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How to get Russian science moving

The first Russian research centre was established based on the “Kurchatov Institute” National Research Centre. It also includes the B. P. Konstantinov Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences (Gatchina); the Institute for High Energy Physics (Protvono); and the Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics (Moscow). Today, this structure embraces about 10.000 people. Mikhail Kovalchuk, director of the newly-established entity, spoke on the opportunities open for the research centre.


Mikhail Kovalchuk: “The impact factor cannot be perceived as an absolute indicator. For example, CERN employs 1.000 people while their work results in one article. Does it really mean that they don’t work hard enough and waste the money spent on them?”

The development program for the Research Centre (RC) spanning three years sets priorities for each institute which is a world-renowned brand, emphasises Kovalchuk. The Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute will be the head organisation for the development of neutron research; the Institute for High Energy Physics will serve as a centre for proton research; and the Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics is in charge for research concerning heavy ions and nuclear medicine. The Kurchatov Institute deals with the field of thermonuclear physics and supports research for nuclear power engineering. It also operates in the principally new area of convergent sciences (for additional information, see the article “The Science Matrix with Mikhail Kovalchuk”).

“Any kind of development always means consolidation, integration of potentials. That is the purpose of the Research Centre, — says Mikhail Kovalchuk. — On the one hand, we will be able to employ the complete innovation chain based on this centre, from idea to product implementation; and on the other hand, this means the creation of some pool for mega-science development — that is, for research using large unique equipment. And the fact of utmost importance is that we are going not only to use that equipment but also to built new equipment as well.”


Why was the research centre based on the Kurchatov Institute? The fact was criticised repeatedly. For example, the final statement published after the June conference for Russian scientists working abroad said that the Kurchatov Institute had been entertaining special capabilities and funds while the number of scientific publications by its employees had seen no increase.

“These talks are absolutely groundless provided they are taken them seriously and not speculatively, — said Mikhail Kovalchuk. – In the times of the Soviet Union, there existed a huge nuclear and physics potential, the institutes belonged to various jurisdictions but it really did not matter within the Soviet administrative system as they had the great and powerful Ministry of Medium Machine Building that used to fund and coordinate the work of all institutes. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the Ministry disappeared, and the Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation became a commercial company, the coordinating role of the state and the scientific community ceased to exist and each institute turned into a shop earning money any way it could. Therefore, the government made the only natural and logically understandable step to strengthen its potential.”

The impact factor cannot be perceived as an absolute indicator, says Kovalchuk. For example, CERN employs 1.000 people while their work results in one article. Does it really mean that they don’t work hard enough and waste the money spent on them? As for the Kurchatov Institute and the citation index of its employees, the real problem is that the institute is perceived under three distinct names. If all of the publications under those names could be counted together it would result in one of the highest citation ratings in the country, clarifies Kovalchuk.

“Science is a ephemeral subject which is hard to evaluate. This is why the indexes were created that present enormous amounts of money and national interests,” says Kovalchuk

“Publishing an article in a prestigious journal is a special task. We need to not only penetrate our way into international magazines and ratings but also create our own indexing system and Russian Nature and to promote it to the level where it could have a similar impact factor.”


The head of the Kurchatov Institute told us about new equipment that is to be built and deployed at the research centre. That includes, in particular, MARS, a fourth-generation source of synchrotron emission. It will be more powerful than the European ESRF — one of the three most powerful plants in the world — but less high-power as compared to the X-Ray Free Electron Laser that is planned to be created by 2014.

“We need to skip a generation, — says Kovalchuk. — The Kurchatov Institute already possesses a unique synchrotron emission source. However, Russia somewhat lags behind European countries concerning the development of new types of such devices. The new emission source will provide a ‘more quality beam’ the properties of which will be close to those of laser beam.”

Mikhail Kovalchuk also said that the launch the PIK neutron reactor is planned at the Nuclear Physics Institute in the first half of 2011; the reactor construction was started back in the 1970s.

Several years ago, a decision was made to proceed with the construction work; it was planned to provide hundreds of millions of dollars to fund the project. The launch was intended for the spring 2010 but was delayed due to financial issues.

