Russian academics decry law change that threatens scientific outreach

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Russian citizens protested in major cities including St Petersberg in January over the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny; academics worry a proposed law change stems from government nervousness about dissident voices.Credit: Dmitri Lovetsky/AP/Shutterstock

Scientists and academics in Russia are protesting against a proposed law change that they say will damage academic freedom and free speech. The amendment to Russia’s law on education, which lawmakers say is intended to stop anti-Russian propaganda, would require academics and educators to get permission from state authorities to do public outreach for educational activities, including those involving science. A petition against the change — which Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, is scheduled to vote on next week — has drawn more than 200,000 signatures, and threats from researchers of civil disobedience because it could curb efforts to grow scientific literacy.

The presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences — the nation’s primary basic-research organization — has called on Duma members to reject the bill. The suggested changes run counter to efforts to modernize Russian science, academy leaders say. “Activities that enlighten society about scientific achievements are developing rapidly in Russia and scientists consider this mission useful for the whole society,” says Alexei Khokhlov, vice-president of the academy. “The proposed law doesn’t support these activities, it gives only restrictions. Any form of restrictions are not helpful for the development of society.”

The proposal would grant the government “excessive control” of a range of public teaching and outreach activities that scientists conduct outside formal educational programmes, says Sergei Popov, an astronomer at Lomonosov Moscow State University who launched the online petition. These might include efforts to increase scientific literacy through popular lectures, podcasts and online courses on platforms such as YouTube.

Foreign partners

“The proposed amendments are intolerably repressive,” says Mikhail Gelfand, a biology lecturer at the Skoltech Center of Life Sciences in Moscow, and a member of the London-based Academia Europaea, which aims to advance science and scholarship.

Scientists are particularly worried about an amendment that would require them to get permission from federal authorities before signing agreements with foreign education partners. The rule would pose unacceptable hurdles for efforts to attract foreign instructors to teach in Russia, says Popov. “I’d need to beg for allowance each time I want to invite a foreign lecturer to a meeting or a summer school,” he says. “This is ridiculous, and I will not obey.”

Many scientists and educators might stop reaching out to the public for fear that what they say could be against the law, says Alexandra Borissova, co-founder of the Russian Association of Science Communication in Moscow.

But the law should not affect ordinary research activities that involve international collaboration, says Kirill Dmitriev, chief executive of the Russia Direct Investment Fund, the country’s sovereign wealth fund, which backed the development of the Sputnik V COVID vaccine. “This law would not preclude typical collaboration that is part of regular scientific discourse and regular scientific operation, so I think it will have very limited use,” he says. “Most scientists in Russia would understand that scientific collaboration is the core of success.”

Free-speech concerns

The bill was introduced in November by members of the Duma and comes as Russia’s foreign relations hit a low, following oppression of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny. According to a supplementary note on the bill, the aim of the change is “to counteract the spread of illegal information and anti-Russian propaganda in the school and student environment”. The draft law refers explicitly to ethnic- and religious-hate propaganda.

But critics view the change as part of growing efforts by the Russian government to suppress free speech. Hate speech is banned by existing Russian laws, so the amendment is superfluous, says Gelfand. Instead, this change will add extra bureaucracy to Russia’s science, which is already stifled by red tape.

The move mirrors the growing nervousness among Russia’s rulers and lawmakers over dissident voices and foreign agents, says Sergei Guriev, an economist at Sciences Po in Paris, who left Russia in 2013. “This is extremely worrying,” he says. “The law is certainly designed against social scientists. Modern economics, political science, sociology and history are very dangerous for the regime, so they are trying to devise tools to selectively censor criticism.”

Borissova agrees. If approved, the rules would clearly violate the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech, she says. “The presumption is that spreading scholarly knowledge in public could serve ‘anti-Russian’ interests,” she says. “This is state interference with the freedom of opinion, and blatantly contrary to efforts to improve scientific literacy.”

Hundreds of scientists say they will not follow the new rule, no matter what sanctions they might expect. Some could risk losing their jobs, says Popov.

Additional reporting by Nisha Gaind.

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