|Российская наука и мир|
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Financial Times / September 1, 2010
Rosatom launches global charm offensive
- By Isabel Gorst and Bernard Simon
На волне спроса на ядерную энергию у госкорпорации "Росатом" есть шансы стать одним из ведущих мировых игроков и превратиться в то, чем для газовой индустрии является "Газпром". В настоящее время корпорация занимается поиском зарубежных партнеров по полному ядерному циклу. Например, с компаниями Areva и Toshiba ведутся переговоры о поставках топлива и стратегических технологий, что в перспективе может привести к совместным проектам.
Rosatom, Russia's state-owned atomic power corporation, has launched an international charm offensive as the country's most secretive and controversial industry attempts to come in from the cold.
In a rare meeting with foreign media last week, Sergei Kiriyenko, a former Russian prime minister and now president of Rosatom, outlined plans for the company to become a leading international player as nuclear power enjoys a surge in demand.
"We want to double in size," he told reporters in Toronto.
Like the Gazprom and Russian Railways monopolies, Rosatom is a former ministry, converted into a state corporation in 2007. If the Kremlin achieves its ambitions, Rosatom could become to global nuclear power what Gazprom is to the natural gas industry.
But as it looks outwards, Rosatom is burdened by the forbidding legacy of its Soviet past, including the catastrophic Chernobyl accident that cast a pall on the nuclear power industry for 20 years. More recently, Rosatom's partnership with Iran at the Bushehr nuclear power plant has also provoked US antagonism.
Mr Kiriyenko admitted that Russia's reputation in nuclear power was "not the best", and described steps taken to improve transparency, including the separation of civil and military aspects of the business and a new law allowing foreign investment.
Rosatom is now looking for foreign partners across the full nuclear cycle, including uranium mining and enrichment, fuel assembly and nuclear reactor design and supply.
"The most rational way to develop is to build global alliances," Mr Kiriyenko said.
Nuclear power offers a big opportunity for Russia to diversify its economy away from oil and compete in one of the few high-technology areas in which it has world-class expertise.
Rosatom accounts for one-fifth of the new reactors under construction worldwide and 17 per cent of global nuclear fuel fabrication, and aims to build a larger share in both segments. In one of its biggest foreign successes, Rosatom signed a $20bn contract this year to build four reactors in Turkey and handle fuel supplies and electricity sales from the plant. Mr Kiriyenko said the agreement was a landmark that would shape future reactor deals.
"We want to provide the whole gamut of services, not just nuclear reactors, but a guaranteed supply of fuel for the lifetime of the plants," he said. But while its prospects look bright, Rosatom is facing competition in Russia's traditional markets as cold war barriers that divided the nuclear industry along strategic fault lines break down.
French nuclear power group Areva is competing with Rosatom for a contract to build a reactor in the Czech Republic, while Toshiba, which bought the US Westinghouse Electric Company in 2006, is a rival for a deal in Vietnam.
Mr Kiriyenko said that Rosatom was building strategic technology and fuel supply relations with Areva and Toshiba that could pave the way for joint projects to build plants.
Rosatom also has far larger uranium enrichment capacity than it needs and is seeking international partners to share the facilities. It agreed to sell Kazakhstan a stake in an enrichment plant in exchange for uranium resources this year and is negotiating a similar deal with Ukraine.
Rosatom also wants to boost its uranium reserves.
Mr Kiriyenko was in Canada to drum up support for a deal under which ARMZ, Rosatom's mining arm, would acquire a controlling stake in Uranium One, the Canadian uranium and gold producer.
Although initially greeted coolly, the deal was overwhelmingly approved by Uranium One's shareholders yesterday.
Russia has plentiful uranium reserves, but the Uranium One acquisition will provide ARMZ with access to lower-cost production in Africa, Australia and Kazakhstan in time to meet an expected surge in demand as new plants come on line.
New uranium sources will help fill a gap in the market left by the expiry in 2013 of a deal under which Russia has supplied the US with spent fuel from dismantled bombs since the mid-1990s.
Mr Kiriyenko said that the expiry of the "Megatons for Megawatts" deal that was fuelling one in 10 US light bulbs would not extinguish nuclear ties between the two former cold war foes.
Approval of a US-Russian agreement for peaceful nuclear co-operation submitted to the US Congress in May could set the stage for broader collaboration between the two countries to trade nuclear materials, technology and services.
"We have already contracted to sell $5bn worth of uranium to the US," Mr Kiriyenko said. "We are in talks with US utilities to sign agreements to 2020 and beyond."
© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2010.
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Scientific American / Sep 6, 2010
Man's new best friend? A forgotten Russian experiment in fox domestication
Статья о советском генетике Дмитрии Константиновиче Беляеве и его эксперименте по одомашниванию лис, начатом в 1959 году в Институте цитологии и генетики СО РАН.
Dmitri K. Belyaev, a Russian scientist, may be the man most responsible for our understanding of the process by which wolves were domesticated into our canine companions. Dogs began making for themselves a social niche within human culture as early as 12,000 years ago in the Middle East. But Belyaev didn't study dogs or wolves; his research focused instead on foxes. What might foxes be able to tell us about the domestication of dogs?
