"At stake is the very existence of one of the world's greatest
and cultural legacies. . . . the Preservation Center has enormous potential because it is located here, where the sciences and culture can unite to save world treasures."
Since 1991 Academician Zhores Alferov has been vice president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, one of the founding partners of the St. Petersburg International Center for Preservation.
He is president of the St. Petersburg Scientific Center of the Academy and director of the Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute of the Russian Academy, where he has worked since 1953. For his extensive research in semiconductor technology, Professor Alferov has received awards not only from his own country but from Europe and the United States as well. He is a foreign member of the German, Polish, Belarusan, Korean, and United States academies of science. In 1995 he was elected to the Russian Duma as an advocate for science and culture.
Professor Alferov spoke with Jane Slate Siena, head of Institutional Relations for the Getty Conservation Institute and president of the St. Petersburg International Center for Preservation.
Jane Slate Siena: St. Petersburg has long been a scientific as well as a cultural center for Russia and for the world. What are the origins of the city's scientific traditions?
Zhores Alferov: Peter the Great founded the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg in 1724, so you can say that our city has the oldest scientific traditions in our country. In fact, Peter named us the St. Petersburg Imperial Academy of Sciences and established the tradition that the Academy's president be appointed by the czar. In 1917 we were named the Russian Academy of Sciences, and a system of elected officers was established. From 1925 to 1991 we were named the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Today we are again the Russian Academy of Sciences.
If you study our history, you will see that today we are in a situation similar to the one we in were just before the turn of the century, when the Academy's President, Grand Duke Konstantin, struggled with the reforms set out by Alexander II. During that great period of experimentation and attempted transition to a market economy, Konstantin appealed to the government to save the Academy by ensuring its financial stability during a changing economy. That is precisely our position now as we seek continued financial support from the state because our system is again changing.
How are Russia's vast array of scientific institutes, laboratories, and educational programs holding up during this time of structural change?
Let's take as an example the Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute, where I serve as Director. Founded in 1918, Ioffe is the biggest and oldest physics institute in the country. Many important scientists, including numerous Nobel laureates, have been associated with Ioffe. Even during the height of the Cold War period, our scientists worked closely with scientists in the United States and Europe on major research projects. But if we compare today's budget with the budget of 1990, we see a decrease by a factor of 25. Furthermore, almost 40 percent of our budget now comes from grants and contracts through various international collaborations; we receive very little funding from our traditional source—our own government—due to the difficult financial situation in Russia today. Perhaps Ioffe, because of its prominence, is actually better off than most of the other scientific institutes of the Academy of Sciences. The situation in general is very difficult.
What would you say is at stake during the present period?
At stake is the very existence of one of the world's greatest scientific and cultural legacies. Please remember that the Academy of Sciences in Russia includes the country's research institutes in all of the scientific fields. It also includes some of our most distinguished collections, such as the Kunstkammer, founded by Peter the Great, the Botanical Institute, the Zoological Institute, and, of course, our main Library. These institutes I just named have the added advantage of being located here in St. Petersburg. They are here not by accident but by design. Together with the Hermitage, the State Russian Museum, the Russian National Library, and the State Russian Historical Archives, among others, they form one of the great centers of world culture. And now the Getty Conservation Institute and our Library have established the new International Center for Preservation in St. Petersburg. I have to say that you have chosen the right place. In my opinion, the Preservation Center has enormous potential because it is located here, where the sciences and culture can unite to save world treasures.
Would you agree that the cultural and scientific organizations, though strong, are challenged as never before?
Yes. We are doing very important work in spite of a very hard situation economically. You know, our scientists, librarians, and museum personnel work even when they are not paid, because they simply cannot imagine any other jobs for themselves.
But the challenge is beyond the financial. Though I am not going to advocate a return to the Soviet system, I nevertheless have to say that the sciences enjoyed a certain prestige during Soviet times. Just a few years ago, it was not difficult to convince talented young people—beginning at the age of 13—to enter our special high schools to prepare for scientific careers. We had strong support from the state; it was prestigious to become a scientist. This is not the case today. Because I enjoy young people, I spend a lot of time personally trying to turn this around. I am happy to say that I have just secured from Moscow funding to build another school, and we are making renewed efforts to recruit students aggressively. You know, I believe scientists—even junior scientists—are more important than presidents. Presidents may deal with the problems of the country and the state, but scientists deal with the problems of the whole cosmos.
Have you shared this view with President Yeltsin?
Not yet, but I will. I have shared other views with President Yeltsin.
I have said that information plays the most important role in our postindustrial society. And during this period in the development of civilization, the two most important discoveries were the transistor and the laser. These two discoveries laid the foundation for our scientific, cultural, and social transition from an industrial society to an information society. Both discoveries depended on a high level of scientific work going on concurrently and collaboratively in Russia and in the United States. This alone makes the case for continued support for science and certainly for international cooperation.
Another point for our president is that our tax system is not yet correct. In 1990 we were paying 3.5 percent of our budget to the government in taxes. Today we are supposed to pay 43 percent. Our state organizations should not be taxed on this level. It is simply not possible to collect this from our cultural and scientific organizations. The financial crisis of the moment is largely a failure to establish a tax collection system that brings in sufficient funds to support the legitimate operations of our country adequately.
Is the experience of the United States in these matters of interest to Russia?
Absolutely. The two countries have much in common. We must learn from one another according to our successes and our failures. For example, I think Russian television has been spoiled by Western influences in some directions, and these are directions that we should try to avoid. On the other hand, we should try to learn something positive from the democratic system of government and the private economy.
You have been instrumental in the establishment of the St. Petersburg International Center for Preservation. Given all that you have to consider and to achieve, why did you decide to help create a new organization just when you are struggling to keep afloat so many existing cultural and scientific institutes?
I am an optimist in general. We often say that Russia is a country of optimists because all the pessimists left. Seriously, I am optimistic about the level of science that can be developed here to support conservation. For these purposes, we need an environment like this, where all the sciences are strong. Interdisciplinary projects are important. New discoveries often happen at the borders between different branches of science. So at the borders of science and culture, we are sure to find the future.
Also, I believe very strongly in international collaboration. So it is natural for me to want to create more opportunities for Russian scientists to work with their colleagues in other countries, just as I have been privileged to do. The St. Petersburg International Center for Preservation is already doing this.