Russia: Maths geniuses fleeing abroad

EducationWorld March 16 | EducationWorld

In 1986 when the quadrennial International Congress of Mathematicians convened at the University of California, Berkeley, almost half of the 80 speakers came from Soviet universities. But a quarter century later, just five of the 170 speakers invited to address the 2010 congress in Hyderabad, India, were affiliated with Russian universities.

The exodus of Russia’s best mathematicians to the West since the disintegration of the Soviet Union is often illustrated with such potent anecdotes, but two Moscow-based academics have now sought to quantify what the traditional maths powerhouse has lost during the early 1990s brain drain, and what the emigrants’ host countries have gained.

Vladlen Timorin, professor and dean of mathematics at the Higher School of Economics at the National Research University, Moscow, and Ivan Sterligov, head of the institution’s scientometric centre, decided to analyse all the international journal papers published in maths by people with surnames most commonly found in Russia.

The pair found that in 1994, 70 percent of these Russian-surnamed publications came from Russian institutions, but by 1997 this tally fell to approximately 50 percent, and has remained roughly at this level. Just over a third of maths papers published by those with a Russian surname were based in the US between 1993-2015 — of which most are likely to be Russian emigrants, the duo suggest.

Of those mathematicians with Russian names who were published in a ‘top 25 journal’, 203 were based outside Russia, compared with just 83 working inside their homeland — while the former cohort’s citation rate is three times as high as that inside Russia. “We can conclude that the overseas part of (Russia’s mathematicians) are more efficient in their research, at least in terms of metric values,” say the authors.

With an estimated 1,000 mathematicians leaving Russia for the US in the early 1990s and all but one of its Fields Medal winners (seven since 1990) based abroad, the researchers conclude that “Russian mathematics has lost its best representatives”.

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