During the Cold War, Soviet scientists launched the first satellite and manned rocket into space, pioneered laser technology, and engineered weapons that were feared around the globe. But lately, scientists in Russia have been working overtime to convince their countrymen not to spend millions on ideas hatched by Rasputin-like quacks and snake oil salesmen.
"Almost on a daily basis we get requests to approve yet another 'quantum bio-regulator' or 'aura corrector,' " Yevgeny Alexandrov, chairman of the Commission on Pseudoscience and Research Fraud at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told the Moscow Times on Tuesday. "Recently we got a project that declared the invention of a 'gravity gun' weapon."
Founded in 2013, the commission is responsible for keeping Russian President Vladimir Putin and other government officials from wasting public money in the pursuit of harebrained projects.
"Our main goal is to protect the Russian state budget from plunder," said Alexandrov. "Very often, under the guise of costly pseudoscience projects, millions of dollars go nowhere. We inform the state that it's being cheated."
That's not an easy task.
Fake scientists in Russia have made fortunes by convincing doctors that homeopathic medicines can cure their patients' ills without evidence. They secured millions to launch an untested and ultimately fruitless "torsion engine" to supposedly help Russian spacecraft leave the solar system. Police forces across the country have sought metaphysical help in their work.
"Hypnotists and occult mystics were introduced as being able to help investigate crimes by looking at victims' photos," Alexandrov remarked. "What a medieval approach!"
Today, the commission's job is especially difficult. Earlier this year, the Boston Globe reported that a sharp fall in the price of oil had robbed the Russian treasury of much-needed cash to fund proper science. Western sanctions levied against Russia over its annexation of Crimea and Putin's bellicose posture toward Ukraine have undermined research too, according to the Associated Press.
But threats to Russian science also come from the top.
Last year, the Dynasty Foundation closed down after it was deemed to be a foreign agent under Putin-backed laws that discourage Russian groups from working with or receiving funding from foreign entities. The foundation had been planning to distribute $8 million to young Russian scientists to help them continue their work, the AP reported.
MIT professor Loren Graham, an expert in the history of Russian science, said that Putin's crackdown on foreign groups has only hastened the decline of the country's scientific sector. The Russian president has indirectly encouraged idiots to make outlandish claims in a bizarre effort to glorify the motherland, he said.
"This has been an ongoing issue in Russia for over 20 years. Cranks try to claim they have made great discoveries overturning established science," Graham wrote in an email to VICE News. "Putin's emphasis on nationalism gives additional impetus to pseudoscientists claiming they have bested 'Western science.' "
Alexandrov reserved his most biting criticism for Viktor Petrik, a former confidant of Russian State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov who has sued the Commission on Pseudoscience and Research Fraud for harming his reputation.
Petrik invented a so-called "nanocarbon" water-filtering device that he named after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. He proposed installing his filters around the country and putting stickers on them that would promote Putin's United Russia party. But research proved that the filters sometimes had the opposite of their intended effect, making water dangerous rather than safe.
Petrick has since lost favor with Russian leaders, but his example suggests that Putin, Gryzlov, and others within the government took him seriously until even they could no longer accept his absurd, unfounded claims.
"It's insane," Alexandrov noted, "but Petrik was basically the main scientific adviser of the Russian parliament."
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