Geim and Novoselov. Official statistics say 25,000 scientists emigrated between 1989 and 2004, but independent estimates suggest more than 80,000 left in the early 1990s alone. Many researchers who remained left science altogether.
A fortunate few managed to find other sources of funding, such as by partnering with labs abroad or winning research contracts from international corporations. Other funders sprang up, including financier George Soros's International Science Foundation. In an initial challenge to RAS's authority, the government created the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (RFBR), which funded proposals chosen by peer review, but its resources were slim. Throughout that decade, the main goal of scientists was survival rather than research productivity.
After 2000, as the economy began to strengthen, the plight of researchers gradually improved. The government slowly increased salaries: RAS researchers now earn five or six times what they did a decade ago. “It's not enough, but compared with a few years ago it's at least acceptable. It's higher than the average salary in Russia,” says Fursenko.
As if waking from hibernation, Russian science started to come to life. The government provided money to complete the PIK reactor, which is now almost ready to power up for the first time. “Financing has only been provided for the ‘bare’ reactor, not for the instrument program. So we are trying to get money to do this work,” says Valery Fedorov, director of neutron research at the Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute. The UNK accelerator remains unfinished, but researchers at Protvino have stayed afloat working on smaller scale experiments and collaborating with CERN in Europe as well as with Brookhaven and Fermi national labs in the United States.
JINR, one of Russia's most prominent labs and a world-leading center for nuclear physics, also began to spread its wings. “After the end of the Soviet Union, the first 12 years were a very hard time for the institute. Our budget was small and it was not paid” by the government, says Mikhail Itkis, JINR's acting director. During this period, there were no upgrades of equipment, no new facilities—the lab just held on to what it had, Itkis says. International support kept the lab going. Set up as a Soviet response to CERN in the 1950s, JINR has 18 member nations from across the old Soviet bloc and they stayed on board, even though some are now members of NATO and the European Union. “They helped us survive,” Itkis says.
In 2000, newly elected President Vladimir Putin acknowledged the importance of the lab with a law giving it special status and tax-free land. JINR was soon receiving its full budget again, but it was not much to work with: In 2005, it was budgeted just $37 million for an institute with 5000 staff members. JINR that year asked all of its members to increase their contributions by 20% and then to continue ramping them up until they reached a total of $200 million by 2016. Members agreed and have kept their promise. Next year's budget will total $100 million. The institute now has new facilities under construction, others being upgraded, and has won fame for the synthesis of new superheavy elements, nine in total. “We can't be the world leader in all areas of physical science, but in some areas we must be. That's our policy,” Itkis says.
Bridging the gap
At the beginning of Putin's second administration in 2004, when Fursenko was appointed to his current position, the Russian government began to address the gap between research and the country's economy. The Soviet system of applied science institutes that served the military and key industries had collapsed. There was no mechanism for translating scientific advances into usable products or processes for industry. “Industry is not interested: They're quite happy with what they have. Initiatives that promote interaction are very important,” says Khokhlov.
In 2007, the government bet big on nanotechnology. It founded the Russian Nanotechnology Corporation (Rusnano), arming it with $6 billion to spend and the goal of creating a $30 billion industry by 2015. Rusnano distributes most of that money as grants to companies to help commercialize nanotech products, but research institutes have also claimed a slice of the pie. The Kurchatov Institute in Moscow, the country's premier nuclear energy lab, recast its synchrotron x-ray source as the Kurchatov Center for Synchrotron Radiation and Nanotechnology. JINR is creating a new International Innovation Center for Nanotechnology, with $33 million from Rusnano. And in July, RAS and Rusnano announced the Center for Technology Transfer with just over half its $2 million budget coming from Rusnano.
Despite the gold rush, some researchers are doubtful about the government's “nanotechnology fever,” as one scientist called it. Rusnano “is not really funding research. It's commercialization,” says Guriev.
Yet more skepticism is reserved for the government's Skolkovo project, an attempt to create a Silicon Valley–style technology hothouse on the outskirts of Moscow. Launched 6 months ago, the project's aim is to bring together 12,000 researchers and businesspeople, focusing on government priorities—energy, IT, telecommunications, biomedicine, and nuclear technology. The Kurchatov Institute and Moscow State University are already linked to the project, as are numerous non-Russian companies, including Boeing.
