Гельфанд: биолаборатории в Украине, Михалков и умные еноты | Интервью про науку и не только ENG SUB
— Are you trying to get me arrested? — You've just said the scary word: 'bio labs', this word is now used as a threat, you know? — I would've had an existential conflict at that moment. I would've started binge drinking. Mikhail Gelfand is a Russian Bioinformaticist, Doctor of Biological Sciences and Candidate of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, one of the founder of Dissernet plagiarism fighting society and the Evolution NGO. — Hello, everyone. I am here with Mikhail Gelfand, bioinformaticist, doctor of biological sciences, and many other titles, right? — Yeah, I have some.
— I've watched a lot of your interviews I always find them incredibly interesting, because you usually talk about some insects, some bugs... — Always about bugs? — Well, not always. But I like the ones about bugs. — What exactly do you like about them? — What I like is... Are you trying to set me up? — I already did.
— What do I remember about bugs? Well, I remember... that the pupa is the second egg. — Great! — Is it? — It is. Well, in fact, not all insects have a pupal stage. — Yes. But some do. Actually I liked the idea that babies and adults do not compete for food since they are basically of different species.
Yes, but actually today I wanted to talk not about bugs and spiders, you have already spoken a lot about them, but today I wanted to talk about the state of Russian academia. — I spoke a lot about it as well. — Yes. About what has been going on after February 24, and how the situation has changed.
You have openly spoken against the war. — Are you trying to get me arrested? — Well... I mean... — I expressed my discontent with the measures of carrying out the special operation. — Okay, you expressed your discontent... — When it was not yet subject to criminal penalties. I'd like to ask you: it's been four months already, has your life changed since then? What about your academic career? Have you noticed any pressure? — Nothing has changed in my career.
In this sense, I am more or less... I mean, the content itself. I am doing more or less the same stuff. My life has changed. Life in a broader sense than just career. And I won't elaborate on this not to sound trivial. Those, whose life hasn't changed yet, just have to wait.
I don't feel much pressure. But, as you might have already noticed, I try to avoid situations that can cause pressure. There are different ways 'to call a spade a spade'. Some ways are harsh, other are not. And then we will see. I wouldn't say I feel any pressure from my foreign colleagues.
Although situations may be different, there were cases when my articles were declined, but that was rare. Talking about me, I personally felt it just once: I was invited to a conference and then the invitation was cancelled. I wasn't going to attend it anyway.
They didn't even have to cancel the invitation. I wasn't going to come. But since they did cancel my invitation, I wrote an email asking the reason for cancellation. Then we had a 30-minute talk with the head of the foundation that held the conference. — Was it a Russian conference? — No, a German one. It was an international conference in Germany. So, there was something like an 'intervention' for the CEO of that foundation.
I was explaining to him why he was wrong, in general and in my particular case. He agreed with me very quickly, and then we discussed other topics. 'How should a western foundation behave in such a situation' - that's what he asked me. — What about the Russian government? Did they pressure you? Were they trying to make you sign anything? As they like it.
To express solidarity? — Personally I didn't receive anything like that. But with other people it might have happened. — So, your colleagues were pressured? — Look, 300 rectors signed the notorious 'Rectors' letter', the content of which was, in fact, harmful, because many academic links were cut because of this letter.
After February 24, there was a quick emotional reaction when individual scientists, institutions and journals refused working with us, then there was the famous letter of Russian scientists expressing their discontent, as we've agreed to call it. But it was shut down quickly. It was visible because, in many decisions concerning universities' further contacts with Russia, with Russian organisations and individual scientists, this letter was mentioned or even quoted.
In a sense that the actions of the government may be approved or not approved (in our case they are not), but this should not affect our work with particular colleagues. Then, there was the letter of rectors, which was harmful, stupid and odious. I'll tell you now why it was harmful. It was odious, because... well, you just have to read it.
And it was stupid, because the letter itself was unnecessary, because the Statement by members of the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences had already been released. It was much 'cleaner' and didn't have such filth. By the way, western institutions are actually fine with the Russian Academy of Sciences, they don't have problems with Russian academic institutions. But they have problems with Russian universities. And it's something that is a bit hard to explain to a western professor, because in the west if a rector signs a letter on behalf of the whole university, it means the letter is signed on behalf of the whole university, meaning that this point of view is shared by at least majority of the academic staff.
