Friday, March 26, 2021

Moscow’s Claims Notwithstanding, Brain Drain Continues Unabated

Paul Goble

            March 24 – Arkady Dvorkovich, the head of the Skolkovo Foundation, recently said that Russian scholars who left the country in the 1980s and 1990s are returning. Some indeed are, but this is not a massive trend yet, even if the situation looks somewhat better than it did 20 years ago, Yelena Ivanova and Natalya Seybil say.

            The two Novyye izvestiya journalists spoke with several leading Russian scholars both in the Russian Federation and abroad and concluded that there are far more factors involved than just better pay in the West, usual assumptions notwithstanding (

            Academician Aleksandr Kuleshov, rector of Skoltekh, says that Russian scholars are “not returning,” and Moscow biologist Konstant Severinov says that the situation is far worse in places other than Skoltekh and thus current exodus and worse non-return are even worse than they appear to its rector.

            A German-Russian research project found that between 1996 and 2020, the number of Russian scholars who left the country and did not return vastly exceeded those who did. The largest number left in 2001, and the greatest number returned in 2015. But since then fewer have come back (

            Kuleshov says that “the problem is not that scholars leave.” Rather, “the problem is that they aren’t returning.” Going abroad is normal in scientific work today, but a country that can’t attract its best scholars back not only indicts itself as a failure but ensures that it will be ever less attractive and successful in the future.

            The pursuit of higher salaries is only part of the problem. “Much more important,” he says, “is to receive financing for their research” and the opportunity to interact with a larger number of cutting-edge scholars on a regular basis. And perhaps even  more important, others say, is the difference in tenure arrangements in the two places.

            In Russia, rectors and officials can intervene against scholars almost at will, whereas in Western countries, tenure arrangements make that impossible and thus give researchers the opportunities to explore things over the longer term and act more freely while they are doing so, something critically important for breakthroughs.

            Severinov says that he pushes his best graduate students to go abroad because they will gain experiences there they can’t get in Russia. Some of them come back, but “on the whole, unfortunately, the exodus continues. And this outflow consists of the young and talented,” precisely the people Russia needs.

            “The country is becoming older, poorer, and more stupid, however sad this may be,” he says. Skoltekh is a useful step in the right direction, but to matter, there need to be at least 50 and maybe 100 of them if Russia is going to change direction in this regard.

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