Domesticated animals of widely different species seem to share some common traits: changes in body size, in fur coloration, in the timing of the reproductive cycle. Their hair or fur becomes wavy or curly; they have floppy ears and shortened or curly tails. Even Darwin noted, in On the Origin of Species, that "not a single domestic animal can be named which has not, in some country, drooping ears."
Drooping ears is a feature that does not ever occur in the wild, except for in elephants. And domesticated animals possess characteristic changes in behavior compared with their wild brethren, such as a willingness or even an eagerness to hang out with humans.
Belyaev and other Soviet-era biologists looked around at domesticated dogs, a species they knew had descended from wolves, and were puzzled. They could not figure out what mechanism could account for the differences in anatomy, physiology, and behavior that they saw in dogs, but they knew that they could find the answers in the principles of Mendelian inheritance. At that time in Stalinist Russia, however, Lysenkoism was state doctrine, and biologists were unable to carry out the research necessary to investigate these questions.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Trophim Lysenko, an agronomist with a peasant upbringing, claimed to have invented a new farming technique that could triple or even quadruple crop yields. Lysenko's illegitimate science held that the acquired characteristics of a plant could be inherited by its offspring. Despite the fact that his technique, called vernalization, was neither new nor effective, Lysenko quickly rose through the hierarchy of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. The Communist officials thought that if the peasants could be motivated to cultivate grains, no matter the reason, this was a positive change from the earlier days when peasants eagerly destroyed crops to keep them from the Soviet government. For this reason, while biologists were investigating the genetics of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, Lysenko's appeal to party officials was his ability to involve peasants in an "agricultural revolution." From his position of power, Lysenko was able to pit classical geneticists against the Communist Party.
Lysenkoism was of course directly in contrast to Mendelian genetics, which declared that acquired characteristics could not be genetically passed down to offspring; the unit of inheritance was the gene, and not experience. But the slow work of academic science and genetics couldn't provide the Communists with the same sort of political gain and therefore simply couldn't compete with Lysenko's non-science.
Genetics was branded a "fascist science," perhaps because of the way that Nazi Germany attempted to leverage genetics and eugenics in their attempt to build a master race. In the mid to late 1930s, many geneticists were executed or sent to labor camps. In 1948, genetics was officially declared a pseudoscience, resulting in the firing of all geneticists from their jobs.
It was in this political environment that Belyaev lost his job at the Department of Fur Animal Breeding at the Central Research Laboratory in Moscow, because of his commitment to classical genetics. Belyaev continued to discreetly study genetics, however, by overtly studying animal physiology throughout the 1950s. In 1959, after Nikta Khrushchev rose to power and began to reverse the Communist scientific policies, Belyaev became of the director of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, in Novosibirsk, Russia, a post he retained until his death in 1985.
Belyaev hypothesized that the anatomical and physiological changes seen in domesticated animals could have been the result of selection on the basis of behavioral traits. More specifically, he believed that tameness was the critical factor. How amenable was an animal to interacting with humans?
Belyaev wondered if selecting for tameness and against aggression would result in hormonal and neurochemical changes, since behavior ultimately emerged from biology. Those hormonal and chemical changes could then be implicated in anatomy and physiology. It could be that the the anatomical differences in domesticated dogs were related to the genetic changes underlying the behavioral temperament for which they selected (tameness and low aggression). He believed that he could investigate these questions about domestication by attempting to domesticate wild foxes. Belyaev and his colleagues took wild silver foxes (a variant of the red fox) and bred them, with a strong selection criteria for inherent tameness.
Starting at one month of age, and continuing every month throughout infancy, the foxes were tested for their reactions to an experimenter. The experimenter would attempt to pet and handle the fox while offering it food. In addition, the experimenters noted whether the foxes preferred to hang out with other foxes, or with humans.
Then, upon reaching sexual maturity (seven to eight months), they had their final test and assigned an overall tameness score. They rated each fox's tendency to approach an experimenter standing at the front of its home pen, as well as each fox's tendency to bite the experimenters when they tried to touch it. Only those foxes that were least fearful and least aggressive were chosen for breeding. In each successive generation, less than 20 percent of individuals were allowed to breed. Belyaev then began breeding a line of foxes with the opposite behavioral traits, to be fearful and aggressive, using a similar method. To ensure that tameness resulted from genetic selection and not simply from experience with humans, the foxes were not trained and were only allowed short "time dosage" contact with their caretakers and experimenters.
The result of this breeding program conducted over more than 40 generations of silver foxes was a group of friendly, domesticated foxes. These domesticated foxes, which were bred on the basis of a single selection criteria, displayed behavioral, physiological, and anatomical characteristics that were not found in the wild population, or were found in wild foxes but with much lower frequency. One of the reasons that these findings were so compelling was that the criterion used to determine whether an individual fox would be allowed to breed was simply how they reacted upon the approach of a human. Would they back away, hissing and snarling, and try to bite the experimenter? Or would they approach the human and attempt to interact?
The domesticated foxes were more eager to hang out with humans, whimpered to attract attention, and sniffed and licked their caretakers. They wagged their tails when they were happy or excited. (Does that sound at all like your pet dog?) Further, their fear response to new people or objects was reduced, and they were more eager to explore new situations. Many of the domesticated foxes had floppy ears, short or curly tails, extended reproductive seasons, changes in fur coloration, and changes in the shape of their skulls, jaws, and teeth. They also lost their "musky fox smell."