Otherwise, this person can't be a rector. He should be dismissed. Maybe not immediately... — Because rectors are elected there? — Not necessarily. But at any western university, rectors are guided by the opinion of the staff and the students. And then... I saw examples of this. They say: "Everything's fine, but you are a professor of a Moscow university", "Your university has signed this letter". And it's hard to explain that it wasn't the university, it was just Viktor Sadovnichiy [Rector of the Moscow State University].
An MSU professor , no matter how bright he is, cannot change the nasty things that Viktor Sadovnichiy is signing. It's quite hard to explain. And then it continued. Because you can't imagine politics that can distinguish between Sadovnichiy and non-Sadovnichiy, it doesn't really get into details. Which is bad but inevitable. It's like a natural phenomenon. On one hand, rain is watering flowers, on the other hand, thunderstorm can destroy some trees.
Well, poor tree. — Did the rectors sign that letter under pressure or was it their initiative in order to show off? — I am not a rector, how can I know? I know two examples. The first example is Rector Mau, whose signature was there and then it wasn't and then appeared again.
There were several versions of the letter, and Mau's signature was on some of them. It leads me to a conclusion that something was going on. I don't think it was just an assistant's typo. The second one is the rector of Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, his signature appeared, disappeared and never appeared again.
The letter is signed by Mr Kudryavtsev, former rector and current president, but, how do I put it, this signature was not surprising. And the signature of the current rector appeared and then disappeared, which is even cooler than if it had never been there. Because, you know, it's a Russian tradition to pretend that you are on a bender.
But withdrawing your signature... Livanov must have big balls. Even back when he was a minister, he was quite harsh. Sometimes for a reason, sometimes for no reason. But still. The signature of Skoltech's rector was never there, for example.
And there are some other universities, whose rectors didn't sign the letter. I have no idea how these decisions were made. — How have the sanctions imposed on Russia affected science in Russia? — It's not that I study the effects of every new sanction, I am talking more about the general feeling I have, not a proper analysis.
The sanctions imposed by other states have made logistics significantly harder. For example, if somebody is willing to sell you a reagent, you just physically cannot pay for it. There's no way to pay for things. That's one.
The second thing is the long-term effect of the sanctions. Restrictions on dual-use items have become much tighter. Probably that's why many devices are hardly accessible now. Except for illegal ways to get them. Also by paying three times more.
And even if you manage to bring that device here, if you want to publish an article mentioning the usage of that device, you'll probably have to explain how you got the device in the first place. We can't yet see the effects of this, it is a long-term thing. But, most probably, inevitable. As for the sanctions imposed by journals and organisations, I, personally, don't feel them. Except for that funny situation I've already mentioned, which was immediately resolved. I don't face any discrimination by scientific journals.
Moreover, I am still on editorial boards of several journals. In addition, I was invited to another journal's editorial board in April. In this sense, there's no stigmatisation of Russian people. I don't feel any. Talking about the attitude of my colleagues, I think my case is a bit exceptional, because I already have a certain reputation and you wouldn't suspect me of supporting this stuff. I mean reputation among people who know me and even people I've never met.
In this sense, I haven't faced any troubles. I haven't seen anything like this around me either, because, you know, birds of a feather flock together. People around me are generally people who think like I do. What is interesting here is that many organisations and some people have announced the policy of not working with Russian institutions, but continue working with Russian individuals, which is actually smart in the given circumstances.
— Judging by newly adapted laws inside Russia and the pressure of sanctions, we can expect another iron curtain and further isolation of Russia. How bad can it be for the Russian science? — Depends on the science. For history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, it'll be great. — For the science where you are working. — For that science, it'll be bad. — How long can it exist being isolated? — Modern biology cannot exist isolated.
Not only Russian. Any biology cannot be survive isolated. Maybe American one can, but not so well. European biology can survive as a whole, but if each country is isolated - no. This is a feature of modern biology. Secondly, Russian biology is not a science of a world-class level.
Russian, and Soviet, mathematics and physics were world-class sciences. Soviet school of mathematics is famous around the world. The same applies to physics. While biology didn't really survive after 1948.
There was the great Soviet biology until the August session of VASKhNIL in 1948, it was never restored after. There are some strong groups, but they only reach middle level. It's not the level of Nobel prize winners.
They are also very few. So, if they are isolated inside Russia now, they won't have enough people to support each other and support their research. What is more... expertise and reputational mechanisms will be affected. Because, with all the complaints about the Russian ministry of science, it was made clear that science is international, and articles in international journals serves as criteria for evaluating your research. You are doing good if your article is published in a good journal, it is read and cited.
