All-time record: 27 sci journos flooded Moscow for a Grand Tour through research labs. In times of political tension, they were allowed to take a close look at Russia’s top science & technology departments. Quo vadis – East, West, regulated or free wheeling – or heading towards new horizons?
The locals call it “Stalin Tower”. It reminds of New York’s Empire State Building, however much more empire-style. The colossus is a landmark in the architecture of the Russian capital, 240 m high with 5000 rooms, connected by corridors, which measure many kilometers. Constructed by the dictator in the early 1950’s the premises house the Moscow State University MSU. With 40 000 students, it is the hub of higher education and research in the Russian Federation.
On the 9th floor, the rector Professor Victor Sadovnichy receives the visitors. He speaks about the 260th MSU anniversary next year and the challenges ahead. The top academician leaves no doubt that Moscow considers itself a center of the global research elite, especially with its supercomputing center “Lomonosov”, a “hotspot of Europe’s computing power”, as it is introduced, with a peak performance of 1.7 PFlops, 1015 operations per second.
Sadovnichy is fond of a unique career unmatched in many parts of the world until today. He comes from a lumberjack background. When he describes exciting outlooks, like the construction of a “Technological Valley” with cutting edge science in nano- und biotechnology his voice remains monotonous. In the 20 m high room with gigantic chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, many of the rector’s words are getting lost in echo and translation.
Inside Stalin Tower
High ambitions and a strong desire to gain the world leadership is felt everywhere in the Moscow research community. However many places seem to have encapsulated the atmosphere and may be also the spirit of the 1950s, just like MSU. The hallways are gloomy, all doors are closed, dark-coloured oil paintings feature Soviet pioneer deeds such as the construction of high voltage power lines. Between the art work, photos of highly decorated MSU scientists are scattered with heavy metal on their chests.
But, hey, are visits with presidents and rectors not formal and somewhat dull, all over the world? The next stop compensates for this. It is a jump right into scientific action. At the Institute of Biomedical Problems IBMP, a man on a sort of divan must feel like a hero. Hundreds of pictures are shot, he is filmed and interviewed. The student has been resting there for several days already, motionless and closely monitored by a whole array of medical detectors.
The goal of this and other experiments is to shed light on some of the critical questions of manned space flight. How do cosmonauts and astronauts keep their body, muscles and skeletons in shape during long journeys, with little physical exercise in zero gravitation? And how can depressions and mental disorders be averted during extended periods of isolation?
Sex in Space
The journalists can catch a glimpse of what this means when they climb through the Mars 500 habitat. In very small rooms, a group of men had been living for 520 days, as long as a journey to the Red Planet would take. The experience provides a feeling of what it’s like to be confined to a tight little vehicle in the middle of nowhere. Claustrophobia, was felt, becomes your constant companion.
There are other severe drawbacks of space travel. One is radiation. Our environment beyond its protective atmosphere is highly radioactive, as Soviet research already in the 1950’s demonstrated, especially during solar outbursts. Even if the crew survives a flight to Mars or other planets, it will a one-way ticket. To survive as an extraterrestial colony, the crew requires females who become pregnant and give birth to offspring.
Being asked about correspondent tests in the International Space Station ISS, IBMP director Professor Igor Ushakov becomes vague. “We think about it”, he responds with a not very convincing smile. So far there were various mixed crews on board. But the scientific decision makers prefer to test the fertility of animals. Not with butterflies, prime target of former educational efforts to explain sexuality, but geckos. Unfortunately, admit Ushakov and his colleagues, without success.
Cosmonauts – Still a Man’s World
Right during the study trip the first female cosmonaut to travel to the ISS took off. Yelena Serova is the fourth Russian woman in history to venture into space. She will spend six months in the station. As the liberal Moscow Times acknowledged, women in space have not enjoyed support by the Russian Space Agency, while NASA has sent 40 women into orbit. Soviet Russia but also the Russian Federation, readers may conclude, have fostered a man’s world in space. The last female cosmonaut was almost 20 years ago Yelena Kondakova, the paper reminds along with citations which reveal that she was bullied.
The Moscow visit starts to become very real and exciting at the Space Research Institute. Its museum exhibits an intriguing cross section of Russian space vehicles and technology. It documents that the Soviet Union was a pioneer in space. In 1957, it had sent the first satellite into orbit and caused in Washington the so called “Sputnik Shock”. Only four years later in 1961, Moscow sent the first human, Jury Gagarin into space. Eventually the Cold War culminated in a race to the Moon which the US in 1969 narrowly and very luckily won.
“In Five Years We Return to the Moon”
The director of the institute Professor Dr. Lev Zelenyi underlines in his welcome note that Russia is still good for surprises. Other than his MSU colleague he speaks flawless English and is as agile as quicksilver. Zelenyi knows how to tease the journalists with good stories, wit, and suspense. The new Russia meets the old Soviet Union.
