The NI Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry (VIR) has responded in some detail to the report of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Expert Commission appointed by the Russian Ministry of Economic Development to look into the state of Pavlovsk Experiment Station. The response makes many points and asks many questions, in between heaping fulsome praise on the commission and its members. Among the most salient:
- Why did the experts visit incognito and not engage the curators at the Station? VIR considers this a breach of scientific ethics. The VIR points out that it would be very difficult to find their way about and to locate the various collections. Fortunately the group ran into M. Lebedev, “a head of the research nursery and private entrepreneur,” who was able to guide them round at least part of the Station’s 500 hectares.
- Why did the expert group include V.A. Dragavtsev the former head of the VIR? The VIR ays that Dragavtsev “is now widely known in Russian scientific circles … for his obsession to change the VIR directorate”.
- Why did the group not include a horticulturalist? Although it included biochemists, lecturers and the director of a botanical garden, the group “contained no expertise specifically related to the crops at the Station”.
- Why did the Expert Commission release its “report” in a press conference? No staff were involved in the broadcast, which was one-sided.
- VIR says that the Expert Commission gave the impression that the real threat to the collections was not the proposed housing development but the existing management of Pavlovsk “which is protesting the destruction”.
There’s more (of course) and the latter part of VIR’s response focuses on the Expert Commission’s proposed solution: change VIR’s management and then move the whole Institute (including Pavlovsk and 7 other stations) from the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences into the Russian Academy of Sciences. On the face of it this does rather seem like the Russian Academy of Sciences is taking to heart sage advice about never letting a good crisis go to waste. At this point VIR’s response becomes a bit muddled, and who can blame them? They point out that the RAS has no idea of the costs or difficulties of managing the collections, and allude to the RAS’s own financial problems and institute scientists striking and demonstrating for budget increases. The VIR has its own set of funny numbers too.
[D]o the highly respected experts know that an average cost of collection, maintenance and preservation of one accession in a field genebank makes around 700 Euros (Smith & Livingston, 1997), while an average monthly salary of a curator does not reach 10 thousand Rubles (239 Euros).
In the end the entire story is beginning to resemble a giant turf war with too many players, shifting alliances and no clear outcome in sight yet. VIR points out that another expert group, this one under the Ministry of Agriculture, was at Pavlovsk on 23-24 September.
We do hope, results of this audit will be more objective and professional, [and] will provide a real picture about [the] importance and value of the fruit and berry crop collection.
But in case it doesn’t …
VIR reserves all rights to assemble a foreign commission consisting of experts in the sphere of plant genetic resources, who understand what preservation of a great amount of collection accessions in the field genebank means, considering the fact the collection is being preserved not only at Pavlovsk experiment station, but also at other 7 stations, and what are the true causes of “improper care” of these accessions.
Whose experts will prevail?