Petrikgate

A big scandal is going on in Russia. An inventor with no scientific degree and no serious scientific publications may receive a huge part of taxpayers’ money allocated to the national program called “Clean Water”. The total cost of this program would be 15 trillion rubles (500 billion dollars), and the money can be spent to buy water filters created by the inventor, for them to be placed in Russian kindergartens, schools, polyclinics, and other public places.

The inventor, Victor Petrik, claims that these filters have a capacity to make almost any kind of water drinkable. But many scientists are skeptical about these claims.

In December 2009, members of the Science Journalists Club (an informal association of Russian science writers, of which I am a member) wrote an open letter to the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS). They compared Victor Petrik to infamous Trofim Lysenko — unorthodox researcher in the Stalin era whose activities ended up in oppressing genetics in the USSR. In this letter, Petrik is referred to as a would-be scientific wheeler-dealer, and the management of RAS is called on to make a thorough examination of Petrik’s inventions. More than 90 people (including science journalists, scientists and all who care) signed the letter, and the list is still growing.

RAS’s management that at first didn’t seem to be willing to take any part in the scandal, had to react. Yury Osipov, president of RAS, asked the head of the academic Anti-Pseudoscience Committee, Eduard Krugliakov, to sort out the issue.

The issue, though, is not easy to sort out. Inventor Victor Petrik is strongly supported by the speaker of Russian Parliament — Boris Gryzlov. Gryzlov is even indicated as a co-author of one of Petrik’s inventions. The symbol of the Russian ruling party — United Russia — is there in the upper right corner of the official web site of Victor Petrik’s company (www.goldenformula.net).

Boris Gryzlov doesn’t only support Petrik in his inventive work, but also defends him towards scientists. The words our speaker said at one of the innovation conferences at the end of last month are probably the brightest political event of the recent weeks. “Unfortunately, many initiatives face obstacles in the form of the Russian Academy of Sciences or bureaucracy, Gryzlov said. I even know there is an Anti-Pseudoscience Committee at RAS. This really makes me wonder: how can they take responsibility and determine what pseudoscience is and what it is not? This is a kind of obscurantism”.

It is worth noting that this “obscurant” Committee was created by the Nobel Prize winner Vitaly Ginzburg to fight numerous fake scientists who appeared after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its present-day chairman, physicist Eduard Krugliakov, does his best to resist fake science in Russia. The Committee doesn’t have any means to prevent pseudoscientific activities, but it criticizes research and projects they consider pseudoscientific, and produces a regular bulletin “In defense of science”.

“I don’t think we should go back to the Middle Ages and create an inquisition,” Boris Gryzlov also said at the same day. Instead he probably implies it’s better to just try and give taxpayers’ money to Victor Petrik. Who, among other things, claims to have invented eternal batteries that take energy from the environment, ways to create precious stones, has discovered the secret of Stradivary violins, and so on. Another interesting thing is that, according to his official biography, Petrik was charged with fraud, blackmail, attempted robbery, etc. in the year 1984, and stayed in prison until 1989.

When trying to understand why something like this would happen in Russia it’s probably worth to remember Victor Petrik’s words that he said at the XXI International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg in June 2008, referring to his inventions: “Don’t try to understand anything! It’s impossible to understand! As soon as you try to use knowledge, you’ll misfire… you’ll fail!”

Leap into the Unknown Future

I remember the very first issue of Russian Newsweek back in 2004: it was about the Russian economy being an “oil junky”. For many years, experts have talked about the huge problems that Russia is going to face if it doesn’t build an economy based on something other than these raw materials. But only last year president Dmitry Medvedev started to talk more or less persistently about innovations.

I’ve just returned from Saint Petersburg, where I attended the Second All-Russian Youth Innovation Convention — the annual meeting of young Russian scientists and innovation managers, as well as not-so-young investors and officials who crave an innovation economy to be built in Russia as quickly as possible.