“In five years we return to the moon”, the Space Boss confidently says, either in a joint effort together with other nations or Russia on its own. Three Luna projects have been dedicated to thorough exploration. It includes the search and drilling for valuable resources.
An ExoMars project scheduled for 2016 and 2018, in collaboration with the European Space Agency ESA, will explore the Red Planet and probe for water and geochemical materials as well as atmospheric trace gases. Along with the German Space Agency DLR the tracking of the X-ray sources in the universe will be continued.
Like other colleagues, Zelenyi emphasizes that science helps to bridge the gaps between nations. The sanctions of the US and EU against his country, due to its Ukraine politics and president Putin’s alleged imperial gestures don’t hurt at this point, the space scientist concedes. Germany, for example, remains a reliable ally with many traditional ties, especially in education and space research. With Washington, Moscow stays connected via their ISS co-operation.
“Prostitute of Imperial Science”
It seems, though, as if Moscow has become the leading force in this. The Moscow Times, again, becomes concrete: “ISS Promised Massive Funding Boost”, with 8.2 billion US$ investments for, among others, additional new modules, announces the Sept. 25 front page report.
The current Luna projects are supposed to culminate in 2030 in deploying cosmonauts on the moon, according to the Russian English daily. This could be the start of the colonization of our nearest companion in the solar system which, of course, no official would confirm. After all, Russia seems to be more determined to score in space than the US.
At the next stop the visit takes a sharp turn. It reminds of both, the painful history and the controversial presence. Dr. Alexander Kudryavtsev takes the group on a tour through the Nikolay Vavilov Memorial Museum. Vavilov was an internationally highly esteemed biologist, even a member of the British Royal Society, who introduced genetics to Russia and founded the institute. “He became a victim of Stalin”, the Deputy Director of the Institute remarked, when genetics in 1937 were pronounced “a prostitute of imperial science”. During imprisonment Vavilov starved in 1943 to death.
“History of Old Testament Written in Our Genes”
A little booklet issued in 1997 in reverence of Vavilov recognizes his outstanding accomplishments, for example the collection of 200 000 plants. “Due to the mass elimination of natural habitats”, the script acknowledges, the conservation of genetic variety could provide important genetic materials for mankind’s future. “New samples of wheat have already been developed”, asserts Kudryavtsev.
He is not a Soviet apparatchik type, nor a cool NASA engineer, but comes off as a Russian intellectual, a thoughtful and opinionated character who could have leapt right out of a Dostoevsky novel. To create new plants from the old seeds will be a future challenge, foresees Kudryavtsev. This and genetically modified organisms GMOs will be the two pillars of future nutrition, he firmly believes – and nobody wants to disagree.
Russian genetics have come a long way. The discipline is nowadays open to even exotic, or shall we call them religious views, for example: “How human gene geography helps to reconstruct ancient elements up to 30 000 years old of myths and fairy tales”, presented by Dr. Svetlana Borsinskaya, finishes with the concluding sentence that “the history of the Old Testament is written in our genes” – what a beautiful title about genetics in any popular science magazine and a great chance to get common folks interested in the complex subject!
“Russia is a Black Market For Pharma”
Unfortunately the English translation is, like others, rather difficult to follow, so many details escape. While most Russian scientists speak very good English, they prefer to lecture in their own language and risk to be misunderstood because of the loss of relevant information in the interpreting process.
In the Stem Cell Lab ethical questions arise. As lead scientist Dr. Maria Lagarkova explains, the biologists derive stem cells from people affected by neurodegenerative disorders. The goal is to find pharmaceutical targets for the therapy of the defects. Russia has become a heaven for drug companies. It is in some ways a “black market”, Lagarkova agrees. In fact, many pharmaceutical tests are run in the country during which many Russians are treated like guinea pigs, critical reporters have observed. For the poorer population however this is sometimes the only way to receive help.
Currently legislation is under way which tries to provide more regulation and control. “In my view, the proposed measures are too rigid”, Lagarkova says. A journalist from the Netherlands suggests to run open debates with the public about future stem cell and pharma policy, for example at the Moscow Science Festival. It is aimed to popularize science and attracts every fall several hundred thousand people to the labs.
Visit to the Russian CERN
And, once again, the group boards a bus, this time to encounter real Big Science. The route to Dubna cuts through seemingly endless forests, beautifully lit by the autumn sun. The bus, after having fought its way through heavy Moscow morning traffic, passes by wooden cottages and old peasant women selling huge mushrooms at the wayside. After 120 km and four hours later the vehicle reaches the Russian CERN.
What a historical site! Study trip participants cheerfully climb the old Soviet particle accelerator. It goes back to 1957 and was powered by electro magnets which weighed 36 000 tons. The Joint Institute for Nuclear Research JINR, made up of 18 member states throughout the world, is devoted to put Russian elementary and particle physics on the world map. 4500 experts are living in the science city. In search of new Super Heavy Elements, so called SHE’s, Dubna has been highly successful. Among many others “Dubnium”, the element 105 of the periodic table was discovered.