The first physiological change detected was in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. This system is responsible for the control of adrenaline, which is a hormone that is produced in response to stress, and controls fear-related responses. The domesticated foxes had significantly lower adrenaline levels than their undomesticated cousins. The researchers hypothesized if the foxes were not afraid of humans, they would produce less adrenaline around them. This explains the foxes' tameness, but it doesn't account for their changed fur coloration patterns. The scientists initially theorized that adrenaline might share a biochemical pathway with melanin, which controls pigment production in fur. Further research has since supported this initial hypothesis.
And so it was that selecting for a single behavioral characteristic - allowing only the tamest, least fearful individuals to breed-resulted in changes not only in behavior, but also in anatomical and physiological changes that were not directly manipulated.
More than 50 years have passed since Belyaev began his silver fox breeding program, and research with these foxes continues to uncover the genetic changes that occur with consequences for physiology, anatomy, behavior, and cognition, as a result of the process of domestication, though on a smaller scale. 1n 1996, the breeding population contained 700 individuals, but by 1999, it was down to 100. Because of the realities of the Russian economy and the shortage of funding for science, in order to maintain the research, some foxes had to be sold for fur, and some are now being sold as pets. Of course, domestic foxes aren't domestic dogs. But by being raised in households as pets, with similar upbringing as dogs, these foxes could provide us with a sort of natural experiment by which we can even better understand the ancient relationship between man and man's best friend.
© 2010 Scientific American, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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The New York Times / September 15, 2010
Russia and Norway Agree on Boundary
15 сентября российский президент Дмитрий Медведев и норвежский премьер-министр Йенс Стольтенберг подписали соглашение о границах в Северном Ледовитом океане. Этот вопрос обсуждался с 1970 года и в последнее время стал весьма актуальным в связи с таянием ледниковых покровов и повышенного внимания к этому со стороны нефтегазовых компаний.
MOSCOW - Russia and Norway resolved a long-running boundary dispute in the Arctic Ocean on Wednesday that may help open a portion of the frozen sea to offshore oil and gas development.
The two countries have been negotiating their maritime boundary since 1970, dividing a vast watery realm that is pitch black in the wintertime and often covered in ice but that has also become the focus recently of intense interest from oil and natural gas companies.
The disputed area between the Novaya Zemlya archipelago on the Russian side and the Svalbard archipelago on the Norwegian side is now seen as valuable territory in the rush to develop petroleum deposits under the Arctic Ocean. And with the polar ice cap receding as global temperatures rise, making development of the area seem far more feasible, this once-arcane dispute has taken on added urgency.
The treaty signed Wednesday by the Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, and Norway's prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, settles one of several disputes by the five countries with coasts along the Arctic - Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States - and diplomats hailed it as a model for applying international law to the scramble for resources in the north.
"It is not a lawless area," Rolf Einar Fife, the chief negotiator on the Norwegian side, said in a telephone interview. "Rules of the game apply. The point is, the existing rules should be applied, and that is what we did today."
The resolution of the Russian-Norwegian boundary dispute, however, is unrelated to the central issues in the most contentious claim, a Russian staking out of territory that includes the North Pole. That is based on an assertion that an undersea mountain range forms part of Russia's continental shelf.
The agreement also governs drilling in any oil or gas fields that may be discovered straddling the new border; they would be developed jointly.
In negotiations that began in 1970, the Soviet Union had insisted on a line drawn directly north from the land border, following the meridian from the coast to the North Pole. Norway had maintained that the border should be drawn midway between the coastlines of two island chains of Svalbard, in Norway, and Novaya Zemlya, in Russia, as is typical practice in delineating maritime borders, though even the Norwegian diplomats conceded there were many exceptions.
The dispute left about 67,600 square miles of open sea, an area the size of Florida, contested for four decades. The Russian government has estimated that about 39 billion barrels of oil could lie under the disputed area.
The new boundary, one of the longest in what is still geographically part of Europe, roughly splits the difference between the countries' claims. Legally, it is based on a calculation taking into consideration the longer Russian coastline, Mr. Fife, the Norwegian negotiator, said.
Because of indications of important petroleum reserves under the sea, he said, "we are well served in having clarity" on the boundary. It is also important for designating search-and-rescue operations, environmental rules and fishery regulation.
© Copyright 2010. The New York Times Company.
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Energy Tribune / Sep. 23, 2010
Russia's Pre-emptive Arctic Strike
22-23 сентября в Москве прошел Международный форум "Арктика - территория диалога", организованный Российским географическим обществом при поддержке агентства РИА Новости. Основными темами форума стали современные проблемы Арктики, сохранение окружающей среды, освоение арктических природных ресурсов. В работе форума приняли участие более 300 российских и зарубежных ученых и исследователей Арктики, представителей власти, политических и деловых кругов из шестнадцати стран.
(Moscow) Let's face it, though the UN Law of the Sea Department has yet to confirm it, at least 60 percent of the Arctic is Russian territory. It's no surprise, then, that The Arctic: Territory of Dialogue two-day conference (still underway at time of writing) held in Moscow has - with various Arctic Council members in attendance - rubber-stamped Vladimir Putin's Russia as the de facto "chair" of proceedings on all thing Arctic, not least the region's mineral riches.
What is new, however, is Russia's adopting of Western ways of conflict resolution, as exemplified by repeated Russian commitments to resolve all Arctic-related issues through dialogue.
