Revitalizing Russian science

Will the Megagrant project contribute to reversing the brain drain in Russian science? Source: PhotoXPress

Will the Megagrant project contribute to reversing the brain drain in Russian science? Source: PhotoXPress

The Megagrant project, an ambitious initiative of Russia's Ministry of Education, indicates that the Russian authorities make an attempt to prevent the brain drain.

Alexei Kavokin, host univrsity: St. Petersburg State University

Megagrant, the brainchild of the Russian Ministry of Education to revitalize Russian science, is well into its second set of awards. The program, organized in conjunction with Russian universities, laboratories and research centers, gives participating scientists grants of up to 150 million rubles ($5 million) to personally lead a research laboratory in Russia for a period of not less than four months per year over two years.

Alexei Kavokin, host univrsity: St. Petersburg State University. Source:

Alexei Kavokin

Speciality: Physics

Current Position: Professor, in charge of the department of nanophysics and photonics at the University of Southampton, United Kingdom.

Host University: St. Petersburg State University.


The worldwide competition has attracted 517 applications from all over the globe. Many applicants are Russian émigrés who have interest in rejuvenating scientific research in their native land. But? Megagrant grantees weigh in.

Alexei Kavokin completed his Ph.D. at the beginning of the 1990s at the A.F. Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute in Leningrad, but received an offer to work in France; he later moved to the UK.

Kavokin’s research is on crystals. “I’m working on the question of interactions between light and matter in crystals. We are trying to find out how to make light carry ten thousand times more information than it can at present when it goes through a fiber-optic cable,” he said. One of the most groundbreaking institutions in this field was Kavokin’s alma mater, which influenced the scientist to submit an application for Megagrant.

He is going to build an experimental laboratory at St. Petersburg State University, the first in the world created specifically for studying the propagation of spin currents, which could eventually take over the role of electric currents in communication systems. “I want to gather the most active and energetic young specialists in this field, and we’ll recruit them from both Russia and abroad. I’m hoping to make a big breakthrough – and in theory, this could lead to a scientific and technological revolution. However the process of actually setting up the laboratory will not all be plain sailing – we are expecting to run up against a lot of bureaucracy,” Kavokin said.

“I would be able to return there (to Russia) to work, if I was given a permanent position with conditions that matched those offered to scientists in other countries. But it is hardly likely that I’ll receive an offer like that any time soon, as scientists just aren’t paid well in Russia,” said Kavokin. He thinks the process of attracting Russian scientists back to Russia is happening too slowly, but Megagrant is a big step towards reinstating Russia as a global player in the intellectual market and reversing the brain drain.

“If you do a Ph.D. in Russia, you can generally expect to receive a post as a researcher or a teacher at a university, and that’s pretty much where your career path ends. In the rest of the world, the post-doc institution has been around for a long time: after doing a Ph.D., a newly minted academic spends a few years at another university – often in a different country, where he or she will work in the chosen field of research. The post-doc route doesn’t exist in Russia, and we are going to try to introduce it to the Russian system,” Kavokin said.  

George Smoot, host university: Moscow State University

George Smoot, host university: Moscow State University. Source:

George Smoot, 67

Speciality: Astrophysics, cosmology

Current Positions: professor at the University of California, Berkeley; senior fellow at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; professor at the Diderot University, Paris France. 

Host University: Moscow State University


George Smoot has never been to Russia, but has worked alongside many Russian scientists who emigrated following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2006, Smoot was awarded the Nobel Prize for his research into the Big Bang and his study of the early stages in the life of our universe.

Smoot is really one of a kind. Despite being one of the most well-respected and serious scientists of our time, he has an excellent sense of humor, and this has helped him to pursue his non-professional goal – the popularization of science. He can often be seen on American TV, having appeared on the quiz show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” and he even played himself in the hit sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.”

“Scientists need to let society know what they are doing: the public - they need to see where the money is going and be aware of what incredible research is happening out there, and to realize that it is worth understanding and respecting science,” Smoot said, justifying his pop culture appearances.   

Smoot is very positive about the high standard of science and educational traditions in Russia, but he says that there is room for improvement: “Both in Russia and throughout the whole world there is a large number of outstanding Russian scientists. But despite the high level of individual research projects in Russia, the equipment used by astrophysicists and cosmologists is out of date.”

According to Smoot, this is why state support is so vital. “There are similar grants in many countries – the UAE, as well as South Korea. It is an effective way to raise the profile of science in that country: to attract the best specialists from abroad and equal them,” Smoot said.

Smoot is interested in coming to Moscow because there he will be able to access important research projects of interest to him and the people in charge of them. “Today we are focusing on a project for observing the afterglow of gamma-ray bursts (high-energy events). By observing and analyzing these bursts, we can find out a lot about how they behave throughout the universe, and a lot about the evolution of the universe as a whole,” Smoot said. Apparatus for observing this phenomenon will be installed on the Lomonosov satellite, which is also being prepared at Moscow State University.

Vladimir Spokoiny, host university: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology

Vladimir Spokoiny, host university: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. Source:

Vladimir Spokoiny, 52

Speciality: Mathematics

Current positions: Professor of mathematics and economics at the Humboldt University in Berlin, head of research group at the Weierstrass Institute in Berlin.

Host University: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology


Vladimir Spokoiny was born in Moscow and earned his Ph.D. in the faculty of mechanics and mathematics at Moscow State University. At the beginning of the 1990s, he moved abroad hoping to earn enough to at least make ends meet. Working in France and then in Germany, Spokoiny went from being a research assistant to a university professor and head of a laboratory. 

