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Scientist on Hunger Strike as Russian Science Starves

October 4, 1996

MOSCOW (AP) _ In a musty office in a crumbling research center, an eminent, elderly geophysicist has become a flesh-and-blood symbol for the slow starvation of Russian science.

Vladimir Strakhov, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geophysics, stopped eating Monday. He says he’ll take nothing but water until after Oct. 10, when academy scientists demonstrate in downtown Moscow.

Their demands are simple. They want their paychecks _ and enough government funding to keep Russian science from total collapse.

So much has fallen apart in the past few years, that it’s hard to draw attention to a cause anymore. But the 64-year-old Strakhov has managed to do it, in part through sheer incongruity.

He is a courtly, cultured man as adept at quoting poetry and discussing ancient history as he is at expounding on the intricacies of magnetic force fields. Like most scientists, he never expected poverty and powerless and street protests would be his lot.

Science was the pride of the Soviet system and scientists its pampered elite. Strakhov, a full member of the prestigous academy and an institute director to boot, was _ and is _ in the very top ranks. His center once had the clout to order up underground nuclear explosions for seismic studies.

But the engine that powered Soviet science _ a fierce, Cold War competition with the West _ sputtered to a stop in 1991. And so did lavish outlays from the state as the economy crumbled.

Now the Academy of Sciences can’t even pay its bills.

The phone rings, it is a financial officer at the academy. Strakhov pleads for money to fix leaky heating pipes. Winter is coming and his institute can’t turn on the heat unless the pipes are repaired.

``I understand,″ the gentle academic says into the phone as several members of his staff anxiously eavesdrop. ``Yes, it’s hard. I know. But give at least some of the money. Otherwise, it’s a catastrophe.″

Strakhov listens, then hangs up, crestfallen. ``He told me to write a letter,″ he announces slowly. ``To write a letter.″

The plight of Strakhov’s institute is not unique. Starved of funds by the cash-strapped government, the Academy of Sciences _ a vast network of 336 institutes and 122,000 people _ hasn’t paid salaries in months.

Even when they do get paid, scientists’ wages today are modest. The average monthly paycheck at Institute of Geophysics, for example, is about $125.

Thousands of Russian scientists have emigrated or deserted their professions for more lucrative pursuits or taken second jobs. Today, Russia is a place where physicists peddle cameras on street corners and chemists drive cabs.

There is no money for scientific journals, no money for equipment, for up-to-date technology. Every day, Russian science seems to fall farther behind. Visiting French colleagues this summer, Strakhov inspected their new supercomputer. It was a sobering experience.

``Our computers are hundreds of times slower,″ he says, shaking his head. ``How can you compete with that?″

Less than a year ago, Strakhov wrote that Russian science faced total collapse within a decade unless something was done. Now he says, ``I was an optimist. It’s more like three or four years.″

Others share his alarm.

Foreign governments, international institutions and even individual philanthropists, including billionaire George Soros, have tried to keep Russian science alive.

But aid alone cannot prop up such a huge scientific establishment _ and the Russian government seems unable to come to grips with the crisis.

From time to time, a program to save science is announced. But funds never materialize. This year, the money actually spent on science is just half of what was allocated in the federal budget, according to the academy union.

``The government wants to shut us up by doling out tiny sums of money,″ Strakhov says. ``We expect they’ll try to talk us out of holding our demonstration.″

There is also resistance to the street protest in the upper reaches of the Academy of Sciences hierarchy. But Strakhov and his colleagues aren’t deterred.

``One way to get money is by begging. That’s their way,″ Strakhov, the newly minted radical says. ``We wrote thousands of begging letters. We’ve had enough! Our way now is to pound on the table.″

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