Brain drain accelerates as international isolation deepens

A brain drain from science and the higher education system in Russia is accelerating due to a complicated economic environment and the country’s ever-growing isolation in the international arena. The importance of this issue for state security was recently confirmed by top officials.

One of them is Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council. On 31 October he told a meeting of the Security Council in Tomsk, which was dedicated to the issue of ensuring national security in Russia and Siberia, that due to insufficient state funding, domestic scientists – including university scientists – are turning to research grants offered by foreign universities.

According to Patrushev, this situation is associated with a higher risk of leaks of scientific and technical information abroad.

A decline of 25%

Patrushev added that over the past two decades the number of scientific workers and university professors in the Russian Federation has declined by about 25%.

“A serious obstacle to achieving technological independence is the shortage of qualified scientific, engineering and workforce personnel. The total number of personnel engaged in research and development in Russia and university researchers has decreased by a quarter over the past 20 years,” he said.

He believes one of the reasons for this decrease is the irregular way in which the state allocates funding to scientists and scientific projects in Russia.

There are also problems with the state’s attempts to commercialise intellectual activities in the absence of uptake from the commercial sector.

Patrushev’s comments about the decline in the numbers of academics are supported by the official statistics of some leading Russian higher education institutions.

According to the Higher School of Economics (HSE), one of Russia’s most prestigious universities in the field of economics, at the beginning of 2022 the number of scientists and university scientists in Russia reached an historical low of 340,000.

According to the HSE and some independent Russian analysts in the field of higher education, the number of university scientists in Russia began to decline in 2014. Over the past seven years these numbers have dropped by 10.5%, or 76,000 people.

Help from Western foundations

While the outflow of scientists continues today, strict Western sanctions that have been imposed against Russia also affect Russian university professors and scientists and have made their migration overseas a little more complicated.

However, migration is still possible, owing to support provided by some Western foundations, a process that has gained traction in recent years.

According to sources cited by the Russian Kommersant politics and business newspaper, after the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian military conflict, at least 200 university professors and scientists left Russia with the help of the Scholars at Risk network.

At the same time another 62 scientists left thanks to the German Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

There are also some other Western foundations, which are continuing their work in Russia, providing assistance to Russian university scientists for migration to the West.

This is despite pressure from the Russian state, which has already led to the closure of many foundations and organisations on the basis of requests by the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office, which perceives their activities as unwelcome.

An example of this is the Central European University (CEU), the activities of which were banned in Russia last month.

In a statement on 27 October 2023 the CEU condemned the decision and said should its designation as an ‘undesirable organisation’ by Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office be confirmed, CEU would join 116 organisations worldwide that have been listed as ‘undesirable organisations’ by the Russian authorities, since a law enabling this came into effect in 2015.

“The decision to designate CEU as an undesirable organisation in Russia was made with the claim that educational programmes of the university are focused on discrediting the ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine and the political leadership of the Russian Federation,” the statement said.

The CEU said the designation was viewed as a “serious restriction of our freedom to cooperate with Russian institutions and individuals, undermining our right to pursue teaching and research based on the highest academic standards.

“This decision also confines citizens of Russia from cooperating with CEU and puts Russian students and employees of CEU at risk of political persecution.”

The statement said the CEU was hoping for a revocation of the ban, but in the meantime it had “terminated all cooperation activities with Russian partners and has ceased promoting CEU’s degree programmes in Russia”.

Earlier, the same decision was taken in regard to the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, which have had relationships with some Russian universities and their professors in the past.