A.L.Aseev: “In the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science the spirit of trailblazers is alive”


Interview with academician Alexander Leonidovich Aseev, Director of A.V.Rzhanov Institute of Semiconductor Physics of SB RAS was recorded at the First International Forum on Nanotechnologies, Moscow, taking place in December, 2008, where the new head of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science made a report, and also was one of the leaders of the scientific and technical workshop on nanoelectronics.

Paul Muller (Erlangen-Nurnberg University, Germany), academicians of the Russian Academy of Science Alexander Aseev (in the center) and Yuri Gulyaev (to the right) at the First International Forum on Nanotechnologies.

Let me congratulate you on your election to the post of Chairman of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science. The Siberian Branch frequently generated innovative ideas, including those concerned with organization of science. We would therefore like to know whether or not to expect substantial changes over the nearest future?

Actually, when I was elected I promised to secure continuity, smoothness and team-spirit while solving problems of the Siberian Branch. I try to observe this approach, but as some critics noted, maybe not quite enough. I did not plan any radical changes, we need to act carefully, not permitting abrupt steps, inasmuch as any revolutions only slow down moving forward. The Siberian Branch has created a well-established system, providing high quality of scientific results, a good professional training. Our personnel is highly skilled.

Professor Paul Muller, Co-Director of the workshop on nanoelectronics, has now told me that two-thirds of his group at the Erlangen-Nurnberg University in Germany include Russian graduates of Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Moscow State University, etc. Russians with excellent education are now working at any western university. An interesting report was presented this morning by Alexey Kovsh (“Innolume”, USA), who successfully runs a business being a pupil of Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, a graduate of St.Petersburg Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute of RAS. Russia is rich in talents.

I think the main problem for the Siberian Branch, and to some extend for the Russian Academy of Sciences, relates to a lack of efficient ties between high-level fundamental and applied research, what we call now innovations. And we saw that at the Forum. Undoubtedly, the fundamental science should be the very priority for the Academy of Science, but in order to ensure success in practical implementation, the society, the government and such government corporation as RUSNANO are awaiting serious efforts from our side in this regard.

You might as well note, that several reports, especially the last one on boron nitride (the joint work of the Institute of Radioengineering and Electronics RAS and the Optron Joint Stock Co.), have been devoted not only to fundamental results. There, the investment schedule has already been included, showing how much money they require and the expected rate of return. Some scientists have already realized, they need to think about implementation of results, though the overwhelming majority of scientists despite the twenty years of transformation do not still perceive this necessity.

Though we really admire the scientific potential, practice achievements and experience of the Siberian Branch scientists, the system for interaction with governmental structures, agencies, state and private corporations is only fragmentarily available. Whether we want it or not, the President and the parliament are being elected by the majority of population, and we may see here the authorities’ positive attitude toward scientists. While opening the forum, some government members made reports, and their words did not contain any confrontation, while some scientists, including the authors of the “Troitsky variant” newspaper, seemed to a priory show the confrontational attitude toward officials, bureaucracy, the Ministry. I see what the problem is, the essence of the claims is clear, but I believe that all the problems should be solved in frames of powerful movement from both sides.

In particular, my unexpected for many election to the high post of Chairman of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science - and it is really one of the world’s leading scientific corporations - was, first, caused by the fact that for two years I worked at the Scientific-Coordination Council of Federal Target Program “Research and elaboration of priority directions of scientific-engineering complex of Russia development for 2007-2012”. This means I know the rules of work in the way they are formulated in the Ministry, which problems in science and innovations are to be solved, and I realize that there is a platform available to solve them within the framework of the procedures accepted by the Ministry. Secondly, my participation in the work of Scientific and Technical Council of the Military Industrial Commission, where there are a lot of academicians and corresponding members, but only two persons working in the Academy system - myself and academician V.B.Betelin, Director of Scientific Research Institute of System Researches of the Russian Academy of Science. Thirdly, I now work at the RUSNANO Scientific and Technical Council.

The activity on innovation implementation should take a considerable amount of every employee’s time, whether we want it or not. We should realize, that access to budgetary resources demands a feasibility evaluation and significant efforts. Now, when the financial system has been established, Budgetary, Tax, Civil and other Codes have been approved, we should examine Procrustean beds for these difficult accounting transactions. In the West everybody can do it, and we must learn to live in the society that has been established here.

