Despite launching the world’s first artificial satellite and being a leader in the nuclear arms race, science in Russia is in a state of decline and the country is losing its standing as a scientific powerhouse. So says a new report by the information-services provider Thomson Reuters. Entitled The New Geography of Science: Research and Collaboration in Russia, the report warns that the country’s research base "has a problem, and it shows little sign of a solution".

Over the last five years, researchers in Russia have produced about 127,000 papers across all sciences, accounting for about 2.6% of the world's output, according to data taken from Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science database. This share of publications is less than that for researchers in China and India, with 2.9% and 8.4%, respectively, but higher than fellow BRIC nation Brazil, whose scientists publish about 102,000 papers that account for 2.1% of the world’s output.

Russia still maintains a strong focus in the physical sciences but this too is in decline compared with other countries’ output. Between 1999 and 2003, physics articles published by researchers based in Russia accounted for 9.7% of the world’s output, with about 38,000 papers published. However, between 2004 and 2008 that number had shrunk to 7.4%, or 35,000 papers.

Still strong in nuclear science

Russia, however, is still potent in some areas of physics. Its strongest area is nuclear science, with Russian researchers publishing 3100 papers in the field between 2004 and 2008 – about 10.3% of the world’s output. Mineralogy is its second best field, followed by particle physics, which accounts for roughly 9.1% of the global total.

The main reason for the decline is the total neglect of fundamental science by the post-Soviet governments in Russia Andrei Starinets, Oxford University

"I think the overall tendency of a decline in Russia's research output since the early 1990s is reflected correctly in this report," says theoretical physicist Andrei Starinets from Oxford University, who co-authored a letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last October along with 170 other Russian researchers working abroad that called for reforms to the country’s science base. "The main reason for the decline is the total neglect of fundamental science by the post-Soviet governments in Russia, especially from 1992 to 2002."

Starinets agrees that the Russian government is, however, doing little to reverse the decline. "There is an absence of serious structural reforms in science in the country," says Starinets. "Recent attempts by the government to improve the situation still fall short of the actual needs."