They have a point. The brain drain continues, even though the Russian government is trying to do something about it. Many young scientists still think they have way more opportunities in Western universities with modern equipment and decent salaries than they do here in Russia. To provide a stimulus for young people to stay and work in this country and to contribute into the “innovation leap”, Russian authorities initiated a program called “Zvorykinsky Project” in early 2008.

According to the organizers there are 10,000 people and 3,000 projects participating in this initiative right now. Young people are free to register their projects at the website (unfortunately it is in Russian only), and then they receive scores from other participants and get reviewed by experts. In a series of regional events, regional winners are determined and they take part in the final competition. Then, finalists in three categories are chosen: “The best innovative project of the year”, “The best innovative idea of the year” and “The best innovative product of the year”. Those three finalists are awarded 1 million Rubles (about 23 thousand Euros) at the end of the year, at the Innovation Convention I’ve just returned from.

During this two-day event in Saint Petersburg, there were plenty of lectures and seminars — from a thrilling lecture of the American physicist and futurist Michio Kaku about technical wonders of the future to some more materially-minded discussions touching on career opportunities. Along the way, several different awards have been presented to young researchers: the prize from Mercedes-Benz Rus for ecological innovation in the car industry, a youth prize from the Global Energy Foundation, etc.

The main feature of the event was an exhibition of the projects themselves: young people were positioned in two lobbies with their stands, demonstrating their inventions to the mass media and potential investors. Here you could see a new device for measuring people’s pulse and determining the condition of vessels; concrete that repells water and ice and consequently is never slippery; a fancy spider-robot; a “smart house” system that informs you of any technical trouble happening while you’re away; and many other interesting things. Upon talking to the participants I realized, though, that some of the ideas were not new and some had been developed not by them but by their older colleagues, but the overall impression was mostly positive.

My general feeling about this forum is, however, ambivalent. On the one hand, I’m really glad that it exists, because it helps young people to get funding, it stimulates their activities and gives them hope that they can work in this country and even get rich. 24-year old Yana Sanyagina, who developed the anti-icing concrete, says the governor of the Penza Region in Russia noticed her project and gave money for the first production lot. 25-year old Aleksey Zashikhin engineered a hydraulic particle separator, and thanks to the Zvorykinsky Project he got a big grant from ONEXIM Group — one of Russia’s largest private investment funds owned by tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov. There are a number of such stories, which makes me quite optimistic about the undertaking.

On the other hand, I’m really worried about this event being too political. One of the main creators of the Zvorykinsky Project and the Innovation Convention is Vasily Yakemenko, who is now the head of the Russian Federal Agency for Youth Affairs, but used to be the founder and the head of the infamous youth movement “Nashi”. “Nashi” is known for its clearly anti-western rhetoric and a paranoid suspicion about all liberally-minded people, including some most respected human rights advocates in Russia. (It is really amazing and scary how people aged 20–25, born in the era of Perestroika or even later, can now — again — think in Cold War terms.) So, this style of ridiculously exaggerated patriotism is unfortunately present at the Innovation Convention, too. But if a characteristic piety in front of the ministers had been anticipated, one thing really made it creepy. That was the title of the second day of the forum: “Enforcement” of Innovations. The only thing this phrase associates with in the Russian language is “Enforcement of Georgia to peace” — the official name of the Russian military operation in the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008. I can only guess if this was a deliberate cue or just bad linguistic taste.

“This year’s competition is very humane”, said Vasily Yakemenko at the press conference, meaning that all the winning projects are aimed at individuals’ well-being. The winners of Zvorykinsky Project-2009 are: Liliya Anisimova who developed a method of cleaning the soil from pesticides (“The best innovative project”); Marat Mukhamedyarov who came up with the idea of a drug to treat neurodegenerative diseases (“The best innovative idea”); and Ramil Rakhmatullin who developed a kind of artificial human skin that can be used in transplant surgery (“The best innovative product”). I really hope this competition will always be as humane and will foster peace innovations as opposed to war, be it hot or cold. And I guess if Russia stops being an “oil junky”, it will only help the cause.