For the time being, the problem of enhancing connections between fundamental science and applied works, between scientific ideas and their practical use, has been solved by the Siberian Branch only fragmentarily, by initiatives of such successful in this respect institutes as Budker Institute of Nuclear Physics of SB RAS, High Current Electronics Institute of SB RAS, Trofimuk Institute of Petroleum-Gas Geology and Geophysics of SB RAS, Boreskov Institute of Catalysis of SB RAS and our A.V.Rzhanov Institute of Semiconductor Physics of SB RAS. I held the post of Chairman of the Siberian Branch with the thought that we have in this respect a big practice and rich experience, hence, it appeared that a majority of scientific employees, including members of Academy, just did not understand how to adopt to the new conditions, how to realize the available scientific and intellectual potential. It is a very big problem. I discussed this issue with Academy’s authorities, also I told to the President, that to correct the present situation, the effective and vigorous efforts should be undertaken.

And what namely do you mean: creating technoparks, small innovative firms?

No, actually I don’t believe in efficiency of technoparks in the form they are presented nowadays in Russia. As you know, Technopark is currently under construction in Novosibirsk Academgorodok. Everything it was created for: innovations implementation, development of high technologies, fast development of high-tech productions, in fact, has faded into the background. The first priority was given to problems being far from science - appropriation of land, construction of offices for their subsequent leasing, investors being interested first of all in the construction of trading-commercial center, etc. In my opinion, the science shall not here make investments. Achievements of fundamental science are reached during heavy work, and its values should remain a priority. Building offices on the precious Academgorodok lands, despite the opinion of scientists and representatives of high-tech business, is not the way the technoparks should be developed.

Has the project of Novosibirsk Technopark altered after change in management of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science?

After my election as Chairman, the project was quickly modified. The first version proposed, that all lands in the center of Academgorodok, including large forests, are available for Technopark objects’ construction, and both scientific community and inhabitants were mightily indignant at it. What is the Technopark?

Certainly, there are some managing structures from Academy of Science, but, generally speaking, these are the private companies, working under the rigid laws within the frames of already developed financial system. Getting profits is their main objective and their major concern is looking for benefits. And when it’s time for solving certain problems, it is clear that interests of science will not outweigh.

Now instead of twenty seven previously appropriated Academgorodok’s ground areas, Technopark has only eight. The Novosibirsk administration responded to the wishes of population, and we are very grateful for this, they have found a ground area close to Academgorodok. The version which should be realized from the very beginning, has appeared just now. The main thing is that here appeared the conditions for development of Academgorodok strategic structures - construction of new buildings for institutes of the Siberian Branch and the Novosibirsk State University, what we are currently working on. To tell the truth, I and my colleagues in the management of the Branch had to work hard in this process.

Did the previous Technopark project appear at the Past-Chair of the Siberian Branch?

Exactly so. I was one of the main protesting persons, and “have paid” for it being elected a new head of the Siberian Branch and now I bear a considerable responsibility for enriching Novosibirsk Academgorodok with Technopark as a platform for development of innovations and high technologies, but not as Russian politician Tchernomyrdin once has told about the results achieved - “wanted as better, but it has turned out as always” (means even worse).

As I have already mentioned, the biggest part of territory of the future Technopark has successfully been transferred to the other platform ground outside Academgorodok. Because of impossibility to mortgage the federal lands of the Siberian Branch, and also because of the crisis occurred, the investor (the developer) has quit, and the construction of the first Technopark building has been stopped. We hope to continue the construction due to use of the internal resources of the companies working in Academgorodok. There are several tens of actively working and successful companies, and we have already come to the basic agreement about their accepting the building under construction, for them to build whatever they need. And, generally speaking, they might own the newly constructed building, under a certain control of the Siberian Branch, the city and regional administration which contribute a lot to the construction of Academgorodok microstructure.

Such a consensus has already been found, and it is quite reasonable. Unfortunately, our not taking this decision from the very beginning, complicated very much solving of all the problems. And now, inasmuch as everything has lasted way too long, and the crisis has touched, first of all, the building industry and the developers business, the situation is rather complicated.

