I was born in the USSR and work as a postdoc in the United Kingdom. Once my PI and I were returning to a hotel after a diner with our collaborators in a different UK city, where one of the postdocs had the same post-soviet background as myself. My boss had commented that there seems to be a lot of people of Soviet extraction working in the Western science and joked that we are close to taking over it. I have replied that he doesn’t have to worry – the supply of Soviet scientists is gone, never to be replaced.
After the demise of the USSR in 1991 science in the former Soviet Republics had lost most of its funding and the scientists have started trying to earn money, because they had to feed their families and what used to be a prestigious steady middle-income job turned into an uncertain income nightmare. The prevailing mood of the society have changed, most of the population decided that the only thing that matters in life is earning money, fast. As a result the postdocs who preferred science to trading on a bazaar abandoned home universities to work in the West. The rest changed their careers (some of the Russian billionaires, including Boris Berezovsky, are former scientists) leaving old professors and young PhD students to hold the forts – a situation remarkably similar to the present zeitgeist in many UK and US universities.
Fast forward 20 years: The devaluing of pursuing knowledge as a life goal have resulted in significant drop in the high school teaching quality and consequently in the level and motivation of the undergraduate students. The former Soviet professors are getting retired – at last. The former Soviet PhD students, practically self-taught are heads of the labs, but they say it is difficult to find a good postgraduate student or postdoc, who would work beyond 9 to 5 and actually care about his/her project and science in general. The people who embark on a postgraduate degree are doing it not because they are excited about science, but because they think that an advanced degree would be good for their careers, with the resulting attitude of minimising the work and faking the results.
But returning closer to my adopted home. I work as a postdoc in a relatively sexy field of yeast prions. However, when I tell my non-scientific acquaintances and high school pupils about what I do, the question they ask is not what I discovered but what is an immediate practical application of what I do. I wonder if the penicillin discoverer Fleming would have been able to prove importance of his research and propose a viable commercial application just after he discovered a bacterial growth inhibition on Petri dishes because of a common mould? This is a rhetorical question – it took 12 years after the penicillin discovery to produce usable quantities of the compound and it was not done by Fleming.
There is an increased drive in the UK to commercialize science – academics are encouraged to start spin-off companies, all applied research is actively promoted and it is very difficult to get funding for fundamental research, which may pay in 10 – 20 years. The universities are run as for profit companies, where students are paying customers, who should get a “product” (degree) in any case and the academics have as much value as many grants they can get, while shared facilities become commercial entities. And the job market for postgraduate scientists is increasingly reminding one factory workers in the 19th century – we are considered to be easily replaceable and therefore have no rights beyond a short-term contract.
American political philosopher Michael J. Sandel in his book “What money can’t buy” argues that some things should not be for sale – human organs, medals for valour, even undergraduate places in the top universities. He says that “everything is for sale” mentality damages functioning of society. I wonder if fundamental science should also be included in the list of things, that are easy to commodify but even easier to devalue. If everything is for sale, if experience and people who are doing science are not valued, it loses something hard to define – but vital as former Soviet Union had discovered.
P.S. This articled had failed to make it in “Nature” columnist competition as well as “Science In Person” column in Science. Probably, an intrinsic value of science is not something scientific (publishing) establishment wants to contemplate.
P.P.S. 2.0 published in The Scientist, a Science’s editor expressed interest in the column just after it’s been accepted by The Scientist