Now I remember why I stopped going to international conferences. Leaving out the opening addresses, we heard 20 speakers throughout the day. The downside to giving speakers ten minutes to speak, however, is that the succinct can only manage bullet points (that lack explanation) while the verbose plow on without PowerPoint regardless of the clock.
Not that most speakers were bad, by any means.
Day one of the conference was balanced between a morning of concern for the Arctic environment versus an afternoon of equal concern over how to exploit the region's mineral wealth (albeit for the greater benefit of mankind). As regards both there was a distinct lack of skepticism over the alleged anthropogenic cause of the Arctic's melting ice woes; or at least none prepared to make itself known. Surprising then, that so much of what was actually said exemplified the reigning confusion when it came to climate facts and data.
After numerous references to the Arctic's eco-system, we heard that anthropogenic causes could, by the end of the century, lead to the Arctic ice "disappearing entirely."
Alexander Bedritsky, an advisor to Putin on climate change, stated that "the Arctic is central to our global understanding" of climate, but revealed "global warming produced uneven temperature ranges" in the region. But it was Olav Orheim, a senior advisor at the Research Council of Norway, who got to the root cause for the lack of clarity in better understanding Arctic climate issues, lamenting the lack of cogent and reliable scientific data. If Climate-gate wasn't the elephant in the room for many of the committed alarmist ideologues present, it should have been. The lament quickly became a refrain.
Vladimir Kattsov, president of the Voeikov Main Geological Observatory in St Petersburg, said that whilst the Arctic was "more vulnerable to climate change" than other regions, Arctic ice was "shrinking less significantly" and that it was "not clear what causes speedy melting." Echoing the earlier call, Kattsov too reiterated the need for much better eco-data to be able to assess prospective "quantification of climate impacts." All of this would thus, said Kattsov, enable us to "know when and what we should do" in response. In other words, we currently don't know to do because the data isn't up to scratch.
Jan-Gunnar Winther, Director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, referring to changes in the extent of the Arctic sea ice, next stated, "Last year showed us a different pattern to previous years." Code for an increase in the extent of sea ice which was difficult to explain - in terms of anthropogenic causes, that is. Asked in the later plenary session why it is that "we hear a great deal about sea ice extent rather than "ice volume," Vladimir Kattsov admitted that we simply didn't possess the technology to produce ice volume data in the same way.
Yuri Matzov, Professor of Geography for Moscow State University next admitted "we have little knowledge of the Arctic in general." In the plenary we also heard that data issues are the result of "a decline in the number of [data producing] research stations" and that "certain areas of the Arctic have not been visited in years." Just for good measure, we also lack a "complete mapping of the Arctic."
Now you must understand that none of the above speakers were majoring on uncertainty. In the opinion of every speaker during the morning, anthropogenic activity was a given as a factor in the melting of Arctic sea ice. The irony of a regular grievance over the lack of reliable data, however, merely adduced an assertion of a "different pattern".
I have no doubt that many of the speakers at this conference do believe - as do those singularly caught up in the recent Climate-gate scandal - in the veracity of their cause, bad data or no bad data. Though the Russian reason for calling this particular conference of scientists has a very different political end than to debate further climate issues, it was only too apparent that eco-data - upon which the entire climate alarmist bandwagon relies in its message to urge us all to change our lives, even for climate alarmists, remains a major issue.
Put bluntly, the reality is the data is the science.
The afternoon was a very different affair. It was all about the exploration of the polar region's mineral, particularly hydrocarbon, resources.
Leopold Lobkovsky of the Shirshov Institute of Oceanography, said that to exploit the "100 billion tons of oil equivalent" in hydrocarbons present in Arctic waters, Russia and its partners had to work together to fund the high cost of exploration and drilling. Even so, Arctic hydrocarbon reserves could be "compared in extent to those in the Gulf." Others reiterated much of what we already knew about the Arctic's serious mineral and hydrocarbon energy wealth.
But perhaps the strangest involvement in the day was Lukoil's vice president, Vladimir Mulyak, head of the Main Division of Oil and Gas Production and Infrastructure. Perhaps only too aware of the prevailing climate themes among the 300 or so delegates, and being Big Oil's sole representative on the panel, his participation was fleeting, to say the least. I timed his address at around three minutes. Neither did he seem eager to play any further part in proceedings, even when asked directly by the panel chairman about Lukoil's "plans for the Arctic."
The sponsoring Russian Geographic Society has undoubtedly helped Putin's Arctic strategy impact the work of the Arctic Council and the future of the Arctic itself. But heart-warming as it is to know that Russia won't be freezing out not only its neighbors but anyone with a strategic stake in the Arctic, won't have learned too much else from Day One of this conference. We already knew of the Arctic's mineral wealth - and of the need to exploit them with greater care for the environment.
And anyone looking to this forum of over 300 delegates for climate certainties, in a year beset by IPCC screw-ups and the Climate-gate data scandal, will be disappointed - at least until the proper data is in.
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The Guardian / Monday 20 September 2010
The battle to save Russia's Pavlovsk seed bank
Scientists and conservationists are waging an international campaign to save Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov's Pavlovsk seed bank from being turned over to housing developers
После того, как в защиту Павловской опытной станции выступили ученые, СМИ и общественные организации, торги, на которые выставляются ее земли, были перенесены до окончательного решения комиссии Счетной палаты.