Nevertheless, we are absolutely sure, that Technopark should be built. I am not aware about Troitsk or other Science Towns, but Novosibirsk Academgorodok is a pretty closed area There is no other work here, except for the academic institutes, that creates a noticeable social intensity. The youth grows up, and when the time comes the people go to work into institute not to achieve scientific successes, demanding heavy work and firm commitment to science, but to somehow earn money.

For them it’s not a true vocation, but work, may be not a beloved one

You are right. Hopefully, Technopark will help to diffuse the social situation by improving the labor market opportunities. As you know, the Novosibirsk University gives a very good education, people successfully work worldwide, along with graduates of the best St.-Petersburg and Moscow higher educational institutions. Many of them have proved themselves to be good businessmen, this especially refers to the graduates of the Novosibirsk University Physical faculty. Let us say, now with regard to the banking crisis occurred, one can talk about the merge of large banks. One of the announced intentions concerns a merge of one of the largest URSA Bank with the same size MDM Bank. The URSA Bank’s General Director Igor Kim, a graduate of the Novosibirsk University is a very successful banker and his name is mentioned in the famous list of the Forbes magazine. And there are plenty of examples of successful careers of the Novosibirsk University graduates, that are not related to science. If such persons as Igor could show their worth in a high-tech company, our science would obviously win, though being the banker may be more profitable occupation.

We need to create the opportunities for working in the high-tech business for such young, ambitious, capable, talented guys. Actually, it’s one of the main objectives, while developing Academgorodok. The young man should have the right of choice: he may enter the institute, be seriously engaged in fundamental science, theory, may go to Oxford, make reports at the international confernces (I hope, that eventually, someone from Siberians will get the Nobel Prize), or, having received some basic knowledge, may continue working in the applied area, providing a financial support for his family and himself, colleagues, due to the manager’s talent.

Such interconnection between science and innovations should be created in the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science. In our opinion, this is one of the most important issues, if we consider, that the science should be demanded. Meanwhile, despite our wish, our science releases mostly “the semi-finished products”. The brilliant scientific ideas are frequently suspend in the air, or, at best, are picked up by somebody abroad. Here, at the Conference, the Koreans from Samsung company were also present, and they hold on like grim death in ideas and people. If they see something novel, they find a way to use the intellectual achievements and create the employment opportunities for our experts. So far, we are not able to do it, sitting on gold. Look, what a tremendous exhibition is arranged at the Forum on Nanotechnologies, what a huge potential! How many developments which, so far, do not bring any income. We can’t just use it.

Which, in your opinion, should be an optimum ratio of fundamental and applied researches in the system of Russian Academy of Science and the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science? The words from high tribunes now sound, also there appeared articles in mass-media, revealing that fundamental scientists make big money with little feedback.

No, in fact nobody, even the opponents in the Ministry of Education and Science, did not ever mention that the fundamental science is of no use or something is wrong with it.

Leaders of our country tell, that from the side of scientists there is not enough return per one rouble, that scientific institutions should not release any abstract developments, but the competitive goods or products.

In this connection, I have a comparison which I rate very high, though I’m not its author. Academician Kuznetsov F.A. was present at the Forum on Nanotechnologies. He said once, that telling that we have too much fundamental science is the same as to complain that there are too many beautiful women in our country. They surely require increased attention, care, sometimes they have enhanced demands, but to complain about it, in my opinion, is the last degree of marasm. On the contrary, we should be happy about it, the government and officials should be proud, that we still have a good science, and it is in good condition. You see, there are a lot of foreigners here at the Forum, they are listening attentively, and many reports of the Russian scientists are better, than foreign ones, or they are up to the world standard. And such statements, as I think, are not appropriate for men.

It’s another matter that it is rather troublesome to apply the achievements of fundamental science. It supposes thinking, working, lack of sleep as in days of Kurchatov, Korolev, Keldysh. It’s hard work demanding a complete commitment. Unfortunately, many not high-level, but average -level officials sometimes do not realize the importance of fundamental science.

They consider, that the science should be out at feed, should be self-supported, what is, generally speaking, deeply wrong.

The Western-type system should be created, that is really innovative, but not just a model of innovations. It should give us social, economic and real effects. This system is not available here so far.

In 1990s a few young men left our Institute. They were not the most prominent scientists, but succeeded in setting up a firm in Los Angeles named “Photobit”, which competitively entered the market. Being of average scientific level, they successfully run the company. We do not have this system of introduction so far.