During a specially convened press conference for the European science journalists, the JINR top scientists explain their plans for the construction of NICA, “the younger sister of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider LHC”. Some remarks are surprising, even for experts. Other than the colleagues in Geneva, the Russian counterpart does not apply heat but pressure to simulate early stages of the universe. This new approach helps to save money. NICA will only cost one tenth of LHC, in figures 500 million US dollars.
An Accelerator for the Poor?
That’s still a lot, a whole lot of money. Asked how the scientists would justify the expenses for the new collider in the public the unanimous response is: “Curiosity is science’s major drive and it never stops.” And: Fundamental science always creates new knowledge which helps to create new technologies, many times in most unexpected ways, for example membranes to filter blood, the Big Bang searchers say.
A question of a Spanish colleague was not publicly raised, therefore remains unanswered and most likely would have been passed on to the department of philosophy or sociology: “What an accelerator for the poor would look like?” A highly thrilling question, a group of three journalists found with a magnitude of ramifications.
Marathon of 30 Presentations in 20 Labs
After almost four days, this truly Grand Tour through Russian Science phases out right around the Kremlin and the Red Square. All in all, it included 30 presentations in 20 different labs, extremely well organized, almost “Prussian-like”, with photographs everywhere allowed and no strings attached. The final stop is the Historical Building of the old Moscow University.
It houses the Russian Faculty of Psychology. It masters the art of hands-on science. A series of impressive experiments facilitated a look into the human brain and how it works. The research may serve to counteract phobia or to promote sales and neuro marketing. Eventually the knowledge could help to steer brains from the outside, one of the scientific aids speculates. “May it remain a black box as long as possible”, one visitor comments.
The dean of the faculty, Professor Jury Zinchenko runs down in a theater-like auditorium the facts like an accountant. Impressive research, lots of publications, plenty of hurdles, for example how to mold one hundred different ethnic groups in the Russian Federation, living across ten time zones to form one nation.
Shadow of the Past?
After Stalin is so omnipresent in Moscow with “seven sisters”, seven skyscapers like the Moscow University, all in socialist classicism design, one question seems to be appropriate: The dictator’s suppression of science, with millions of Russians deported to Gulags, ethnic cleansing, the vast system of spies implanted in families – how do these traumas impact present life? The question is not answered and only after the interpreter kindly resubmits it, professor Zinchenko responds, pragmatical: “We are not concerned with Stalin but rather with the time period after 1989 and an uninvaded transformation.”
In a Nutshell
Despite or because of all these tectonic shifts in its recent history, Russia remains a world power and is to be counted with. Its immense territory, from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea, connects the Orient with the Occident. In this socio-political bi-polarity the nation constitutes both, a bridge and turbulent counter currents. While Russian scientists, naively or diplomatically, unanimously deny any political impact on their work, they are part of their system and its contradictions – like scientists all over the world.
On the global scale, science and particularly technology seems to be driven by mostly economic and thus capitalistic goals, growth and consumption, with altogether little consideration for the planet and sustainability criteria. Opposition against this alienation of science and its unethical exploitation for materialistic ends is growing.
The EU is finally opening up towards participatory science and accepting the civil society and NGOs as stakeholders and co-discussants. This understanding of dialogue, democracy and partnership, geared towards the creation of robust, broad-based science and technology, as expressed in the Horizon 2020 projects, has not arrived in Russia yet.
Science, in many ways, seems to act top down, as many discussions during the visit indicated. The notion of a civil society, as a pillar and major societal force, has not been much of a driver in the current transformation process, neither in politics nor in science. The civil society is in a nascent state and could receive boosts, if Brussels should decide to dedicate some of its perspective Horizon 2020 projects to its Eastern neighbor, as a follow-up of the current EU-Russia Year of Science 2014.
It could reinforce and broaden the bridge.
Organizers of the 2014 Moscow Study Trip
All Russia Science Festival, Lomonosov Moscow State University, Institute of Biomedical Problems RAS, Space Research Institute Roscosmos, Vavilov Institute of General Genetics, Joint Institute of Nucelar Research, Association of Science Writers and Journalists Intellect, European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations EUSJA
The author of this report serves as the Honorary Secretary on the board of the European Science Journalists EUSJA >>> www.eusja.org. He is the vice-chairman of the German Science Writers TELI e.V., the world’s oldest association for technical journalism >>> www.teli.de|www.wissenschaftsdebatte.de
Study Trip tweets and photos compiled by Jari Makinen >>>
*) See also “Finstere Wahrheit”, by Uwe Springfeld >>>http://ebooknews-press.com/produkt/finstere-wahrheit
LINKS provided by the Moscow organizers
MSU Solar Research
Space Research Inst. RAS
ATTACHMENTS with infos provided by the research departments
Lab of Perception
Moscow State University
Please note: The EUSJA Study Trip to Moscow was compiled in the brochure “2014 EU – Russia Year of Science” under “Study Trip of European Science Journalists (p. 168/9) >>>