“Do I want to return to Russia? If you had asked me the same question six months ago, the answer would have been a definite no,” Spokoiny said. “Why? I have a great job and three kids who all study in Germany. I would never think of returning to Russia with my family in tow.” But Spokoiny is not indifferent to the fate of Russian science, and believes that the Megagrant is an opportunity to help develop it. “Mega-grant is an interesting project. It’s a shame that the funding period is quite short: in science it’s rare that anyone does anything significant in two years,” Spokoiny said.

Spokoiny’s work is all about forecasting the future. He finds the answers to questions about the state of global warming in 2050 or what the interest rate on a loan from a bank will be. “We collaborate with specialists working in all kinds of different fields, they come to us when they are having difficulty processing huge amounts of complex structure data,” Spokoiny said, describing his work.

Spokoiny is hoping to collaborate with the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology to set up the first laboratory in Russia for modeling these forecasts. The core team of scientists is already in place. Many of them, like Spokoiny, are returning to Russia from abroad to take part in the project. Now the team needs to be developed further – but the unusual and well-funded project is unlikely to have a difficult time recruiting keen students and postgraduate fellows.   

Yulia Kovas, host university: Tomsk State University

Yulia Kovas, host university: Tomsk State University. Source:

Yulia Kovas

Speciality: Psychology

Current positions: teacher at Goldsmiths College, University of London, Director of the InLab laboratory, Co-Head of the Russo-British laboratory of psycho-genetics at the Psychology Institute of the Russian Academy of Education.

Host University: Tomsk State University


Yulia Kovas graduated from the Humanities Faculty of the Herzen Pedagogical University in St. Petersburg, but after emigrating to London, she became interested in psychology and neuropsychology, and went on to do a Ph.D. in behavioral genetics.

Kovas says that she doesn’t want to return to Russia for good because she lives in London and has a permanent position at the university there. However, when she found out about the Megagrant competition, she knew that this would be a unique chance to apply her experience and knowledge with maximum effect. “I think the main point of this grant is to integrate Russian science into the global scientific community. I am planning to work with the laboratory in Tomsk for a long time, not just over the next two years. Working on scientific research in Russia does not mean you have to live there.”

Kovas knows exactly what she is going to do in Russia – she wants to study variations between the mathematical abilities of people of different ages. The theory is that the higher the level of numeracy in a given country, the better the society functions, the better the technological progress. While doing her research Kovas is also planning to put together a list of twins in Russia under the age of 18, which will form a foundation on which to base further research. “In London I am working on a very big project in which thousands of twins are taking part, and we are trying to conduct the same sort of research in Russia,” Kovas said.

Grigory Enikolopov, host university:Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology

Grigory Enikolopov, host university:Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. Source:

Grigory Enikolopov

Speciality: Biology

Current position: Professor, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York

Host University: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology


In 1989, when Grigory Enikolopov was working at one of the most progressive laboratories at the Institute of Molecular Biology, he received an invitation to go work in the United States from Nobel laureate James Watson, one of the scientists who discovered the structure of DNA. “I agreed to go, thinking I’d just spend a year or two there, but by 1992 I could see that in Russia working in science was becoming increasingly difficult, and it seemed that there was little point in returning,” Enikolopov said.

In his opinion, the state has a definite obligation to put money towards science, so scientists don’t have to rely either on the uncertain system of competitions to secure funding, or, as he puts it, anticipation of a miracle. “There should be a degree of confidence that the state wants to support science. This is one area in Russia in which steps are being made,” said Enikolopov.

The Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology has one of the strongest neurobiology departments in Russia, and this is why Enikolopov chose to go there for his project: “In Russia people have been studying stem cells for nearly 100 years. There are good laboratories, but it is hard for them to compete with the rest of the world: there are a huge number of scientists working on regenerative medicine, and there is much more money being thrown at this research elsewhere; in America, Canada, Europe and Singapore”

Enikolopov is planning to spend the grant on a project that is completely different to what he has been doing in the United States, where he already had the use of the best equipment and a well-qualified staff. “The Russian grant is about something else – it is there to start a new direction in science, get people on board, buy up the necessary equipment and create a team that will also be able to continue to conduct top-level research in the future.” 

Osamu Shimomura, host university: Siberian Federal Univesrity

Osamu Shimomura, host university: Siberian Federal Univesrity. Source:

Osamu Shimomura,

Speciality: Chemist, marine biologist

Current position: Honorary Professor at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory (Massachusetts)

Host University: Siberian Federal University


Osamu Shimomura did his doctorate at Nagoya University in Japan, and emigrated to the United States in 1960. In 2008, he received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery and development of the use of green fluorescent protein together with Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien.

According to Shimomura, Russian scientists are among the best in the world in his field of interest: “People are making huge progress developing practical applications for bioluminescence in many countries of the world, but all the other countries have stopped doing fundamental research into the phenomenon itself. All, that is, except Russia.”  

Osamu Shimomura was invited to Siberia by his old friend Iosif Gitelson, a scientist from the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Considering the ever-more complicated situation of science in our area of research, I decided to take him up on the offer and make use of an opportunity to work with the best Russian scientists,” Shimomura said.

In Russia Shimomura is involved in research on the mystery of glowing mushrooms. “Finding out about what causes bioluminescence would be a massive scientific breakthrough and could also benefit mankind, although we still don’t know exactly how,” said the chemist.

Based on articles from the “Bolshoi Gorod” magazine  and Gazeta.Ru 

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.