Moreover, Russia’s specific feature is, that as soon as something worthy appears, an efficient scientific group, that spurts into the lead, the rest, instead of trying to catch them up and surpass, try frequently in any way interfere or sink them. In my opinion, the goal of RUSNANO corporation is to be above all this and understand that actually, with the science we may gain much more, than to drive abroad tanks with oil and other resources. I try to convince the management, including the high-leveled one, to do this. Though, certainly, oil would make quick and easy money, but at the macro level and strategically absolutely unpromising. Professor V.M.Andreev from Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute of RAS mentioned in his report, that one gram of solar element at five-year work corresponds to the energy produced by 25 tons of gasoline. Things, we should think about and be engaged with.

Having terminated the third stage of the pilot project, the Russian Academy of Science has a possibility to cancel the Indicator for Assessment of Scientific Activity. Would this system or its close analogues remain for scientific workers in the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science? Would the ranking of institutes on formal indicators be carried out and would the best researchers be cash awarded?

As you know, now the Ministry of Education and Science plans to introduce a system for ranking the scientific organizations. The round table in the Ministry was therefore arranged, and I purposely arrived there, made a report, which was later presented in the “Poisk”newspaper. When it was my turn to report, I told, that in the Siberian Branch the system for assessment of formal indicators is available since long ago. We estimated the activities of scientific institutes using three parameters: the amount and quality of publications, the amount and quality of young employees (the number of thesis defended by post-graduate students, etc.) and the financial resources involved (how much non-budgetary expenditures fall on each employee, etc). Thus, such system of estimation exists in the Branch since long ago, permitting to see who is the leader, and who lags behind.

However, the Siberian Branch never made a conclusion, that if any institute failed according to one of the indicators, it should be disbanded or liquidated, since we have many other indicators which cannot be taken into account, say, the indicator of being demanded. I demonstrated as the example, that we, say, have three physical institutes (I’m not meaning to cause offence, so I shall not name them), they always failed according to some indicators. But we see, that the stuff working there are qualified and competent persons, and if they have left for the Argentina, USA observatories or being under construction a Canadian one (I mean the cosmic physicians), they would succeed there. Director of the Yakutsk Institute of Cosmophysical Research and Aeronomy, corresponding member of RAS E.G.Berezhko has a real chance to become Director of the Max-Planck-Institute.

There are no doubts, that employees of these institutes have a high scientific qualification, but the themes of their researches have not so far been demanded. Who now is interested in the ionospheric processes, problems of origin of space beams or problems associated with permafrost? Unless our northern territories are not destroyed by flooding, nobody would even move a finger. But we still realize, that we should be involved in it, because one day we will be asked : “And where were you, guys then?”.

This system for assessment should operate, for us to understand, what the problems are caused by. It should serve as the indicator, the litmus test for revealing the existing problems. And the conclusions made in the Ministry are as follows - we shall divide all scientific organizations into four groups, the bottom one should be liquidated, the employees dismissed, the property sold at tenders…As Japanese people told me once regarding our perestroika (reconstruction) - it is not simply a crime, it is more than that, it is a mistake. A major blunder.

Are you planning any support for the young scientists’ innovations?

The Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science has created a wonderful supporting multilevel system for young scientists. Here we speak about both indirect and direct financial encouragements such as premiums, scholarships. Within the recent years, we observe positive changes in number of young scientists, post-graduate students, in the amount of thesis defended by post-graduate students, victories over various competitions, etc.

However, the biggest problem is the housing demand. Input of new apartments within the recent four years has ten times fallen, and we shall try to do something about it. Actually, the project of Novosibirsk Technopark went on under the slogan, that this problem would be solved, but now it faded into the background.

At the same time, the University has received one billion roubles for construction of the hostel in Academgorodok. The “AcademZhilStroi” company is well organized and successfully runs, all its income is planned to be used for the building of apartment houses for young employees and post-graduate students, offering them mainly from one-room to two- room apartments.

And how many?

So far, it’s difficult to tell exactly. Actually, we intended to construct two good 200-300 apartment houses, but taking into account the current financial crisis, we would be able to construct only one 100-150 apartment house in Novosibirsk Academgorodok.

