In Russia, an ongoing battle for the future of science

Moscow Lomonosov State University, aerial view. Image by I.s.kopytov, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Moscow Lomonosov State University, aerial view. Image by I.s.kopytov, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

This analysis article by Anna Rara-Avis appeared on OpenDemocracy on December 15, 2021. It is republished as part of a content-sharing partnership and has been edited to fit the GV style.

In an attempt to improve the life of Russian universities, the government and the ministry of education are creating new projects and programmes, issuing more orders, introducing additional rules and releasing new grants. Just two or three more government decisions, it seems, and we will find ourselves on target: Russian universities and scientific institutions will break into the international rankings, and attract the world’s leading professors and students.

But something is going wrong. Experts usually say that underfunding is the main problem for science and education in Russia. As UNESCO recently noted, the share of Russian state spending on science has declined in recent years: it was 1.07 percent of Russia’s GDP in 2014, but 0.99 percent in 2018. While there are plans to raise spending (to 1.2 percent of GDP by 2024), Russia’s state audit chamber notes that countries with developed scientific and technological capacities spend more than 3 percent.

But there is another problem that is fundamentally hampering Russian science, and it is barely mentioned. A serious lack of freedom of speech hampers the work of Russian researchers and university staff.

‘Syndrome of public silence’

Polls asking whether people are afraid to express their opinion in public happen rarely in Russia. But in a country where hundreds are prosecuted every year for making political statements online or taking part in protests, such data can be illuminating.

The last high-profile study on this topic was published in 2016 by the polling organisation Levada Center. A quarter of respondents (26 percent, of which 6 percent were ‘definite’) said they were afraid to express their views on the state of affairs in Russia in opinion polls, 23 percent in conversations with colleagues, and 17 percent with relatives and friends.

The majority of respondents (56 percent) explained their wary attitude to polls by citing possible negative consequences for themselves. It’s difficult to say how this dynamic has changed as there has been no further research, but political scientist Margarita Zavadskaya has argued that “caution” is “the new norm of social behaviour” in Russian society.

Russia’s so-called “syndrome of public silence” applies not only to the ‘average citizen’, but also to the country’s universities. Even staff who are supposed to communicate directly and openly with different audiences (for example, vice-rectors who need to work with students) prefer to minimise public discussions and not express their opinion.

Yet teachers are silent not only in the classroom. They are also quiet in administration meetings, academic councils and surveys conducted by senior management – and even on social media. It is deemed appropriate to share information about your successes and achievements, but unacceptable to talk about problems or to criticise management decisions.

To an extent, Russian academia’s public silence is the result of university regulations on the principles of professional conduct. These can restrict or shape comments made in public by employees (including on social media). Universities can write these regulations in different ways, but, in general, the main argument is that a university should focus on science and leave politics alone.

Thus, the head of the Russian Presidential Human Rights Council, Valery Fadeev, believes that banning students and employees of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics from making public statements, including signing open letters, is not a restriction on freedom of speech. According to Fadeev, this ban is only “an attempt to minimise politicisation and attacks” on the university, which is ranked among the top 25 in the world, and has found itself at the centre of political scandals in recent years.

However, these regulations are not always prohibitive. University staff often engage in self-censorship. In November, I surveyed members of a Facebook group dedicated to Russian higher education issues (with almost 10,000 members). I asked an open-ended question similar to the one that was asked by the Levada Center in 2016: “Do you think your colleagues, representatives of the field of science and education, are afraid to publicly express their views on the current situation in the country?”

This is the answer that received the most ‘likes’:

Definitely yes. You’re always looking over your shoulder when you write your opinion on a particular issue. It is not even discussed. It’s really scary to write and you can’t write the whole truth. This is due to the general political situation in the country. Nobody wants to go to prison for approving of someone’s opinion or expressing your own. It’s also about a lack of understanding of the rules of the game, what can and what can’t be said. Even to write this post now is scary…

Other responses included:

It seems to me that before Perestroika [the wave of economic and political change that swept the Soviet Union during the 1980s] it was easier. The rules of the game were much clearer. To criticise the authorities in public was simply prohibited. But now it’s not clear, sometimes you read [a post online] – and think, surely this person will go to prison. And sometimes you find out that someone just ‘liked’ some silly post online and now they’re being prosecuted.

One commenter noted:

After the collapse of the judicial system in January/February this year [following countrywide protests against the jailing of opposition politician Alexey Navalny], I stopped expressing my opinion in public, since you can be jailed even for reposting a joke.

Another group member said:

We don’t have any opposition people at our university. But we do see the opposite. There are some teachers (obviously ‘plants’) who discuss how good it was in the Soviet Union or how bad the US is with students. And they do it very aggressively, to the point where students sometimes make complaints about them.