In 1929, Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov traveled to Central Asia on one of the many seed-collecting expeditions that took him to five continents over more than two decades. In what is now present-day Kazakhstan, Vavilov - the father of modern seed banks - found forests of wild fruits and numerous cultivated varieties. Around the city of Alma Ata, he was astonished by the profusion of apple trees, writing in his journal that he believed he had "stumbled upon the center of origin for the apple, where wild apples were difficult to even distinguish from those which were being cultivated".
Correctly surmising that this region of Kazakhstan was "the chief home of European fruit trees,&" Vavilov collected the seeds of the many varieties of apple and other trees, eventually hauling them back to his scientific base in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg.
The trees that sprouted from those seeds, and more than 5,000 other varieties of fruits and berries, now grow in a sprawling, 1,200-acre collection of fields about 20 miles south of St. Petersburg, not far from the opulent, 18th-century czarist palace of Pavlovsk. This living repository of trees and bushes - with Europe's most extensive collection of fruits and berries - has been at the center of a dispute in recent months as a federal Russian housing agency has tried to confiscate part of the Pavlovsk Research Station to clear the land for upscale dachas for Russia's burgeoning new elite.
The fate of the station is now in limbo as, after an intense lobbying campaign by botanists and conservation groups around the world, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has announced that the government is investigating the effort to uproot one of the most valuable botanical collections on Earth.
The priceless nature of the Pavlosk station can be traced directly back to Vavilov and his painstaking efforts to collect seeds from what he viewed as hot spots of plant diversity around the world, now known as Vavilov Centers. His insights into the importance of preserving botanical genetic diversity, particularly among food crops, are highly relevant today as that diversity faces unparalleled threats from industrial agriculture dominated by monoculture crops, destruction of wild habitats, and climate change.
The heat wave and subsequent fires that have destroyed much of Russia's wheat harvest this year may have helped increase the chances that Vavilov's storehouse of plants will live on at Pavlovsk. The fires triggered new fears in Russia about the nation's ability to feed itself and the impact of global warming, and raised the profile of scientists working to protect the country's food varieties. As the heat wave has faded, many Russians are now hoping that Pavlovsk can be saved.
The Pavlovsk Research Station, part of the N.I. Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry, houses one of the world's largest collections of seeds and planted crops, roughly 90 percent of which are found in no other scientific collections in the world. The station's inventory includes almost a thousand types of strawberries from more than 40 countries; a similar number of black currant varieties from 30 countries, including North America, Europe and the Far East; 600 apple types collected from 35 countries; and more than a hundred varieties each of gooseberries, cherries, plums, red currants, and raspberries. More than half of the black currant varieties grown in Russia, the world's leading producer, were bred at Pavlovsk. Sales of black currants in Russia are valued at more than $400 million annually.
These old varieties are still needed to provide genes to protect commercial varieties against new threats ranging from pests to climate change, and to confer new attributes. Such older varieties are mostly held in trust by commercial and international institutions, either in the form of seeds held in cold storage or plantings in places like Pavlovsk.
The station had seemed destined to fall victim to a drive by the Russian government to free up public land for sale to developers. Pavlovsk is in the St. Petersburg suburb of Pushkin and is increasingly surrounded by up-market apartments and holiday homes, in an area made fashionable because of its proximity to Pavlovsk, the palace built by Catherine the Great. In late 2009, the Russian Ministry of Economic Development handed over one-fifth of the station's fields to the Federal Fund of Residential Real Estate Development, which is tasked with finding housing land.
The Vavilov Institute appealed the decision. The case has been rumbling on in the courts ever since. But the Pavlovsk station's director, Fyodor Mikhovich, who has worked there for 32 years, says he was told by one official: "Go to sleep. Just go to sleep. We are taking the land".
A sign at Pavlovsk marks a collection of decorative perennial plants.
News that the Pavlovsk station was threatened with a state land grab first emerged over the summer. However, what looked like a done deal has attracted a high-profile international campaign that could be on the verge of success - just as the world's governments meet in Japan next month to celebrate the International Year of Biodiversity.
Cary Fowler, an American conservationist who runs the Global Crop Diversity Trust in Rome, Italy, visited the station earlier this year.
He says the loss of the collection would be "the largest intentional, preventable loss of crop diversity in my lifetime".
It remains unclear exactly how much of the collection will be destroyed by the development. The scientists there say that three-quarters of their "priceless collection" is grown on the 227 acres being demanded for housing. This encompasses all its berries, including its strawberries, red currants, black currants, and gooseberries. The federal real estate fund says publicly that the fields are "not utilized&" and are "covered with weeds and mowed grass." But its own report of its visit to the station last year says that half the land on one of the two plots they plan to build on is "utilized for berry trees".
In any case, Fowler says the long-term intention is clear. The region's planners have zoned the entire station for development, and the land that the federal real estate fund wants to take first is in the middle of the station's fields. "So if they get that, it is only a question of time before the rest of the fields will be taken," says Fowler.
The station is undeniably dilapidated, and little plant breeding or research into plant genomes is now carried out there. A visit by American scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as long ago as 1975, said "the buildings are old and run down and poorly equipped... the laboratories are grossly inadequate by U.S. standards." Stripped of funds since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, parts of the station lie virtually abandoned. In other areas, the staff does little more than maintain the collection of old varieties. Even so, the collection is unique and potentially of great value.