This approach is very mechanical, it has many flaws, but anyway, the idea of being compared to global science and not just some regional science. It was made clear. Now, if we are pupating, we will be compared to each other. And it is a well-known fact that the entropy of a closed system is always increasing and things will eventually turn into crap. This is the second thought. And the third one, that people don't really speak about, is that many Russian contests, actually all big contests had international experts.
Even last year. This is significant, because... I've mentioned that some areas do not even exist in Russia, moreover, some areas only have one or two groups working in them. In these circumstances, it is impossible to properly examine grant projects. Besides things that everybody are talking about, like losing links or access to technologies, another outcome that less people are speaking about is that we are losing expertise and reputational mechanisms, that can be used for evaluation. It's like everybody is using metres, but we are using arshins. — Judging by what you say, the future is not as bright as it could be.
— You are absolutely right, the future could be much brighter. Just some time ago, different people had illusions that the brighter future would come somehow. Well, okay. — Once again, here's what I've got from what you were saying: in a couple of years, Russian biology is either going to fold or become completely uncompetitive. — The term 'competitive' will cease to exist, because competition implies other participants. Physicists have a different problem, that biologists don't have.
I know it because I spoke to some physicists. There are some huge international projects, like CERN, it's over now. — For Russians, it is over. — The astrophysicists seem to be in a different situation. There are similar stories about telescopes, which are not simple devices actually. In fact, there are grants where you don't receive money if you win, but you get a chance to use a certain telescope.
Great, isn't it? You get to play with the buttons. I'm kidding, I don't know how it works. But this is the point. So, for astrophysicists, it seems to be a bit different.
But for biologists, for example... there is synchrotron radiation, if one wants to study the structure of proteins, then this is for you. They have the same system: they sell time of use. I had a conversation when it all started, I was in a bad mood, I wrote to him something like: 'I hope you see now that you've been an idiot'. Well, a bit more polite. He replied: 'Yes. But you didn't notice
that I realised I was an idiot back in 2016'. 'I even undertook some measures'. That was the head of the largest European synchrotron. We were discussing how to cut institutional links without cutting off individual Russian scientists. So, this is another topic. Look at the International Space Station.
Okay, at the International Space Station, they seem to be holding each other's balls and it must be really hard to let them go. It is hard even for Dmitry Rogozin. — They have already shown the flag of DPR and LPR there.
— Showing a flag... you know, Rogozin is showing what he's got. I get it. Nevertheless, nobody is disconnecting there, or flying to Mars.
— Well, Rogozin is planning to. Have you heard? — I have... — He also wants to build another space station. — Rogozin is a comic character, why are we taking him serious? Anyway, the International Space Station is an example of an international collaboration, which keeps working despite all the ridiculous stuff done by that pokemon.
Saying 'Let's unscrew the bolts and fly away from here'? He doesn't have the guts. Thank God he doesn't. I fully support the decision to stay. But it seems to be decided on the spot depending on the sanity of people in charge and their reputation.
Sanity is required from both sides, and reputation is required from the Russian side, because it is more affected. — And vice versa, how important is Russian science, first of all, Russian biology, for the west? So, we are going to fold without the west, but are they going to feel any damage if they cut us off? If they don't share their devices with us, if they don't review our articles, if they cut all the ties, how strong will be the damage to the global science? Is the role of Russia important in today's world of biology? — There is a simple numerical estimate: a percentage of scientific publications. Russia accounts for 2%. If we also weight the level of the journal, it'll be even less.
So, you know.. — You mean, they won't see any difference? — 2%... yes, they won't even notice it. What specific areas will be affected the most? The areas connected with unique objects at the disposal of Russian scientists. Maybe for historical reasons: because they studied them when nobody did, maybe for geographical reasons. These areas will be affected. Obviously.
Mass science of medium, high or any level... That's why it's called 'mass science': if a certain experiment can be done in 15 labs, okay, now it'll be done in 14 labs. We'll come to the same conclusions but later. I don't have delusions of grandeur, I don't think I can come up with something that nobody can come up with in five years. — What's the situation with the brain drain now? — It's bad. I mean, for the brain, it's good.
For those who are left, it's bad. People are actively leaving the country. And it's actually a steady flow. There was a panic flow in the first days, when people, especially young, were leaving.