“Skolkovo is very strange,” says Vyacheslav Strelkov of the Kurchatov Institute. “There are many scientific centers in Russia. Why put money into this new place? Our buildings are empty.” The project is causing concern at JINR, too. Directly opposite JINR, on the banks of the broad Volga River, is one of the “free economic zones” granted to the institute by the 2000 law formalizing its status. These are meant to be tax-free science parks where high-tech companies can set up shop and interact with JINR. It remains almost empty; JINR researchers suspect that companies are waiting to see how Skolkovo pans out.
Back to basics
The government's emphasis on applied science has thrown its treatment of basic research into stark relief. “They simply do not understand how the basic science creates innovations and believe that [all] basic research should result in something useful,” says Georgii Georgiev of the RAS Institute of Gene Biology. The slighting of basic research was brought to worldwide attention a year ago when more than 200 émigré Russian researchers sent a letter to President Dmitry Medvedev alerting him to the “catastrophic conditions of fundamental science” in Russia and warning of its “coming collapse.” The signatories called for increased funding, integrating Russian science into the worldwide community, financial transparency, and international standards of quality assessment allied with competitive grants.
More warning bells were sounded early this year in a report from Thomson Reuters, which showed a slump in international publications by Russian scientists since the end of the Soviet Union (Science, 5 February, p. 631). Russia peaked at 29,000 papers in 1994 but was down to 22,000 by 2006—a period during which countries such as China and India dramatically increased their production of scientific papers. In the 5 years from 2004 to 2008, Russia produced just 2.6% of all the world's published papers, less than China (8.4%), Canada (4.7%), and Australia (3.0%).
“This is a delicate question for us. It's a cultural issue,” says Fursenko. Some Russian researchers publish only in Russian-language journals out of a sense of national pride. Fursenko says the decline in publications tracked by Thomson Reuters reflects a division between Russian researchers who publish in international journals and those who think this is beneath them—or just can't be bothered.
Indeed, many in RAS are hostile to international journals and attempts to quantify research productivity based on them. Science “is an ephemeral thing; it's hard to evaluate it. That's why certain contrivances were introduced,” Mikhail Kovalchuk, director of the Kurchatov Institute, said at a Moscow press conference in September. “The creation of the citation index, of a journal's impact factor, was a strong commercial project from which people earned billions of dollars. … There's enormous money and national interests behind it. … That's why we must make our own rating system and not impose alien ones.”
The government has begun to address the health of basic research by boosting science at universities rather than at RAS. Under the Soviet system, universities were primarily teaching institutions and they generally lacked research facilities. Over the past year or so, the government has launched several programs to boost university science, including a new status of “national research university” (of which there are now 40, including Moscow State), a competition for infrastructure grants, and a fund for industry to sponsor research projects by university groups.
The flagship effort is the megagrants program to attract topflight researchers to set up in Russian universities. Fursenko says the awardees were selected according to international standards based on publications and research excellence, and almost 1000 experts—600 of them from outside Russia—were consulted. “It'll be interesting to see what happens with this project,” says Moscow State's Khokhlov. “Ideologically, this is a new thing in Russia. I support this type of funding.”
More than 500 researchers applied to the program. Among the 40 winners announced in October, 20 are Russians, 15 of them living abroad. There will be a call for a second round of grants later in the year. “It seems that the competition was more or less fair,” says one of the winners, evolutionary biologist Alexey Kondrashov of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “I know personally eight out of the 40 winners, and they are all serious scientists. … Thus, one can expect a beneficial impact [on Russian science].”
An academic question
All this support for university research begs the question, what is the government doing about RAS? The academy still carries out the vast majority of Russia's basic research, but its 50,000 employees must struggle on with government funding of just $1.6 billion per year—less than $30,000 per person—to pay for salaries, equipment, and materials. (RAS does have other sources of funding, including rental income from land and buildings.)
To many outsiders, RAS is a relic of a bygone age. It retains a rigid hierarchical structure with all-powerful directors and presidium at its peak. Funding is handed down by influential academicians and institute directors. Reputations, rather than publications, are key. As a result, critics say, RAS continues to support a large number of unproductive researchers and institutes. “Too much depends on academic rank, and there is no transparency,” says Khokhlov, who is himself an academician at RAS. “Once organized, labs exist forever. There is no procedure to close the old and open new. The system has to be more flexible.”
