One of Russia's most prominent international science projects has fallen foul of cold-war-era concerns. An expedition to study carbon transport around Siberia's Yenisey River has been postponed for a year after officials blocked the use of sampling equipment and put some sites off-limits. The episode highlights the tension between Russia's bureaucracy and its growing ambition to develop wider research collaborations — part of a strategy to revitalize domestic science.
In July, Ernst-Detlef Schulze, a carbon-cycle researcher and founding director of the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany, and 35 scientists from Germany, the Netherlands, France and Russia, had their bags packed for the journey to Siberia.
Then they received a letter from the Russian Federal Security Service prohibiting them from using any Western equipment on the trip. Schulze, who last year received a 150-million-rouble (US$5-million) grant from the Russian government to do research in Siberia, was aghast. "When I first saw the letter I just couldn't believe what I read," he says. "I was so disappointed and furious I went to my own forest and lumbered trees until I was exhausted."
Western scientists participating in the 12-billion-rouble 'mega-grant' programme that funds Schulze (see Nature 473, 428–429; 2011) have previously complained about excessive bureaucracy and frequent problems with export control and customs, and have received support from the Russian science minister, Andrei Fursenko (see Nature 465, 858; 2010).
So Schulze and his co-workers at the Siberian Federal University in Krasnoyarsk used diplomatic channels to try to reverse the ruling. Equipment worth ?600,000 (US$865,000) was already in Siberia, ready to be used to calculate the carbon budget of the Yenisey's huge catchment area (see map). Siberia's soils and forests serve as one of Earth's largest carbon sinks, but the carbon flux between ecosystems there has never been studied in detail.
At a hastily arranged meeting in Moscow on 4 August, Fursenko said that he regretted the situation and promised to try to find a solution. A week later, the expedition was given clearance to begin on 1 September — but with restrictions that Schulze found unacceptable. Sampling tools, for instance, could be handled only by Russian staff — most of whom are not trained to use the geochemical analysis equipment, says Schulze. The Russian Federal Services for Technology and Export Control also refused to approve the purchase of equipment in the West, such as a freeze-dryer to preserve samples.
"This is not the way to do science," says Han Dolman, an environmental scientist at the VU University Amsterdam. Dolman had planned to study how carbon is transported from soils into the Yenisey River, and how much of the organic carbon dissolved in the river becomes carbon dioxide. Unlike on land, carbon exchange in aquatic systems is poorly understood.
On 12 August, Schulze threatened to cancel the expedition, but further negotiations yielded a compromise: the trip will take place next year, with the only restriction being a ban on taking samples from a roughly 20,000-square-kilometre area around Krasnoyarsk, where Russia operates a nuclear-reprocessing facility.
The saga shows that scientists do not yet have enough freedom in their research in Russia, says Schulze. "There's an absurdly opaque and often arbitrary bureaucracy at work. Thankfully, Fursenko was always clearly on our side."