Psychologically it was very scary. Some people really were in danger. That flow subsided. It's like when the flood has passed. And now it's like a normal river, carrying its waters in different directions. People are not panicking now, they are calm. They realise there is no immediate danger, so they take their time to choose a good university, where they will be welcome.
Maybe they were invited before, and now they are negotiation the terms. Some choose among many, others start sending their CVs. I mean, young people. They send their lists of publications and apply for open positions. There are many programs supporting scientists moving to other countries, they are usually short-term. You are not promised to be fed for five years. But still. Such programs mainly target Ukrainian scientists.
But many of them are also open for scientists from Russia and Belarus. And people use these opportunities. You have to understand that it's people who know their worth that are leaving. People who can compete at the international level. — So, the best ones are leaving? — Well, yes.
Because where would the worst ones go? To do what? Yes, it's top specialists that are leaving. You can see it if you look at the students. Especially postgraduate students. Well, I don't want to offend those who stay in Russia. There are a lot of good specialists among them. Both young and experienced ones. It's not like there's nobody left.
But if we look at the percentage, more people from the top are leaving. No wonder! — Is there anyone coming to Russia to replace them? — Is this a joke? — No, it's a question. Maybe scientists from China or from India are coming to Russia? — Chinese and Indian scientists did not come to Russia that much even before. — But we need to make up for those who are leaving, right? — Listen, geographically speaking, we are now in a very convenient place. Go next door and discuss who needs to replace whom. — It was a joke about Lubyanka, FSB headquarters.
— Yes, right. In fact, this was the main problem even before it all started. People were leaving for various reasons. Some left after 2014 also for psychological reasons. Some left because there were more opportunities abroad. Some left to see the world.
The problem was that few people would come back. In the 2000s, for example, a lot of people went abroad for postdoctoral research and then came back, because they hadn't planned staying abroad forever. Which is very normal. People around the world stay abroad for several years, it's okay. In biology, it is not common to stay long at the same lab. Young people are believed to become rigid if they stay at one place for too long. And they should stay open-minded.
Here people change areas of research quite often. When they graduate, then while doing PhD, then at their postdoctoral fellowship. I mean, it varies, but it happens quite often. So, less and less people were coming back to Russia, and in the mid 2010s there were very few returning home. This was the main problem. And the second biggest problem was that Russia failed to become an attractive country for postdocs from China or India.
There were very few postdocs or PhD students from these countries. Some students from there are great! For example, at Skoltech, there are some brilliant African students each year. Two years ago, I had a student from Uganda. His thesis was the best that year. At Skoltech master's, there are many applicants from Africa, Pakistan. From India not so many. Almost none from Chine. But a lot from other countries.
Majority of them are really weak, of course. But every year, there are some really bright people applying from countries that we are used to think of with disdain. It is actually wrong. I know a good professor from MIT, who told me that he's got a couple of brilliant students from Africa every year.
— Do they come to study and then stay forever? Or do they come back to their countries? — Africans often return to Africa, or go somewhere else in Europe. It depends. If we look at the Africans that I know, we can see two main patterns.
First: when Russia is like an intermediate stage before going to Europe or America. I saw some great Syrian students who were never planning to stay in Russia. And there were also those who did the opposite: they came to study, to gain knowledge that they would later apply in their countries or start career in their home countries with a foreign diploma, which is a great bonus. There were some people with idealistic ideas to develop science in their countries, in Uganda for example. But I haven't seen a single student whose strategy was to stay in Russia. I'm talking about international students.
Which is okay! It shouldn't be a strategy of a scientist to stay in a particular country. Your strategy should be based on the subject of your research, not on your geographical preferences. So, if it wasn't only students coming to Russia, but also bright postdocs, it would be great! It doesn't matter where they'll be teaching after. For the 4-5 years of postdoctoral research, this person will benefit the country a lot. It's not a problem if they leave. Other postdocs will come to replace them.
It's like if you keep scooping pebbles from a river, like it was when they were building the Olympic Village, at some point pebbles will start falling back in the river. All the pebbles will eventually fall there. The flows were not stabilised. Both the flow of Russians leaving, and almost never coming back, and the flow of foreign PhD students. It didn't make up for those who were leaving, because it was either a through flow, or a returning one, but returning too fast. Too fast to do something useful here.
Nobody stayed to work here for four years. — Our scientists mostly leave to the west, or are there any other destinations? China, for example? — I know people who left to Japan. As for China... well, I know people who worked in China. But I don't know about massive flows to China.
