By Paul Goble
The presidium of the Siberian division of the Russian Academy of Sciences decided to classify a report its members had prepared on environmental degradation in that region lest its publication act “like a bomb” before the elections. But in so doing, they not only discredited themselves but attracted more attention to the findings in the report.
The Siberian academicians removed the report from its website, and one of their number, Aleksey Kontorovich observing that the scholars didn’t have the right to publish something that could cause problems like sparking public debate about the environment (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2021/03/29/predstavte-nakanune-vyborov-my-opublikuem-eti-doklady-chto-budet).
But that very public action of restricting access to the report had two consequences neither of which the academics or their institution expected or can really afford. On the hand, it had the effect, since much of the data had been released, of attracting even more attention to just how bad things are with the air and water the people of Siberia are now contending with.
And on the other, it discredited the whole notion of academic integrity that has long been the basis of support for that institution. Indeed, the fact that the report was classified not by the regional or federal governments but by members of the Academy of science shocked more people than the report itself (https://ngs24.ru/text/ecology/2021/03/27/69834530/).
The Russian people expect the political authorities to restrict the flow of information, but they don’t expect academicians to do so. That the latter are now engaged in such classification efforts shows just how much pressure the scholars are under. That is an indictment of both politicians and scholars and will only lead to more cynicism among Russians.
It will also mean that Russian academicians will have lost for many in Siberia and beyond the kind of respect and deference they have long enjoyed, something that will mean these new defenders of the Putin system and its approach won’t be able to count on popular support if and when the politicians attack them.