In recent years, nobody has crosschecked the station's plants with other collections outside Russia. "It is possible that some samples are being duplicated elsewhere, but the majority are not," says the director general of the Vavilov Institute, Nikolai Dzyubenko. Nonetheless, international authorities say the collection probably contains many genes of potentially great value in developing new commercial varieties. Many of its varieties are unusually hardy in cold temperatures and are disease-resistant.
"It would be a major tragedy if the collection were lost," says one of the world's leading strawberry breeders, Jim Hancock of Michigan State University. Norman Looney, president of the International Society for Horticultural Science, says the station's collection
"represents work performed over more than 150 years and has survived both climatic and political catastrophe. It is the largest such collection in Europe and the only one at this far-north latitude".
Vavilov began collecting plants across Asia in 1916, working first on wild and early cultivated varieties of wheat and other grain crops, before moving on to other crops and other continents and establishing the research stations that housed his collections. Through his travels in the Caucasus, Afghanistan, the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia, Japan, China, Korea, the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America, Vavilov realized that cradles of botanical diversity were most often found in mountainous regions, where the many changes in topography and climate led to the evolution and development of highly diverse species.
The Pavlovsk experimental station, established in 1926, is one of 11 seed banks that Vavilov created across the former Soviet Union. In the 1930s, he worked diligently to expand his collections, but as the decade wore on he ran afoul of Joseph Stalin for disputing the views of the quack scientist, Trofim Lysenko, a Stalin favorite who maintained that characteristics acquired through the environment could be inherited.
Vavilov was arrested by Stalin's secret police and thrown into the gulag, where he died of starvation in 1943. During the Nazi siege of Leningrad during World War II, scientists at Vavilov's institute protected its collections, with some succumbing to starvation rather than consuming the collection's rice and other crops.
Vavilov's successors have continued his work until today, particularly in Siberia and the Russian Far East, where wild berries remain an important part of the local diet. Sergey Alexanian, vice director of international relations for the Vavilov Institute, says "there have been hundreds of explorations involving thousands of researchers".
Crop diversity has always been the Cinderella of conservation, even though the hundreds of thousands of crop varieties bred by farmers and scientists over several millennia represent a hugely important resource. But the fight to save the Pavlovsk station has attracted a great deal of international support. Fowler launched a "Tweet Medvedev" campaign in mid-July. And top crop scientists and research organizations have added their voices to the protests, including DIVERSITAS, a network of scientists devoted to preserving biodiversity, and the International Society for Horticultural Science.
Should the Russian government ignore the international outcry and move ahead with plans to develop the Pavlovsk Station, scientists are discussing the need for an emergency rescue plan. But there are serious doubts about how much of the collection could be saved. One option might have been to rush seeds from Pavlovsk to the "doomsday vault" of crop seeds from round the world, which is currently being assembled on the Norwegian island of Svalbard in the Arctic. But according to Fowler, whose job includes overseeing the vault, few of the fruits and berries held at Pavlovsk produce seeds that would survive freezing. To be saved, they would need to be planted elsewhere, a huge logistical task.
"We will try to help them rescue the station," he told me. "We have contacted a number of institutions to alert them that we may need to swing into action at short notice. But there will be little time, there is no place [in Russia] to put the collection and quarantine regulations will prevent us sending it abroad quickly." The Vavilov Institute claims transfers would take 15 years and cost "several dozens of millions of U.S. dollars".
The international campaign has clearly helped buy time for the station and may ultimately save it. Earlier this month, the federal real estate development fund announced that it had postponed the auction of the first parcel of land, intended for Sept. 23, until at least the end of October, and had set up an international scientific commission to look into the issue and make recommendations.
"This is a very positive development," says Fowler. "It ensures that decisions will be made with solid scientific input. We really couldn't ask for more".
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010.
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AOL News / 19 September 2010
Russia Admits Staggering Losses of Museum Items
В результате масштабной проверки выяснилось, что из российских музеев пропало в общей сложности 242 тысячи экспонатов, из которых 24,5 тысяч считаются украденными, сообщает AOL News. Данную информацию интернет-изданию подтвердила глава отдела музеев Министерства культуры РФ Светлана Некрасова. AOL News полагает, что основная причина этого - недостатки российской музейной системы, не обеспечивающей адекватного хранения и охраны экспонатов.
Nearly a quarter of a million museum pieces from collections across Russia are missing and unaccounted for, the Ministry of Culture has determined after a comprehensive but unpublicized three-year inspection.
AOL News has learned that a consultant to the Museums Department of the Ministry of Culture, Lyubov Molchanova, told a seminar for museum workers in the southern resort town of Pyatigorsk last week that the probe had found 242,000 museum pieces missing. Of those, about 24,500 have been officially registered as stolen and are being sought by the Interior Ministry.
The Culture Ministry's press office has made no official announcement about the finding and offered no details on specific works of missing art. But Svetlana Nekrasova, head of the Museums Department, told AOL News that "the information stated by Molchanova is accurate" and confirmed that the astonishing figures reflected the ministry's most current information.
Nekrasova said that "the review itself was completed at the end of last year" but that the numbers may still change. Culture Ministry officials stressed that many of the missing items would likely be found in the course of organizing the museums' inventory - some, for instance, may be in special locations for analysis or restoration.