In other scientific centers the things are even worse, because they are not big enough to develop this. And the most important thing, that the federal lands legislation has completely got confused on whether we should involve private investors to develop federal lands, this is the big question. The only encouragement in this regard is V.V.Putin’s statement at the General Meeting of the Russian Academy of Science, that “it is necessary to build for young people”. There is a hope, that these words must be followed by action and we shall receive tangible means intended for the youth housing programs.

Already now we are capable to solve the problem like salaries. The problem with modern equipment in the Academy is also being solved. We frequently accept many foreigners coming to work on our equipment, including that one developed and produced in the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science. The housing situation is still very critical. And its solving would require at least 2-3 years. In my opinion, it is the biggest problem available. For the time being I don’t know how to handle the problem, though we continuously examine various versions for its solving.

Not a secret, that the Russian science competitions are not always conducted “fairly”. It is a common situation, when organizers of competition, applicants of projects and reviewers are the same people what results in the inevitable conflict of interests. Do you agree, that while conducting competitions the problem exists also for the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science? What should be done to make the competitions really scientific?

I think, that situation here is actually simple. A scientific community is a counting great many people, where everybody knows each other. In my opinion, to arrange a rather fair competition is a question of scientific culture. Frequently, people can not help themselves and put a tick not where it should be, but where their friends work, or the personal interests are involved. Unfortunately, such things do happen and this is a question of internal culture, adherence to principles, civilization of people. This problem also can’t be promptly solved, but it should be, otherwise everything will still remain the same.

The same refers to the Ministry of Education and Science, which has made a terrible from the point of view of scientific employees thing: they distribute the funds for scientific activities according to the system suitable for trade, what is full madness. I told about it many times in the Ministry and on round tables, but they explain that “we realize everything, but all other versions are even worse”. In my opinion, the existing system appears to be an obvious obstacle from the point of view of efficiency of achievement of the declared indicators, and the sooner it will be liquidated, the better. And then another problem appears - how to arrange the process in a different way, to avoid clan groups, groups of interests. I think that here we need a rotation, as in the Russian Foundation for Fundamental Research. Probably, the competitions of the Russian Foundation for Fundamental Research are the most adequate in this respect. There also, everybody knows each other, but they give more objective estimate. Certainly, the Russian Foundation for Fundamental Research does not possess such big funds as the Ministry or RUSNANO, which frequently force people to forget about moral values.

Do you see any problems with the system of scientific inspection in RUSNANO? Scientists complain, that at times the personal interests of the company’s managers in the project approval and getting a bonus do not coincide with the decision of scientific experts?

The system of scientific and technical inspection in RUSNANO is correct, but the problem exists. I worked in this council within a year, and it seems to me, that the problem is, that their activities are poorly regulated. When we gather, in the beginning we usually discuss over and over again the sequence of formal procedures, principles, on what basis those or other decisions are to be taken. The council has not yet developed the rules of work, and this problem is a concern for both the council and the RUSNANO management. I think, it will take some time until the system can be developed. I believe, that within one more year there may be some mistakes and mistakes, but there is understanding of the problem, and the correctly formulated problem is actually half of its decision.

What is, in your opinion, the main feature of the Siberian scientists? Is there any highlight in the Siberian Branch as a whole?

Yes, sure. As you know from the history, the people moving to Siberia where of somewhat adventurous nature, more freedom-loving people, looking for something new. This is exactly what science needs. The other feature is that people came here looking for good luck. Here arrived poor landless peasants, some of them died in the severe Siberian conditions, some of them found gold, became successful hunters or wealthy land owners. In the Soviet times here were good conditions for professional career and the element of good luck was always attractive.

In my opinion, the Siberian people, the Siberian Branch as a whole, are distinguished by aiming at inspired work, success. In the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science the spirit of trailblazers is alive. It goes back to the times of Lavrentiev, Sobolev, Khristianovich, famous for their heightened interest in everything that was unfamiliar to them, for their aiming at big deeds. They got already everything, all possible scientific awards, but they wanted to do something more.

Actually, at those times the fact that the Russian peasant has reached the Pacific Ocean was a defeat on a global scale. And all the employees of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science realize, that they should assure the high level set up by trailblazers. Good luck and serious work - the main components of our success.

For the first time the interview was published at Polit.ru. The reduced version of the interview was published in a special “Siberian” issue of “Troitsky variant” newspaper, No 19, Dec. 9, 2008.

Translated by Svetlana Sushkevich