Cautious people

This kind of extreme caution hinders the development of Russian society. Views, ideas and opinions that could be expressed by educated, intelligent people and conveyed to the general public fail to find their audience. Those who used to be called ‘the elite’, those who used to shape public opinion, are forced to remain silent.

It is not entirely clear why representatives of the humanities, sociologists, political scientists – whose tasks include a critical understanding of reality – are needed in Russian society any more. But it is no easier for those who work in the technical sciences, where people have been accused of disclosing state secrets.

Russian academics’ silence is also bound up with their increasingly precarious employment status. First, people on short-term contracts – a common feature – may find that their contracts are simply not renewed. Grounds for dismissal are usually tied to formal indicators, but they are also a convenient tool for putting pressure on employees who indulge in excessive freedom of speech or acts of political solidarity.

Second, precarious employment is characterised by weak social protection. In most Russian universities, if you lose your job, you are threatened with long-term loss of employment. When there is only one university in a city, it is almost impossible to move jobs – unless you change your career trajectory by getting a job in a completely different profession. Income is unstable: at most universities, the grounds for paying bonuses are extremely volatile and not always realistic. A quote from our survey illustrates this well:

Now it is very dangerous to say what you think, how things really are. In universities, external approval does not mean anything. People are just really afraid. Losing a job now in some cities, especially small and medium-sized ones, is almost equivalent to physical death.

One consequence of this insecurity is that university staff will acquiesce to unreasonable demands, such as the number of academic publications, and don’t make the slightest attempt to defend their rights. Some universities, along with the need to publish a certain number of articles, have also introduced citation requirements. At the beginning of the academic year, employees must declare how many times their articles will be mentioned in other publications over the next 12 months. It is not uncommon for university staff to add the name of their rector to all their scientific publications. As a result, staff fake scientific publications, scientific citations – science in general  without offering any resistance to these unethical practices.

Unfortunately, in pursuit of quantity over quality of publications, Russian universities regularly reward their employees with bonus payments for almost any violation of ethics: for plagiarism; for articles that are, in fact, rubbish; and for articles they have bought online. A researcher can simulate publication activity in a variety of ways, and in most cases this practice will be supported, because universities have to report back to government ministries on their publication numbers.

The lack of freedom of expression also makes it impossible to express professional solidarity. The recent arrest of Sergey Zuev – rector at the Moscow School for Social and Economic Sciences, a leading sociological centre – showed that it’s not just brave and respectable people who can express public support in difficult situations. It’s also whether you have enough status to protect yourself.

External constraints and self-censorship are not the only reasons that university staff cannot afford to express solidarity; they’re in a vulnerable position where their main challenge is to keep their jobs. As a result, they look unkindly at those who call for change, because even the little that they have will be taken away.

Managers rejoice at having these kinds of subordinates. There’s no whining, no criticism, just continuous approval, and, if you don’t delve into what is going on, there is an appearance of activity. This is how the management cycle is formed: cautious people recruit cautious people to work for them, and caution becomes the main ‘value’ in higher education.

Public procurement, grants and other vulnerabilities

One way to reduce the precariousness of scientific work is through reliable and transparent funding – preferably from different sources. However, many foreign foundations have been forced to leave Russia, and cooperation with those that remain carries risks – you could obtain funding and then be declared a “foreign agent”. This means that the current system of public procurement and grants only increases the dependence of university staff on the Russian authorities. Our survey responses echo these findings:

I know about a real case when a professor went to a rally, and the ministry decided to stop funding a grant he was working on (note: as part of a team of scientists). To discourage others.

It is worth mentioning Russia’s system of state procurement in science and education, specifically for research and development and analytical reports – which tend to not have clear final assessment results. The final assessment often comes down to the opinion of an expert, where the word of one expert can be put against the word of another. This makes these kinds of contracts prone to corruption, as it is unclear which ‘experts’ can be trusted – and a police investigation usually decides (based on their own ‘expertise’). In such cases, corruption investigations are immediately initiated, often leading to the arrest of university staff on suspicion of embezzlement.

Indeed, it seems that grants and public procurement are gradually becoming a lever of pressure. Scientific work is now organised so that it is not possible to receive foreign grants, only Russian state grants and state tenders – and taking them makes you a hostage.

Is change for the better possible? Undoubtedly. We must start with the decriminalisation of disputes relating to public procurement and grants; a tolerant attitude towards freedom of speech; and an increase in the status of scientists in our country, and their social protection. To achieve this, political will is needed, but also courage, and a willingness to look not only at reports, but also at facts.

As long as the Russian government is afraid of science and tries to force it to remain silent, science in Russia will not advance. To raise Russian science and education to positions of global prominence, we need people who can adapt and survive, but also people with their own opinions, secure in their knowledge and self-esteem. We don’t need people who waste their potential on generating unnecessary reports and faking scientific activity.

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