But Molchanova also admitted at the seminar that many more have surely been stolen than the 24,500 registered with the authorities.
Reports of such apparently staggering losses would be hard to sweep under the carpet in the West. "It would be a scandal if a single significant work were stolen from a museum in the U.S.," said Stevan Layne of Layne Consultants International, a leading firm in the protection of cultural properties worldwide. "It happens, but it's usually a big deal".
And if an inventory of U.S. museum collections revealed a similar proportion of works unaccounted for? "You could see museums closing," he said.
Among the losses, according to a 2008 report on Russian television's Culture Channel, was a draft of a painting by Russian artist Ilya Repin, allegedly stolen along with unique works of china, firearms and other art objects, from the museum in the south-central city of Novokuznetsk.
Keeping track of Russia's cultural legacy, scattered in cities and towns spanning nine time zones, is a daunting task. The exhaustive review of Russia's museum inventories took three years and covered 1,881 museums with more than 63,000 employees and more than 73 million objects. "It's the first time in history that an investigation of museums on such a scale has been conducted," Nekrasova said.
The missing treasures throw the problems of Russia's rich museum system into stark relief. In 2008, Mikhail Piotrovsky, then the director of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, estimated that "more than half the country's museum holdings were in desperate need of complete repair and restoration".
The current probe was ordered by then-President Vladimir Putin in the wake of stunning revelations of insider theft at the Hermitage. At the end of 2004, Piotrovsky told a Russian news magazine that "pieces cannot be stolen from the Hermitage without it being noticed. Too many traps have been laid for crooks, you can't slip by them ..." Less than two years later, an internal review found 221 pieces worth tens of millions of dollars missing from the storehouses of Russia's most prestigious museum.
Larisa Zavadskaya, a specialist in decorative art, became the central figure in the scandal. She was an inconspicuous Hermitage employee making $500 monthly, whose family occupied a room in a communal apartment. Shortly after the internal review was announced, she suddenly collapsed and died of a heart attack at her workplace. Eventually, the authorities found in her room receipts for the sale of more than 70 of the missing Hermitage items, ranging from jewelry to icons.
In 2007, Zavadskaya's husband, Nikolai Zavadsky, was sentenced to five years of hard labor and ordered to pay $5 million in restitution to the Hermitage. He was eventually released on the grounds that the statute of limitations on the thefts had passed.
Together with reports of theft at other institutions, the scandals provoked an enraged Putin to order an exhaustive check on museum collections nationwide. He created a commission to oversee the review that included the state security agency FSB, the Attorney General's Office, and the Interior and Culture ministries. Nekrasova said that the Ministry of Culture continually reports to this commission.
Some items may be hard to find because of the manner in which many Russian collections were assembled. Over the years, the Soviet government confiscated masses of valuable possessions from individuals and the church, usually transferring them to museums. As a result, museum collections often include troves of articles better classified as antiques than museum pieces. Simple to dispose of and difficult to track, these are eternal temptations to underpaid museum staffers.
But the missing items could easily include big-ticket items - world-class artworks and important antiquities. Soviet state policy frequently favored distributing valuable pieces to museums around the country rather than concentrating them in the capitals. That means that important artifacts and artworks can be found at any number of provincial museums, often inadequately funded and equipped, where the staff and even the administration may be quite vulnerable to pressure from any number of sources.
Molchanova said as much to her colleagues at the Pyatigorsk seminar: "Some governors [of regions in Russia] like to do things like saying: 'Give me some things from your collections.' And the museum staff don't know their rights or just don't have the backbone to refuse".
The hope is that a close study of Russia's museum collections will produce a more transparent and responsible museum system. If collections are fully listed and pictured online, stolen items become harder to sell and tracking the internal movement of items becomes more straightforward. Layne says that Russia's "management process is not as refined as it should be" and suggests that areas for modernization include increased "video surveillance, electronic access controls in collection storage rooms, much tighter key control, and policy and procedural control".
Whether these problems can be resolved, and how quickly, remains to be seen. But two things are clear: The Russian museum system has a major institutional problems, and the Russian government is making a substantial attempt to address them.
© 2010 All Rights Reserved AOL News. © AOL Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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Alaska Dispatch / Sep 23, 2010
Russia launches North Pole-38 drifting station
- Elena Kovachich | Voice of Russia
В Мурманске идет подготовка к "высадке" на лед новой дрейфующей полярной станции "Северный полюс-38". Предположительные места высадки - к северу от берегов Чукотского и Восточно-Сибирского моря.
Preparations for the launching of the North Pole-38 drifting station are in full swing at the base of the local hydro-meteorological centre in the polar city of Murmansk, Russia. The seven-member crew of the future expedition has already left for Murmansk from St. Petersburg. They will have to test equipment stored at the base and pack 20 prefabricated houses, says the head of the Arctic expedition Vladimir Sokolov.
"The drifting station is a complicated structure designed for scientific and practical purposes," says Sokolov. "Only Russia possesses the technology of making them. Attempts by Canadians and Dutch to develop such stations ended in failure. They make stations for a short-time use and will continue to do so. The Koreans and Chinese are also making drifting stations and are planning to open them in the Arctic in the near future," Sokolov said.
