Head of controversial agency becomes Russian minister for science and higher education

In a major restructuring, the Russian government has decided to split its Ministry of Education and Science here into two new departments: the Ministry of Education, responsible for primary and secondary education, and a new, separate Ministry for Science and Higher Education.

Heading the latter will be Mikhail Kotyukov, a former head of the controversial Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations (FASO), which until now managed property and real estate of research institutions within the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), and effectively had control over the academy. Relations between the scientific community and FASO—which will be eliminated and become part of the new ministry—have at times been tense.

The current minister of education and science, Olga Vasilyeva, will head the new education ministry. A historian who joined the government in 2016, Vasilyeva has gained notoriety as an admirer of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev submitted a list of new ministers today to recently re-elected President Vladimir Putin, who approved and signed it. The new structure was proposed and approved earlier this week.

Kotyukov, who has a background in finance, has headed FASO since its creation in the fall of 2013. The agency was established as part of a broad and controversial reform of RAS and given control over academy property, a move widely seen as a power grab by the Russian government. “It’s not that there are bad guys sitting [in FASO] who dream of choking the life out of science in Russia,” Lev Zeleny, vice president of RAS and head of the RAS Institute for Space Research here, told Science in 2016. “They do what the law entitles them to do. It is this mean law that is the main cause of today’s troubles of the Russian science, the law that draws a line between RAS’s management center and its competence center, that makes this whole structure unviable and only plays one off against the other.”

In 2016, about 150 RAS members and professors wrote an open letter asking Putin to tackle the problems created by the 2013 reforms, which they said had harmed Russian science. But FASO’s role hasn’t changed. Although some academicians have suggested that the agency should be incorporated in RAS, it will now be absorbed into the new science ministry. At the same time, Medvedev said this week, a newly created federal agency will supervise all educational institutions, including schools and universities.

Physicist Alexei Khokhlov, RAS academician and vice-rector of Lomonosov Moscow State University, says he welcomes the split in the department, which will allow research and education to “develop independently.” Khokhlov supports the separation of universities from secondary education, because “universities make science.” “This is particularly important now that Putin is focusing on the country’s innovative development,” he says. In a decree issued after his 7 May inauguration, Putin ordered the creation of 15 world-class centers for research and education.