So far, the government has not seriously interfered in the running of the academy, although the two have periodically fought over control of RAS's valuable real estate holdings. “The RAS is an independent body,” says Fursenko. Still, in 2007 the government persuaded RAS to agree that any changes to its charter had to be approved by both a general meeting of RAS and the Russian government. Any new RAS director similarly now needs the approval of both bodies. “These changes were accepted by academy members as reasonable, since the academy is a state organization,” says Eugene Sverdlov of the Institute of Molecular Genetics and an adviser to RAS.
In May this year, Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, addressed a general meeting of RAS and hinted at bigger changes on the horizon. “The Russian Academy of Sciences … cannot shy away from the modernization agenda,” he said. “Internal transformations … in the system of the Russian Academy of Sciences are considered to be a matter of paramount importance. These will enable improved quality of R&D projects.” If that wasn't clear enough, Putin drove home his point: “These plans should be implemented by identifying the leading institutions through open and transparent proposals, rather than by bureaucratic procedures or by the preference of an official.”
Such statements make researchers who view RAS as a bastion of basic science in Russia nervous. “The RAS has enjoyed independence even in the most difficult times. Science cannot be administered too much; it needs independence to produce results,” says Khokhlov.
Nevertheless, the majority of scientists who spoke with Science felt that RAS is in need of reform. For some, the most pressing problem is to clear out the dead wood. “To improve science in Russia, … [we must] perform an audit of all research groups to support the productive ones and to close the dead ones,” says Georgiev. Sverdlov says that RAS had a rule that institute directors could serve no longer than 10 years and should retire at the age of 70, but the rule was abandoned in 2007. He urges his colleagues to adhere to the rule voluntarily. RAS should “allow young, active, ambitious Ph.D.s to take the positions of institute directors, provided that they are able to offer a long-term development program for the institute,” he says.
Another model for changing RAS is its molecular and cell biology (MCB) program, one area of the academy's activities in which peer review is used to select the best projects and young researchers are given academic freedom (see sidebar, p. 1040). Yet, despite its many fans, RAS cut funding to the MCB program deeply this year.
A future dynasty?
There are few alternatives to RAS funding for Russia's researchers. RFBR remains a relatively small player. International funders have faded away. But perhaps as a sign of things to come, at least one of Russia's new superrich entrepreneurs has set up a private foundation to support research. In Soviet times, Dmitry Zimin worked on anti-ballistic missile systems. He later founded what became one of Russia's biggest telecommunications companies. In 2000, he sold off his interest in the company to devote himself to philanthropy and created the Dynasty Foundation. “The aim is to support young, talented people,” says Dynasty Executive Director Anna Piotrovskaya.
Each year, Dynasty awards competitive 3-year grants to as many as 130 young theoretical physicists and mathematicians, allowing them to keep working in Russia. The disciplines were deliberately chosen as ones that didn't have high lab costs, but the foundation plans to move soon into biology, chemistry, and earth sciences. As well as supporting researchers, Dynasty gives grants every year to 500 high school science teachers, organizes public lectures, runs a popular science Web site, and supports the publication of popular science books. This year, when the MCB program's budget was cut, Dynasty helped with grants to 50 young biologists the program had identified. “We try not to work with the academy. Funds just disappear,” Piotrovskaya says. The MCB program, she adds, “is the only program that is done transparently.”
The past decade has seen definite progress in Russian science: Researchers get a living wage, there are pockets of excellent science, and, at least in applied research, the government is backing up words with funds. But for those eager for reform who are still battling against the structures and privileges of an outdated system, it must seem like waiting for a glacier to melt before the river underneath can flow again. “Sooner or later the majority of [RAS] members will understand that the only way to restore funding is through real changes. Preserving the status quo, or making cosmetic changes, is not a practical position,” says Khokhlov.
Some, however, argue that reforming RAS is a lost cause. “It's very hard to attack anything [in Russia] that is a totem of the Soviet system,” says Guriev. “We should leave the RAS as it is. Put all new money into research competitions (open to academicians as well), new structures, and the universities.” Like many others, Guriev says competitively awarded funding is the key. “Once you decide you want to judge people by international academic publications and use international expertise, it becomes very transparent. It's not rocket science; others countries have done it.”