— Is China fighting for Russian brain? — China? Well, not for my brain. For some brain - maybe. I am not aware. No, actually for mine too! I completely forgot. Yes, actually I can leave to China if I want to. — Have you received offers? — Yes. I've received a lot of offers. — Why are you declining all the offers? — Why not? Your assumption is that if you are offered something, you should leave everything and go.
I can question the whole assumption. — I don't assume so, I just want to know your motivation. — There are many reasons. As long as I can live and work here, I will live and work here. When it is no longer be possible, it will probably be too late anyway. So, I will be a fool. — For example, we hear a lot that the government suddenly cares about IT specialists leaving Russia.
So, it is trying to pander to them with lower mortgage rates, reprieve from the army, some programs to make IT specialists come back, etc. Is there anything like this for scientists? Does the government even need them? Does the government see them as a valuable asset? — Does the state view scientists as an asset that they have to take care of? This is an interesting question. You better address it to other people, residing nearby. There is a large wall with battlements, the state resides there. Why don't you ask it? Don't ask me, I am not the state. — Maybe you feel the care? — No, I don't feel the care of the state.
A decent place must have science, that's why we need it. I am not talking about technologies. IT is a bad example in this sense, because it's more about technologies, not about science. It's about engineering. There's a difference. When you are working with technology, your goal is to make something that functions.
It's great! Thanks to these people we have all the devices we use on a daily basis. When you are doing science, your goal is to discover something that was unknown before. They are tightly connected, because there are amazing people who discover something new and quickly apply it to make some fun stuff or a gadget. Some things are more fundamental and will turn into gadgets later, or maybe they won't. Some things are just concepts.
Especially in biology. For example, let's take medical oncology. In fact, there's a lot of knowledge explaining how molecular cell biology works, explaining the genetics. But if you take an article dated 1973, and ask me what medicine was based on the findings of this article. I'll tell you: none. Or vice versa: all of them.
Because understanding is much broader than applicable knowledge of what to put in a certain pill, for example. So, if the state wants to develop science as something that will provide understanding, that's a good question. I don't really know. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the state understands the importance of science, but daily problems are more urgent.
— You've mentioned bio labs. The term used to scare a lot of people now. Can you please explain what they are, and where they come from, and why propaganda loves this term so much? I am not an expert, but it seems ridiculous. Yet they keep talking about it, so now I think I am the stupid one. — No, wait. Don't be so hard on yourself.
You are a propaganda expert! So, you should not be asking me why they keep talking about it. I should be asking you, because this is you area of competence. I should be asking you why propaganda loves this nonsense. I am sure you will explain it clearly. Although I don't think I will hear anything I don't know yet. Is this nonsense? Yes, it is.
The story about ethno-specific bioweapons is not new, by the way. It didn't appear just now. I don't know who came up with it, but Mikhail Kovalchuk was the one actively promoting it. Also at the meetings with the Russian President, that were broadcasted and published in various newspapers.
If you search for 'biogenetic weapon', you will see a lot of publications. Some are from 10 years ago. In this sense, it's not something new. It is just used in a new way. The examples made are a bit ridiculous.
So, here's where it comes from. There are ordinary collaborations. Ukrainian scientists collaborated with American ones, it's okay. — So, it's okay that Americans opened and financed bio labs in Ukraine? — Wait a second. I am telling you about what I saw on TV. I am very careful, I only use official data, but I reserve the right to interpret it according to my professional competence. The examples of collaboration that were shown as a proof of existence of military bio labs, are not proving anything, because these are normal scientific collaborations, like epidemiology of some bacteria in Ukraine.
It's a routine work. There are tons of research like it published in third-tier journals. That's firstly. Secondly, it is true that in the 1990s, the USA actively supported former military labs of the Soviet Union.
Both physics and biological labs. Mostly physics ones. The idea was the following: the previous years were hard for everyone, for science too. Many people were leaving.
If a person who used to be engaged in military biology moves to Iran and continues doing biology there, it won't be that good for the whole world. That's what Americans thought. So, they launched a grant program: They opened new centres, where they retrained these people, helping them to adapt to civil biology. On the other hand, these people were basically 'corrupted', this is honestly genius, they would give huge grants under the following condition: you cannot buy any equipment, you can only spend grants on wages. And a certain share of people using those grants had to be people from the military sector. There was a program like this in Russia, in Ukraine.
If I am not mistaken, also in Kazakhstan. I didn't read much about it. I am not a fan of military biology. I think it's a sad science.