“Currently, the situation is normal and we do not face financial problems. It is necessary to note that this is a highly radiation-dangerous object so it will have to be tested and an authorisation of the Federal Service for Ecological, Technological and Nuclear Supervision must be granted,” added Kovalchuk.

The PIK high flux beam reactor will serve as a unique source of super-intensive neutrons. It will be able to provide a neutrons flow of 1015 neutron per second per square centimetre, and the density of the flow in the so-called central channel is going to be 5х1015. Similar flow density is provided only by three reactors worldwide, two in the US and one in Europe (L'Institut Laue-Langevin, France).

The plant is supposed to serve as an X-ray machine of a kind. A neutron beam will “examine” samples of various materials but unlike X-rays it will penetrate much deeper and ensure much higher detailed resolution. In addition, a neutron beam is capable to “see” the substances transparent for X-rays such as hydrogen which will allow to study biological molecules and polymers.


Mikhail Kovalchuk noted that ambitious plans are impossible to carry out with equipment only. That required people. According to the head of the institute, this country still has the potential acquired during previous years. Moreover, some scientists working at foreign research centres still represent Russia there.

“As for the question of brain drain, we should leave cliches behind. Currently, we have a dynamic balance in place, with some people going and some coming. More than two dozens of scientists have already returned to the Institute,” believes Kovalchuk.

“And they did this on their own accord without any invitation to come back. These people are useful as they worked with the most modern equipment that we did not have at the time; now that we do have it we do not need to spend time and money on training professionals.”

Young scientists are undoubtedly the main target of the Institute, says Kovalchuk. The institute has recently managed to rebuild a special system of departments in various universities. Total of 24 departments were established at the Moscow Power Engineering Institute, the National Research Nuclear University, the Bauman Moscow State Technical University, the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, and others. For example, the first in the world department of Convergent Sciences was established at the Physics department of Moscow State University, with 42 students currently studying there. The important fact is that they both study and work on the premises of the Kurchatov Institute at the Centre for Nano-, Bio-, Information and Cognitive Technologies.

Accommodation presents another issue. “This problem does not have a simple solution, — confessed the Institute director. — We did build a guest house for people to live and work in. We gradually completed the renovation of our hotel and we are now able to invite guests virtually free of charge. Further issue of accommodation construction must be addressed strategically on government level. Local and federal authorities should be in constant contact with each other to propel the development.”


Russian scientists actively participate in large international projects such as CERN, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), European Free-Electron Laser, XFEL and FAIR accelerator based in Darmstadt. The question arises concerning the distribution of the intellectual property rights to the research results.

“The issue has many nuances and therefore is subject to detailed discussions on multiple levels, — reports Kovalchuk. — Usually, several options are present: the rights are divided according to the contributions of the parties involved, or a party can chose its piece in advance.”

Mikhail Kovalchuk also expressed his opinion on developments intended for the defense industry. Truly breakthrough results are impossible without such research as those developments are the only ones to garner sufficient funding and competition levels, believes Kovalchuk. According to him, the end of global confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, and the end of the Cold War brought an end to dramatic development of new technologies, and no breakthrough advances were presented since then. “The competition disappeared and now development is linear,” — says Kovalchuk.

He believes that the development of civil technologies does not provide a significant incentive to create something new whereas the very existence of the state depends on developments in the defense area. “The revival of the military industrial complex provides an important stimulus for science,” — noted Kovalchuk.

An apparent advantage of Skolkovo is that the emergence of the project itself disturbed the balance in the scientific landscape. Scientific environment should change instead of motionless existence, says Kovalchuk. He believes that notwithstanding the fact that the place currently has nothing there, a set of laws exists allowing to establish a company on special terms.


It is an established fact that science must be “run” by a person actually participating in scientific activity. But the opinion of Mikhail Kovalchuk on leading research institutes Is that at the same time, this person should also have managers. He believes that functions are necessary to be divided.

“A scientist should not be engaged in non-core activities. We need a powerful personnel infrastructure that would spare scientists from addressing the problems of cleaning and sweeping. The Crystallography Institute that I have been leading for 15 years does not let its spaces for lease but is does have marble stairways and new equipment. We have scientific management and executive management. Each area has its own duties.”

By Marina Muravyeva for STRF.ru and nanorf.ru

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