Others see a long struggle to regain the opportunities that have passed by Russian researchers. Says nuclear physicist Yuri Oganessian of JINR: “We've lost a generation. A gap exists. There was quite a long period when science was not a prestigious job. It's now coming back, but it takes time.”
↵* With reporting by Jennifer Carpenter, Andrey Allakhverdov, and Vladimir Pokrovsky.
- Interview: Andrei Fursenko
University Research Should Compete With Russian Academy, Science Minister Argues
- Daniel Clery
Minister of Education and Science Andrei Fursenko met with Science at the ministry's imposing Tverskaya Street headquarters in September to discuss how Russia plans to reinvigorate its research base.
The collapse of the Soviet Union led to hard times for Russian research, but the administrations of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev have been trying to prioritize science again. The government has invested billions in nanotechnology through a state corporation called Rusnano and is developing a high-tech hothouse in the Moscow suburb of Skolkovo. But it has had to struggle against significant legacies: industries that are more interested in exploiting natural resources than developing new products; a fiercely independent Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) that's resistant to change; and a university system more geared to churning out large numbers of graduates than carrying out research.
Minister of Education and Science Andrei Fursenko met with Science at the ministry's imposing Tverskaya Street headquarters in September to discuss how Russia plans to reinvigorate its research base. The interview, conducted before Russia announced the initial winners of its new university-based research grants (see main text, p. 1036), has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q:What's the status of your new program to attract top international researchers to set up groups at Russian universities?
A.F.:We have more than 500 proposals—300 from Russian citizens, around 170 from foreign citizens, and a few tens from researchers with dual nationality. We have had to make some compromises: We had hoped that the scientists would spend half the year in Russia, but after discussions with overseas universities [where some applicants work], we have reduced that to 4 months, a semester.
We're now in the process of selection, and it's our first experience of this in Russia. Every proposal is examined by four experts in that field, two Russian and two foreign. If their opinions diverge, then we get another two experts. The opinions are then sent to a grant council of distinguished Russian scientists, academicians mainly—people with a recognized stature in different areas and a serious international reputation. The council members are approved by the government.
Q:This program specifically targets research money at Russian universities. Is it your policy to move toward a “research university” model?
A.F.:There are a few reasons behind this move towards universities. The first is the need for a really competitive environment in Russian science. The Russian Academy of Sciences is much stronger than any other institutions. Even after the last 20 years, it has no real competition.
Secondly, you have to build a scientific environment in a place where there are more young people: the universities. There are some good links between the RAS and universities, but to improve the participation of young people [in research], you have to improve their scientific environment.
And thirdly, a professor not involved in scientific inquiry is not a real professor. A university with no research is not a real university. We have to select carefully the leading research universities and support them.
We are engaged in a process of very serious reconstruction of higher education. We had a competition for the new status of “national research university.” We had a competition for funds for innovative infrastructure for universities and for joint research projects with industry. This is absolutely a new approach for Russia.
Q:In a letter to President Medvedev last year, émigré Russian scientists described basic research in the country as “catastrophic” and warned of a “looming collapse.” Is Russia neglecting basic research?
A.F.:I wouldn't say that basic research in Russia in general are “catastrophic,” and I think some Russian scientists doing world-class research will support me. But obviously the Soviet Union gave much more in this area. Huge manpower was devoted to basic research, and those scientists are now spread around the world. That approach produced good results in a totalitarian regime, but it's not appropriate in a democracy. Now when I talk to RAS colleagues, I tell them that it's taxpayers' money, [and] we have to explain why it is better to spend it on research and what research is needed.
It's a very complicated problem, how to distribute money. We are introducing new mechanisms to support basic research. Only a small part of the RAS's programs, for example, the molecular and cell biology program, is now competitively funded. Then there is the Russian Foundation for Basic Research, a successful grant-distributing institution. During the worldwide economic problems, there was limited money, and other ministries wanted to contract [RFBR]. But it is safe for this year and next. But [basic science funding] can't all be competitive. Some money has to go to the most distinguished institutions and researchers.
Q:The government's nanotechnology initiative seems to be trying to create a whole new industry in a few years. How is it progressing?
A.F.:Russia has some background in nanotechnology. Material science and instrumentation were both strong in the Soviet Union.
