Monthly Archives: January 2012

Thoughts on Russian science and biotic pump prompted by a Washington Post article

A colleague from the U.S. shared the following link to a Washington Post article about Russian science: In Russia, the lost generation of science

The article by Will Euglund is fairly objective and highlights some major problems in Russian Science. The discussion that followed with over a hundred comments is perhaps even more entertaining. E.g., reader smithj2 bitterly complained:

Mr. Euglund understates the problem. The Ministry of Education and Science and leading research universities and institutes are also a major source of the problem. So few senior scientists in Russia conduct proper science that it is not just the 1990 to 2010 generation that is lost but also those educated in the 1970s and 1980s who no longer produce crediable scientific work. Corruption is widespread and deeply embedded. The concept of peer review is nonexistant. Having worked both in the US from 1994 to 2004 and now in Russia at top research university from 2004 to the present I can tell you from an insiders perspective that in general Russian science is lost to a sea of corruption and backroom deals.

The fact that Russian scientists do not publish in English and can not work in English is the source of the problem. They remain isolated from the general trends in scientific work.

It is interesting to compare this insider’s view with the following two comments made by readers in response to Mr. Euglund’s question

As the writer of this article, I’d like to ask — do scientists in the U.S. (and other countries) feel they have more control over their professional lives than Russian scientists do? And if so, how can Russia head in that direction?

Reader woodyag observed

I work as an “independent scholar” in the US; I’ve also worked in China, years ago. As an outsider when I visit and speak at universities, the insiders see me as a shoulder to cry on- and cry they do. I have horror stories from the top US institutions to match anything you have from Russia; though the twists tend to be different.

The biggest problem (my opinion) in the west is scientific “inflation”. How do we get so many papers published? By far the easiest way is – publish crap, lots of it. It has become a corrupt process; “you peer-review my crap, and I’ll peer review yours“. This goes on constantly, and has now reached the point where those publishing even at the highest levels don’t even KNOW it’s crap.

A specific case in point: this article in the Proceedings of the National Academy recently got headlines in science sections from the NYT to the BBC:

My fellow evolutionary scientists simply read that with jaws dropped. …

martini137 added another angle:

Will, I have been a scientist in the USA most of my adult life. I am now retired. I have much contact with Russian and other Eastern Bloc scientists. They can publish non-plate tectonic geophysics, non-big bang cosmology, non-general relativity gravity, non-quantum chromodynamic particle theory, and non-Darwin evolution. Try that in this country and see what happens to your career. All of my major papers were published abroad. We have more to learn from Russian scientists than they have to learn from us.

To synthesize:

(1) peer-review is non-existent in Russia; Russian scientists do not publish in international journals and remain isolated from general research trends (smithj2);
(2) western scientists publish a lot because “you peer-review my crap, and I peer-review yours” (woodyag);
(3) Russian scientists can publish what they wish not looking at the “conventional wisdom” (martini137);

While of course none of these statements is 100% true, and the percentage of their correspondence to reality is different between the three of them, the comments are meaningful. On the one hand, when you are certain that you are going in the right direction, it is good to have an efficient peer-review system. It helps quickly isolate the crackpots that would otherwise pollute the information space and interfere with the scientific march to progress.

On the other hand, when you do not actually know where to go (or worse yet, when you increasingly suspect that you may be driving in a totally unreasonable direction as is the case, for example, with the numerical global climate modeling), the same peer-review system and the same strategy “publish much, publish well” become at best counter-productive and at worst suicidal. Science is a social enterprise. Scientific research can go in any direction, including those with zero or negative outcome, fostered by competition and prestige ranking in a group of professionals. The stricter those social rules are, the more inert the scientific community becomes. The more inert the community, the larger the cost of mistakes any community inevitably commits in choosing the direction of research.

Changing a research direction is perhaps the most painful activity that a scientist can be involved in. It entails a long period when one does not produce anything but is evaluating multiple directions, setting the intellectual stage of future work within himself, making the first shy steps forward and backward again. In the meantime, his fellows continue to “publish much, publish well”. Social rating of the potential innovator slides down enhancing nervous tension that steals from productivity. Worse, when the researcher ultimately comes forward with a first paper, chances that he receives encouragement from his fellows that are all streaming in an opposite direction, are minimal. He will be unable to publish at all. As a researcher commented, his papers would

suggest that all the other investigators working in this field have been “missing the boat” for many years. Quite frankly, it is a bit insulting, and that has probably contributed to some of the resistance you’ve met.

So, were it true what smithj2, woodyag and martinil37 say about Russia versus the west, our scientists should be producing lots of crap (whatever the latter is defined). At the same time, one should not be surprised at conceptual breakthroughs coming from our country rather then from elsewhere. This especially pertains to theoretical research, where the expensive dependence on equipment (an Achilles heal of modern Russian science) is minimal. When one’s salary (whatever high or low) is largely decoupled from how much and where one publishes, one can afford more time to actually doing science.

Russian Spring. The voices of bog

In the end of 2011 we marked ten years of the biotic regulation presence in the Internet. To celebrate this occasion we are happy to share with our readers our record of a Russian spring symphony. Have you ever heard what happens on a northern bog in spring? You are welcome to listen. These voices have been there for several millions of years (the average species lifetime).