Humboldtians in Focus

Going Back Is Not So Certain

By Natalia Kononenko

What urges Russian junior scientists and scholars to go abroad.

I am certainly not the first one to write about the problems of science and the humanities in today's Russia. The brain drain, inadequate infrastructure, the power that the old scientists and scholars still wield, corruption in the authorities and a lack of cash - the international scientific community is only too familiar with all of these topics. Interestingly enough, talented young Russian scientists and scholars often do very well abroad. This may be good for the West, but it poses a real problem for Russia. Why do so few of these researchers return to Russia? Compared to conditions abroad, science and the humanities in Russia above all suffer from the strict separation of research institutions from universities. In Russia, pure research is carried out mainly at the Academy of Sciences, which has no money and would be regarded as bankrupt according to Western standards. The universities are almost wholly occupied with teaching instead of research, and the curricula more or less represent a continuation of school lessons.

“Young, creative academics are not seen as a national asset, and their prospects in the bureaucratic academic system tend to be gloomy.”

In today's Russia, it is rare for a university in a provincial town to be able to hold its own in financial terms when competing with giants such as the universities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. My own institution, Kaliningrad State University, which has since been renamed the Immanuel Kant State University of Russia, is no exception in this respect. Staffing levels and equipment at the natural science institutes are so poor that I had to complete the experimental part of my doctorate abroad. This was why I left Russia and went to Berlin's Free University as a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) grant-holder. There is nothing I would have desired more than to conduct my experiments in my department. But nowhere on the horizon was there any support for my acquiring the apparatus or material that I would have needed during my postgraduate studies. I would not have been able to attend a single scientific congress, and neither the chemicals (not even pure alcohol!) that I would have required for the experiments nor financial support on the part of my university for reprints of articles from foreign specialist journals were available.

On returning to Kaliningrad, I had to present my doctoral thesis at an institute meeting in which the Dean's most important question was, "Ms. Kononenko, why did you actually leave Kaliningrad?" Nobody was interested in the results I had attained during my stay abroad. Instead, as though it were a punishment for going abroad, I was denied a signature that was needed to defend my thesis, as required, before the Academy of Sciences. Only after lengthy disputes and with the support of colleagues did I succeed in clearing the bureaucratic hurdles and successfully defending my thesis.

Taking the initiative is regarded as reprehensible

Today, more than ever, the pressing question arises how young Russian researchers can be encouraged to pursue their careers and above all, how they can find employment. Taking the initiative is still regarded as reprehensible in this country. Young, creative academics are not seen as a national asset, and their prospects in the bureaucratic academic system tend to be gloomy. Many of the civil servants at Immanuel Kant University still come from old communist times when intimidation and the unlimited exercising of power were the rule of the day. They simply do not know how to lead and, at the same time, still allow discussions to which everyone can contribute his or her ideas.

Of course, experienced, more senior researchers deserve respect and support. But only if they owe their position to their academic achievements. In addition, our research requires new blood if it is to thrive. In times when Russian government officials are obviously worried about the future of Russian science and devising plans for improvements, the difficulties that accompanied my short career at Kaliningrad State University ought to be the exception rather than the rule. At least, this should be hoped for.

As a Russian academic, one is often asked, "Are you going abroad?" As my experience has demonstrated, one can assume that one will not be doing oneself a favour by answering "yes". It is sad to have to admit that one's own country is incapable of promoting and making use of its professional resources, that it does not rely on its own young people and denies them the opportunity to achieve things their home country could be proud of. One can only hope that, in a few years' time, the young academic asked about going abroad will be able to reply, "No, why should I?"


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Natalia Kononenko Natalia Kononenko

Dr. Natalia L. Kononenko is a biologist from Russia. Her own institute is the Balaton Limnological Research Institute at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Tihany. Since July 2006, she has been at the Free University of Berlin's Institute of Neurobiology as a Humboldt Research Fellow.

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