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Federal Research Center 
"Krasnoyarsk Science Center of the Siberian
Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences"

 Федеральный исследовательский центр «Красноярский научный центр Сибирского отделения Российской академии наук»

Federal Research Center 
"Krasnoyarsk Science Center of the Siberian
Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences"

“It is necessary to work instead of crying.” An interview of the Honored Scientist of the Russian Federation Sergei Ovchinnikov

1 February 2021 г.

«Не надо плакаться, надо работать". Интервью заслуженного деятеля науки РФ Сергея Овчинникова газете Троицкий вариант.
Honored Scientist of the Russian Federation head of the scientific direction "magnetism" at the L. V. Kirensky Institute of Physics KSC SB RAS, Doctor of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, Sergey Ovchinnikov told about science in Russia, how to become an outstanding scientist, about the coronavirus situation and unification of the two largest scientific funds.

- Recently, the journal PLOS Biology has published information on the most influential scientists, based on the Scopus scientific publications accounting system. It included almost 160,000 researchers from all over the world. The authors of the calculation algorithm and database are the famous American statistician John Ioannidis and his colleagues.  709 and 751 people from Russia were included into the list of record-cited scientists for the entire period of indexing articles in Scopus and most cited scientists in publications of 2019, respectively. You are both of these lists.

- Of course, I was pleased to know that I am included into this base, but nothing more. I think it is wrong to rank people according to a list and use it, for example, in the case of grants distribution or job applications. Apart from moral satisfaction, I don't see any sense in it.

- How to become an outstanding scientist?

To be published in successful journals and to be an eminent scientist, you need to work on a relevant subject. At the same time, there are fashionable research subjects, but not particularly relevant. They need to be distinguished. Fashionable ones flare up sharply, burn for a year or two, scientists rush to research them, while those, you see, have cooled down. And there are topical research subjects that contain complex problems which have not been solved for a long time. For example, I have been studying the theory of strong electron correlations all my life. It has been known for almost a hundred years, but for a long time there was no particular development in this area. Therefore, few scientists were interested in the topic. But when high-temperature superconductors were experimentally discovered in 1987, it turned out that they belong to the class of materials with strong electron correlations. And then, the subject became both relevant and fashionable. By the way, the most cited work of mine refers specifically to materials with a strong electron correlation. And recently, as part of an international team, we have determined how metal oxides exchange electrons and change their magnetic state under the influence of optical radiation. Scientists could not solve this riddle for decades. Therefore, instead of fashionable ones, it is better to select relevant topics.

It is not only the choice of the subject that is important, but also an integrated approach to it. It is necessary to improve the instrumental base and experimental facilities, and to carry out theoretical work. Maybe, the fact that I was included in the list of influential scientists is precisely due to the fact that I have been preaching an integrated approach in Krasnoyarsk for a long time.

- You have worked in many foreign universities. Is science somehow different there and in Russia?

I got my first foreign experience in 1990 in Bangalore, India. This is probably the most famous science center in India. They have the same principle as ours, which is an integrated approach. There are experimental and theoretical laboratories. It is important to note that this is a research institute, in fact, the same as our academic ones. In Western universities, in Europe or America, as a rule, the organization principle is slightly different. There are groups in which professors determine scientific directions. For example, a famous experimenter was invited as a professor, and an experimental direction is developing around him. Such development is rarely complex.

- Ideologically, it is somewhat similar to the approach within the framework of Russian mega-grants.

- But grants should be in larger volumes, to allow purchasing decent equipment. Take, for example, the mega-grant we received last year. We were able to buy only the minimum required equipment. There was nothing left for the salaries of employees in the first year. Our mega grants are very small for serious experimental and technological development. We have to additionally attract other sources of funding.

- Can we say that conditions are difficult for science in Russia?

- It has always been difficult for us. When there is a problem of national importance, as was the case with the nuclear or space industry, then, of course, the state allocates a lot of money. Therefore, we have had breakthrough achievements in the nuclear and space sectors. In the nuclear industry, I would say, we are still ahead. At the same time, for example, the areas, which I am engaged in, do not receive so much attention from the state, although high-temperature superconductivity was supported within the framework of the first federal target program in the Soviet Union. Good money at that time was invested. But in general, funding is always lacking.