But the idea was actually great: these people didn't move anywhere, as they enjoyed high salaries. Maybe higher than in Soviet times. At the same time, they were not doing anything, because they couldn't buy anything. Meaning that they couldn't do any harm. They couldn't do any good either. But who cares. — So, they were drinking there? — I don't know if they were drinking. Maybe they used that grants to open repair shops, as you call them.
Once again, I didn't go into depth. But the observation was the following: there was no mass outflow of people, who used to work with bacteriological weapons in the Soviet Union, and we know that there was a bacteriological weapon program in the USSR because of an anthrax leak in Sverdlovsk in 1979. A military facility where they generated anthrax spores exploded a bit, and the spores leaked a bit.
I know some details about this event. Some funny details, I mean, it's a dark story, but... many years have passed, so I think I can speak about it now.
So, anyway, people who used to be engaged in military biology were not massively migrating somewhere to Iran or North Korea, meaning that the program was successful. Whether they reintegrated in civil biology, or they started drinking or they opened repair shops well... after all, who cares? So, there are still some tracks of that program in some Ukrainian institutions. And now they are demonstrated to us like "Look! Americans financed the development of biological weapons" They were not financing the development of bioweapons, they were actually doing the opposite. They were financing the degradation of the existing Soviet program of bioweapons. — The Dulles' Plan! — Once again, it was created by an absolute genius.
He did really good. — People will say this is the Dulles' Plan. — Guys, it was 30 years ago. — Just like the conspiracy goes... — Ilya, please stop. You see...
Thank God. Because I can imagine the moral norms of a person working on more vicious strains of anthrax. I mean, whatever is his nationality, I mean, his citizenship, he is a bad person. A good person wouldn't be engaged in this nasty thing. And the fact that these people were neutralised is great. If this is the Dulles' Plan, it is a great plan.
— Is the creation of ethno-biological weapons possible in today's world? — Totally impossible. — So something like a bat that’ll only infect Slavs? — It's completely impossible. It's been said a million times. It's unrealistic for a number of reasons. Firstly, because most of modern large ethnic groups are genetically very heterogeneous within themselves but when compared with each other, on the contrary, they are very similar. Yes, there is a certain paradox in this… it’s to do with frequency of variations... well, what is an ethnic weapon? It means that someone has a genetic variant that someone else doesn't have, so we latch on to that variant and purposefully attack it.
The problem's that there are no such variants that Slavs have and Americans don't have, simply for the trivial reason that a significant proportion of Americans are of Slavic origin. The second reason is that one particular variant won't give you anything, because technically, even if we assume that it was possible, technically you can't make a virus that will use a particular asset as a target. There are no viruses that know how to select a victim depending on what variants they have in their genome. And there isn't for a simple reason. Because the virus doesn't need it. Making such a virus purposefully, in the near future, is impossible.
It's not even clear how to go about it. And there's a certain paradox that people often fall for. "Well," they say, "take an African, take a Slav, I can tell the difference by eye. Then the virus can tell the difference too!" The answer is, it doesn't work that way.
Yes, we can determine fairly accurately, including from the genome, the ethnicity of a person, but we can do that not because that person has one particular variant of genome, and the others do not, but it's the result of statistical averaging of hundreds or rather thousands of variants. That is, you differ from the African from Africa (as we should probably word it) not because you have something that you share with all of your fellow countrymen, and people from Africa never had it, but because there are thousands of variants, that might be more common in our population than in some African population (because Africa is incredibly heterogeneous genetically, which is a separate issue). And when we look at this integrally with the eye or with a computer program, then we can talk about ethnicity. So, you don't need a virus that catches one variant, but you need a wonderful virus that scans several thousand variants in the genome, and then it calculates... so, some of them vote for one ethnic group, and some of them vote for the other ethnic group. And some of them vote loudly,
the ones that have a striking difference, and some of them vote quietly, the ones that have almost no difference, just a tiny one. And then this wonderful virus, which has scanned the whole genome, says, "okay, I’ll kill this one!" Well, obviously it's impossible to make a virus like that. — That's a good thing. — In fact, it's probably for the best.
We know examples of the bad ethnic weapons. I’m talking about the time when Viktor Sadovnichiy was the head of the Party Committee of the Faculty of Mechanics. [Viktor Sadovnichiy, president of the Moscow State University, member of the "United Russia" party] There was a wonderful ethnic weapon that didn't let the Jews to the Faculty of Mechanics, it was able to identify them...