Rusnano is a new institution, independent from government and independent of the budget process. It may not be the best way to do it, but it's a new tool for Russians, and we have to reconstruct our applied research. We're creating new centers of attraction. Because of the demand for ideas, it is providing motivation for researchers and young people. Interest among young people in research is increasing. Ten years ago, students thought those studying science were losers. Now that's changed.
Q:And is the Skolkovo center also an attempt to foster innovation by bringing research and industry together?
A.F.:We need to simultaneously push innovation in Russia and get existing bodies to improve. We need real competition. Skolkovo is a new challenge for young people and existing structures. They will have a benchmark in Skolkovo. If it works, it can be used more widely, replicated elsewhere.
Q:How do you see Russian science developing in the future?
A.F.:Both basic and applied research as systems need to be more diverse, with a greater degree of competition. In basic research, we need more international cooperation. I'd like to see two or three leading international research centers in Russia. And we need greater integration between research and education, not only in moving research closer to higher education but in making greater use of RAS researchers in training master's students as well as Ph.D.s and postdocs. The academy should be involved in this.
Uncertain Future for Academy's Biology Experiment
- Daniel Clery
Ask anyone familiar with the Russian Academy of Sciences how the organization can be reformed so that it funds the best researchers, rather than those with the best connections, and the discussion quickly turns to the efforts of Georgii Georgiev, who runs the academy's Molecular and Cell Biology program.
Ask anyone familiar with the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) how the organization can be reformed so that it funds the best researchers, rather than those with the best connections, and the discussion quickly turns to the efforts of Georgii Georgiev. The former director of the Institute of Gene Biology in Moscow, Georgiev founded and runs the academy's Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB) program. Since 2003, MCB has awarded grants to groups based on their scientific track record, and it has provided the chosen research teams with enough freedom and money to pursue what they deem interesting. Georgiev is “trying to establish an open and transparent system,” says molecular biologist Peter Becker of the University of Munich in Germany, who has peer reviewed for the program.
The MCB program is widely recognized to have raised the quality of Russia's research in molecular and cell biology. But it is something of a radical experiment for the conservative RAS, and it has faced opposition from within the academy. Its 2010 budget was slashed from about $8 million to $6 million, ostensibly because of government spending cuts. “It's a clear sign that [the RAS leadership] don't like it, which is bad news for everyone,” says economist Sergei Guriev of Moscow's New Economic School.
When a research group applies for funds from MCB, the assessment starts with a look at the impact factors of papers the group has published in international journals over the previous 5 years. The results are weighted depending on how great the group's contribution to the paper was. About 25 top groups are chosen in this way in each 5-year funding round, and the leaders of those research teams then review other applications. They look for measures of quality in addition to the group's publication record. “The aim was not to miss some important research not adequately published for some reason and to evaluate projects in applied research,” Georgiev says. The program supports about 100 groups for 5 years with a maximum award of $130,000 per year.
Between 2003 and 2009, the 100 groups chosen in the first funding round published 2000 papers in international peer-reviewed journals, including Cell, Genes & Development, and Nature—an impressive rate in an academy in which many researchers don't publish in international journals at all. According to Georgiev, the program is open to Russian émigrés, and it has encouraged some to return to Russia.
Many would like to see MCB's approach extended to other areas of RAS. “It should be duplicated” throughout the academy, says Anna Piotrovskaya, director of the Dynasty Foundation, a private funder that stepped in to support 50 young researchers when MCB funding was cut this year. “It would change significantly the atmosphere in the academy,” says physicist Alexei Khokhlov, vice-rector of Moscow State University, who is also an academician at RAS. “Many academicians, including myself, proposed it several times, but I'm not so sure all members would agree with me.”
The RAS presidium originally set up similar programs in 16 different fields back in 2003, but MCB is the only one that really took hold, in part because of Georgiev's fervent belief in its approach. “The RAS should … show the ability to change. It has to increase the amount of transparent competitive funding and to perform an audit of all research groups,” he says.
Yet when the government cut the RAS budget by 10% this year, Georgiev says, the MCB program “was reduced more strongly by the RAS” than other programs. Researchers in Russia, and elsewhere, are hoping this is just a temporary setback. “Georgiev needs international support to make a point against the establishment. It's an uphill battle,” says Becker.