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HHMI: NOW THAT THE GOVERNMENT IS PUTTING MORE MONEY INTO SCIENCE, ARE INTERNATIONAL GRANTS LESS IMPORTANT?
MSG: They are still very important. But they have become less about money per se, and more about providing people with some independence from local politics and showing an example of how the system should function.
HHMI: IN APRIL, THE ACADEMY VOTED TO REJECT THE MINISTRY'S SUGGESTED CHANGES TO ACADEMY OPERATIONS. NOW WHAT?
I expected as much, although I'd hoped that some people within the academy would resist the herd mentality instilled by its leadership. The bad news is that the scientific community is bitterly opposed to all ministry moves, however reasonable (though not all are), and this community resolve has been strengthened by the symbolic unanimous vote. Also, there are signs that the ministry's resolve is failing.
Still, the episode could help force the academy toward a more reasonable position, as happens whenever there is a clash. But by consistently opposing any reform, the academy puts itself in a situation where even reasonable objections and opinions are not heard.
HHMI: HOW DO YOU STAY OPTIMISTIC THAT CHANGE WILL HAPPEN?
MSG: The choice is not between change and no change. Either change will occur or Russian science will disappear. This is something the academy leadership fails to comprehend.
HHMI: YOU COME FROM A FAMILY OF ACCOMPLISHED MATHEMATICIANS AND SCIENTISTS. DOES THAT MAKE IT EASIER TO BE OUTSPOKEN ABOUT THESE ISSUES?
MSG: They all emigrated to America! Sometimes I feel like the one left behind to watch the shop. Having some degree of independence helps. I don't know how I would behave if my group was completely dependent on Russian money.
Mikhail Gelfand is a mathematician and biologist at Moscow's A.A. Kharkevich Institute for Information Transmission Problems.
Interview by Cori Vanchieri