Russia's most prestigious academic body -- the Academy of Sciences -- has delivered a rare rebuff to President Vladimir Putin by rejecting Kremlin plans for it to give up its independence.
The academy, which was founded by Peter the Great in 1724, defiantly voted against a proposal that would have seen it governed by a supervisory council. The council, made up largely of people without scientific backgrounds, would have decided the priorities of Russian science.
The academy has long been the home of Russia's greatest scientific thinkers.
It has also managed to uphold its tradition of rigorous academic independence, even in Soviet times. When Soviet head of state Leonid Brezhnev demanded that the academy expel the dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, it refused.
On Wednesday the academy said no once again when some 2,000 members rejected the proposal by Putin's education and science ministry to create the new supervisory board.
The board would have been dominated 2 to 1 by Kremlin appointees -- in effect, putting Russian science in the hands of a group of bureaucrats, some of whom, it was being whispered in the academy's gilded salon on Friday, could not explain the laws of gravity.
"It was a very good day," said Igor Milovidov, an immaculate octogenarian in a striped tie who has worked at the academy for 40 years. "Members like the academy as it is," he said.
The supervisory committee would include three government appointees and three members from the presidential administration, federation council and Duma -- as well as three scientists.
It would control research, and it would decide which scientific projects to pursue and distribute state funding. Currently the academy's president, presidiums and general assembly decide. The academy, meanwhile, prides itself on electing its officials by democratic ballot.
"It was obvious we were going to say no," said academy vice president Alexander Nekipelov, speaking from his first-floor balcony office. "Saying yes would have been suicide for the academy."
On Wednesday members voted overwhelmingly for the academy's own version of its charter.
"I have never seen such a unanimous vote. Only one person abstained," Nekipelov said.
Members acknowledge that the battle is not just over the future of science. It comes at a time when the Kremlin has been anxious to extend its control over all areas of society -- the media, the opposition and the universities -- in advance of parliamentary elections in December and next year's presidential vote.
"Governments come and go, but academics stay," academy spokeswoman Irina Presnyakova said phlegmatically, when asked about the academy's now uncertain future.
The institution currently gets US$1.7 billion in funding from the state. It has 400 research institutes and some 200,000 scientists.
It is not clear what will happen next. Members are now debating whether to petition Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov. But Russia's education and science ministry has made it clear it is unhappy about this week's rebuff.
"The charter cannot be supported for lots of reasons," Deputy Education and Science Minister Dmitry Livanov said. "Since the document does not agree with a key ministerial [document] it will be returned for reworking."
If the charter is rejected the academy will call a general assembly in the autumn. But there is no guarantee that members will then accept the proposal.
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