- Is there any way out of the situation?

- In principle, the existing grant system in Russia allows active people to take their first steps. However, the merger of the Russian Science Foundation and the Russian Foundation for Basic Research has now been announced, and this is a very sad situation. RFBR was the first independent foundation to support small teams of scientists. RSF is more focused on large projects. But in addition to powerful teams or topics, there are also smaller, more initiative ones. Eliminating the possibility of funding them would be a big mistake.

A positive moment is the participation of Russia in international projects. It is very helpful that Russia is included, for example, in the megascience project on the synchrotron center in Grenoble. A powerful acceleration center and a free electron laser, has now been built in Hamburg. Since Russia paid contributions there, we have the right to apply for an experiment. It is reviewed on a competitive basis by the expert community. If supported, you get paid for travel, accommodation and experiment. We have been using such opportunities for a long time. In Hamburg, we have already planned our first experiment. Russia's participation in large international projects greatly helps the development of relatively small research teams as mine.

- And if we talk about fundamental science in Russia?

- Consider the situation with the coronavirus now. Why was Russia one of the first to develop a vaccine? Because this science has long been developed and supported by the state. The Novosibirsk "Vector" or the NF Gamaleya National Research Center did not appear yesterday.

Returning to physics, I would say that, of course, there is not enough attention from the state to the financing of science. However, there is another aspect. It is necessary not only to have money, but also to manage it competently. Why do we have such a problem? When a person is engaged in physics, chemistry or mathematics, he is a specialist in his narrow field, we were not taught to competently manage money. This may be the reason why we have a certain gap between fundamental research and its application in practice. There are many interesting results, but active and enterprising people are deprived of the opportunity to do something on their own. For example, in the West a professor with graduate students came up with some idea. A small business is instantly registered, a former graduate student becomes a manager, and begins the production. This is practically impossible in our country. Successful knowledge-based enterprises which implement the results of fundamental science are few. Our social system is not only unready, but even initiatives are subject to the state bureaucracy.

- Does this mean that science is in decline in Russia?

- It depends on what to compare. In the days of the USSR, when the Academy of Sciences was a privileged organization, one could say that science is greatly supported by the state. For example, in the official events, the President of the Academy of Sciences always sat at the same table with the highest power holders of the state. Now these are church leaders, and big businessmen. Science is also invited, but somewhere out there. This shows the state's attention to the problems of science. But this does not mean that science itself has become worse. It is the interests of the state that have changed.

- You briefly mentioned the coronavirus as an example of an area where science has successfully worked to solve a problem. How has the pandemic affected science? Many, for example, criticize the online format of scientific events.

- I think this is a positive side of our scientific life. It sounds unexpected, but in the context of the coronavirus, when we are all at home, we began to communicate more. Now I am one of the co-organizers of the Russian colloquia on topical problems of condensed matter physics. We started to hold them in the autumn and now we have them twice a month. To participate in the event, we invite speakers from all over the world, mostly Russian-speaking ones. Among them at our colloquium there was already a Nobel laureate. Each time there are about 500 participants, 700 people attended Konstantin Novosyolov's lecture. It is difficult to bring together such a number of scientists at a face-to-face conference. This became possible only thanks to a new format due to the coronavirus. But it is quite another matter to lecture for students in this format. When teaching students, personal communication is very important; it is impossible to completely replace live education with distant learning. For scientific discussions, I believe online formats will continue to be used. But, again, they will not replace live conferences, because face-to-face communication is also positive and important.

- If not the coronavirus, then what can prevent a scientist from developing?

- Just yesterday I was talking with my friend and former classmate, who is also in charge of a laboratory at our Institute of Physics, he is a talented experimenter. Young people are leaving his laboratory. They are hindered by the lack of money. Some people leave for the West because conditions are better there. I think that someone may be hindered by disorganization, and someone by the lack of money.

It is important to understand: if you want to work, you can always find conditions. And if you want to complain, you can always find reasons for it. It depends on the person. I have a graduate student. He went to Grenoble several times for experimenting, then he was invited to work there for a couple of years. Now he has returned to Krasnoyarsk. He has recently published a great article in the journal Science. This is an example of how you can realize yourself in science. It is necessary to work instead of crying.

Source: Troitsky Variant-Science