The North Pole-38 is the seventh Russian drifting station since the resumption of the unprecedented scientific project in the Arctic in 2003, after a 12-year break. The first Soviet "Polar Station" was opened in 1937 and worked almost one year. The expedition consisted of four polar researchers headed by legendary Ivan Papanin.
Since then, a large amount of equipment used by the meteorological service has been significantly improved and new capabilities have appeared to monitor the environment. However, drifting stations remain crucial and practically irreplaceable since only they can gather precise and unique information, says Sokolov.
"Information received from satellites or drifting buoys is insufficient to create a complete picture of what is happening in the atmosphere, on the ice layer and the ocean," says Sokolov. "Only the drifting stations pave the way for making a through study of the energy exchange in this polar region. On the basis of this information, experts can simulate the processes that are taking place there, and Russian and foreign meteorological centres can make weather forecasts".
Scientists believe that information received from a drifting station promotes knowledge acquired from meteorological monitoring across the planet. For one, there was a background for the abnormal heat wave that hit several European countries in this past summer, says Sokolov.
"The observations carried out in the past years showed that abnormal processes had been taking place in the Arctic. Although the Polar Station-37 was at the coldest area, the summer processes started there one and a half months earlier," said Sokolov.
However, this information was insufficient to forecast that such a heat wave might hit Russia's European part. Nevertheless, drifting stations are capable of tracking important climatic trends and making more precise forecasts for this region.
Early next month, the "Russia" icebreaker will take the expedition to the site where the Polar Station-38 will be erected.
Copyright © 2010 Alaska Dispatch. All Rights Reserved.
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Nature / 16 September 2010
Seizing the moment
В июне министр образования и науки России Андрей Фурсенко объявил о конкурсе на большие гранты (по 150 млн рублей), которые должны были способствовать привлечению в российские университеты крупных западных ученых и возвращению из-за рубежа российских. Результаты будут объявлены в ноябре.
Журнал Nature полагает, что такая программа может помочь России вернуть свои позиции в науке, но при этом отмечает ряд недостатков, которые помешали привлечь внимание многих ученых с мировым именем.
Russia's commendable attempt to revamp science in its universities must not be confounded by the old guard.
The Kremlin's apparently sincere efforts to refurbish the Russian science base will soon be put to the test. A new 12-billion-rouble (US$390-million) programme, which aims to attract high-profile scientists to Russian universities (see Nature 465, 858; 2010), is to announce which projects have secured funds.
The competition, launched in July, is a unique opportunity to get Russia back on the global map of science - but it will also attract opportunists drawn to the money on offer.
The grants will be allocated by a panel run by Andrei Fursenko, the formerly politically marginal education and science minister. Unlike his post-Soviet predecessors, Fursenko has reasonable power over spending. But it will take more than money to retool the Russian science system to favour excellence, competition and mobility. A serious attempt must be made to push notoriously inert academic powers - including the influential Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) - to accept and adopt the necessities of modern science.
Fursenko will announce 80 projects by November, each linked to an experienced individual scientist and chosen to receive up to 150 million roubles over the next two years. More than 500 groups - drawn from 214 of Russia's 650 or so state-funded universities - have responded to the ministry's call for proposals, including around 50 Western scientists and expatriate Russian researchers who are willing to spend significant time at a Russian university lab, as the programme rules require.
That is a respectable number. But organizational problems and a lack of proper advertising mean that the programme, designed to boost university research in all fields of science, has failed to attract the attention of many of the desired international scientific heavyweights. The few weeks given to applicants to approach project partners, inside and outside Russia, and to write proposals, was too short for scientists unfamiliar with Russian bureaucracy and institutions. As a result, foreign participation has been limited to the small numbers of scientists with well-established links to Russian labs.
Time constraints imposed by the Kremlin - its politicians are keen for results before the presidential election in 2012 - could also hamper the selection and work of foreign reviewers, whom the science ministry is desperately trying to recruit. At a round-table discussion last week in Moscow, Fursenko was still unable to name the line-up of European and US research organizations that will assist the review process.
Even so, the programme can make a difference. The inclusion of international review and the requirement to submit grant proposals in English are close to a revolution for an academic environment riddled with parochialism and isolationism (see Nature 464, 141-142; 2010). Western scientists and science organizations should acknowledge the emerging new spirit and participate as reviewers if asked.
Analysts close to the science ministry estimate that just 50-100 of the grant applications received can be considered internationally competitive research. The rest may not be pure junk, but it is an open secret that the ministry's money has attracted scientists who trade more on past reputation than research activity. There are thus concerns that RAS members on the 17-strong grant board might support second-rate projects proposed by colleagues more interested in padding their salaries than establishing labs to carry out top-notch science.
This must not happen, even if it means that fewer than 80 projects get funded. And Fursenko, who has a reputation as a straight operator, must firmly rebuff any attempts to dilute or bypass the review process. That a number of Russian academics with less than stellar reputations have been removed from the initial list of reviewers is a promising sign. For the sake of transparency, and to counter any remaining suspicion of bias or favouritism, Fursenko should ensure that all grant applicants receive anonymized copies of the review reports that inform the board's funding decisions.
There are plenty of experienced mid-career Russian scientists who deserve to win funds. And a number of high-profile Western researchers are happy to dedicate time and effort to build capacity at Russian universities. If wisely spent, Fursenko's grants could have an impact far beyond the Russian border.
© 2010 Nature Publishing Group. All Rights Reserved.
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