— I did not know that! — What? That in the 1970s and 1980s there were no Jews admitted to the Faculty of Mechanics? — No! — Well, now you do! — And why’s that? — You'll have to ask Victor Sadovnichy. Perhaps they considered Jews unreliable... I don’t know why... Well, I graduated from the Faculty of Mechanics in 1985, but even so, apart from the fact that I'm a Jew, I was not very much experimented on. And a lot of my friends
couldn't get into the university. Some went to other ones. Never mind. But they had a terrible chemical weapon in their hands called the human resources department. Worked perfectly fine. — The coronavirus pandemic in Russia has shown that quite a large number of our fellow citizens are susceptible to various conspiracy theories. I understand that this is everywhere in the world and we cannot say that only in Russia people are crazy and uneducated.
But in Russia at one time, this turned into some sort of rebellion and revolt, when the State Duma wanted to introduce QR codes and then we had a real uprising, this initiative was quickly rolled back and rejected. I don't remember a similar event in any other educated country. — And what is an educated country? — Well, where a significant number of people have higher education, at least. Russia, after all, in this respect... — Wait a minute, there was a revolt in Canada. — No, those were revolts against some specific restrictive measures! — Well, QR codes are also a specific restrictive measure... — And they were quite justified there, because it was only to do with the truckers, when they weren't saying that they wouldn't get vaccinated, they were saying "here we are coming from USA, we have been vaccinated three times, we are coming back to Canada... why when I am coming from one state
to another I don't need anything, but crossing the border that never actually really existed you want me to be in quarantine?" — I realise that you are far more aware of the problems of truckers than I am, but nevertheless... Point one: some local revolts against some local measures have in fact taken place. I don't remember now, I used to follow them a little bit, but I don't remember. — No, there were local uprisings, but not as massive as in Russia. — There were no mass riots in Russia. There was no uprising against QR codes in Russia. There was a work-to-rule action, when the authorities just rolled them back quickly at some point and there were no riots.
— Well, yes, because they realised that the people from smaller towns would... — But thank God! By the way, I don't rule out that it was this... that's as horrible as this story is in itself... well. Firstly, how good were the administrative measures that were proposed with these mandatory QR codes is a separate question. I'm not ready to discuss it now because I don't remember all the details. I simply forgot them. And I might have missed some of them.
You’ll need to search the archives to consider what was reasonable and what was not. Secondly, there was deafening dissatisfaction with this whole thing about QR codes and vaccination, the latter being worse, since as I suspect, because of people not getting vaccinated a large number of unnecessary deaths occurred of both those who weren't vaccinated themselves and those they infected. But, on the other hand, there’s a certain historical irony here, because those deaths that happened then, possibly balance with those deaths that didn’t happen because mass mobilisation of troops wasn’t announced. And I strongly believe that the fact that it wasn’t declared... well, I’m not a sociologist, nor a political scientist, and certainly not a politician, but, I think that the fact that the mass mobilisation didn’t take place in some way is it’s better not to mess with some things. And thank goodness for that. In that sense, this history has vaccinated us
as a society against some such possibly unpleasant consequences. Why did this particular rule cause so much dissatisfaction in Russia? That’s not a question for me to answer. It’s a question for anthropologists, people who study societies. It’s not a question about biology. What I know as a biologist is that the level of biological ignorance in society is appalling.
I’ve not compared with America and Europe, because I don’t really know how to, but generally speaking, according to the results of the polls that I saw (who made these polls, how carefully they are made, how comparable is the wording of questions in different countries is another issue… As always, sociology should deal with this, and again, this is not my specialism), apparently, the average level of biological ignorance, including simple questions about evolution, about the origin of man from apes is quite high... well, everyone's favorite question, “is it true that genetically modified tomatoes have genes and ordinary tomatoes don't have genes?” Anyway, that's the sort of questions that are popular. It’s bad in Russia and apparently even compared to other countries it's bad too. But then my favorite tune is that biology is taught in high school for one hour a week, despite the fact that biology is exactly the science that affects life. Of all the natural sciences, biology has the greatest impact on the immediate life of society. Because if we look at what issues are discussed ... Well, we discuss the issue of vaccination.
It's a purely biological question about how the immune system functions and how the pathogen evolves. It's a pure biology. Are genetically modified organisms dangerous or not? Well, it’s already clear from the wording that this is a biological question. About genetics, more precisely about genetic engineering. What else is of interest to society? Homeopathy? Well, there's a little bit of chemistry there that tells us that there’s this Avogadro number, and if you dilute something a hundred times, then you won't have a single molecule left, and then it's a question about how to design a biological experiment to make sure that something works and something doesn't work. Biology plays an important role in any individual medical decision.