Russian Youth in Search for Science

“I read your article and I didn’t quite understand what ‘star density’ means”, a good friend of mine, Sasha, told me last week. She’s a very intelligent girl, we studied together at the Moscow State Linguistic University. But linguistic education in no way provides you with scientific insight, and, unfortunately, in most cases neither does secondary school in Russia.

That’s what I was thinking about when I decided to create a science section in my newspaper, Akzia. We are a biweekly general interest newspaper for people aged 18–30, distributed for free in 11 major Russian cities. “How come we still don’t have a science section?”, was my instant thought in late 2006, when I was conducting a series of interviews with young Russian scientists for a cover story.

Science is not popular enough among young people in Russia — it’s much “trendier” to be a manager. There are too few popular scientific media outlets, and you can hardly find any science programs on TV. In most cases, science in schools is so boring and incomprehensible that those who are not naturally good at it graduate without knowing the difference between viruses and bacteria. As a result, pseudoscience thrives, newspapers print horoscopes, and TV runs Uri Geller shows.

These were the arguments I used to persuade my fellow editors to create a science section. In less than a year, my editor-in-chief told me: “You have one page for it, in every issue”.

That’s when the most difficult part began. What was our task — to educate? To inform? To teach? To entertain? What did our readers expect from us? How to do science journalism for young people at all?

It was pretty difficult to create a new section out of nowhere. One thing I knew: I wanted science to look sexy. I wanted to publish interviews with young Russian scientists to show how cool it is to be smart as they are. I was going to write about all the possible opportunities for our readers to get closer to science and to take part in it — like going to a science festival, or to a new science exhibition, or to a popular scientific lecture. And I wanted to present science news in a way that any schoolboy would understand. At least to give it a try.

One of the biggest challenges was finding authors. My idea that only young people should write for a youth newspaper quickly melted away: There were simply not enough young science journalists out there (at least not that I would know about). At Russian universities, there is no such discipline as “science communication”. This means that science journalism is done either by scientists or by regular journalists, or, quite often, by ex-scientists who have become journalists. Fortunately, it turned out they can write for a youth newspaper. And I was lucky enough to have some of them write for us.

Another challenge was, and still is, informational graphics. My colleagues insist that it be in every issue, except for the cases where it wouldn’t fit in at all. Our designer Nikita Kachaev, who, unlike me, has a scientific background, helps me a lot with setting it up. Still, I think we’re not good enough at it yet. Science informational graphics should be more complex and comprehensible at the same time, and it should definitely be more fun.

Since 2007, we’ve written about recent developments in science (nanotechnologies, testing AIDS vaccine, preparing a flight to Mars); popular scientific projects on the web (www.eol.org,www.periodicvideos.orgwww.sixtysymbols.com); interviewed one of the youngest people to receive a Nobel prize (Brian Josephson) and one of the first young scientists to be a winner of a newly-instituted Russian president’s award for young scientists (Alexandr Kuznetsov). We promoted the International Year of Astronomy and its events that each person can participate in.

At our editorial meetings, I’m still being criticised for some articles being too complicated. But I’m trying hard to make it understandible — at least for my ex-fellow-students like Sasha. My own lack of scientific knowledge even helps me with this: I never write on things I don’t quite understand myself, but when somebody who understands it well writes about it for me, I can easily tell what’s too “nerdy” in the text.

After the WCSJ 2009, I came up with the idea to write about the new Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum in London. It struck me by a new level of openness to the public and a completely innovative way of communicating with visitors — all the things we were told by an inspired employee on a short tour, during the gala-reception we had there. It seemed like the Darwin Centre was going to be a real museum of a new age, a must for visiting. The only problem — it’s a bit far from Moscow… But well, we write for modern smart open-minded globally-thinking young people, and London is, after all, just three hours away by plane.