It’s common in some countries to explain to the patient what is happening to them. There was no such tradition in the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, cancer patients were simply lied to up until the last minute. I can't understand why, but it was believed that the doctor knew best. When a doctor tells you that "here John, you have three months, get your affairs in order, if you wanted to go to the Canary Islands, here’s your last chance", this wasn’t the accepted norm. For 3 months the patient was being told that he had spikes and something else, and then he was lying down and couldn't stand up.
I don't know why this had to be done. That's a different issue. Yes, the downside is that if the doctor begins to explain to the patient what is happening to them, they’ll have to read a short course of high school biology, because otherwise it will just be a set of incomprehensible words. And while cancer is the disease that is the most biological of all, it’s about cellular breakdowns, and in many cases it’s clear which ones; the mechanisms of action of the drugs that act on the specific breakdowns are clear, there’s a wonderful evolution, because of the emergence of drug resistance. When chemotherapy stops working, it is all classic Darwinism in its purest form. That's how grandpa Darwin put it and that's how it goes. It's individual decisions. What else do people care about?
Well, that's probably the main things. Ah, nuclear power plants, too! — Yes, right, nuclear power plants! — There are two aspects here. In nuclear power plants, the first one is really an engineering question of whether it will explode or not, but it's also a biological one: what happens if it does explode? Or how bad are some small radiation leaks. But that's where the biology comes in again. Because in the long run, we are interested in a nuclear power plant not because there will be a crater of 0.3x0.3 miles (forget it, we'll get around it), but because
it'll be harmful for our health to walk past it. Or that a cloud of dust will rain down on you, that’ll be bad too. It's biology all over again. Well, for example, there is a theory, though I don't know if it is true or not, again it is beyond my competence. But when they resettled some of the villages in the Chernobyl zone, they say that maybe some of them weren't really need resettlement, because the radiation level there was high, but the stress that people experienced when they were forced to leave everything and leave immediately was medically worse than if they had lived their whole lives in that radiation or if they gradually moved away. It is clear that this decision was made instantly and it was not possible to weigh it all up quickly. It’s obvious that decisions were made on the side of caution...
Some of them. Decisions about May Day parade in Kyiv were made by some people and about the resettlement were made by others, but nevertheless. So, as a matter of fact, it turns out that all the hottest spots that society is worried about are either just biological or have a very large biological component.
That said, people are biologically ignorant in a terrible way. And that, in my opinion, is tragic. Compared to other tragic events, maybe not so bad, but on larger scale it is a very bad thing for the society. Because people argue about things they don’t understand at all and make decisions based either on their insane considerations or by talking to other crazy people. — Am I correct in assuming that today, no GMOs, no homeopathy, no nuclear plants, no vaccinations are taught in school? — I went to school a long time ago. I don't know what they tell you in school to be honest. All I know is that in the state
standard biology curriculum... or rather, the draft state standard biology curriculum for high school that I read a few years ago, the word "evolution" was never mentioned at all, which is a complete bummer, because first of all, it is the most interesting thing in biology, and without understanding evolution you won't understand biology. If you don't think in evolutionary terms, then for you biology becomes a set of facts. It ceases to be a science and becomes a stamp collection by and large. Evolutionary biology is what ties everything together into real science. But even if ‘evolution’ was there, one hour
a week doesn't help with it. Again, that's with the fact that biology is easy to teach. I judge from my experience of giving public lectures. I have a strong sense that when physicists give public lectures about black holes or something else, it's like fiction. They tell a bunch of metaphors, more or less informative: good speakers tell it more accurately, and bad speakers tell it very artistically, but still, to understand what a black hole is, you have to write five pages of equations, not wave your hands around and say, it's this hole, everything is sucked into it and nothing gets sucked out, no light comes out. There is no modern popular mathematics at all. Wonderful, popular mathematics that’s taught now is, at best, 19th century maths. Well, you can see that. For example, there’s a new Fields Medal, sort of like
a Nobel Prize in mathematics, but just try and explain what you’ve won it for. Modern mathematics cannot be taught interestingly at all, nobody even tries. Modern physics is discussed by substituting facts by a set of artistic metaphors.
And modern biology can be taught to anyone. It's wonderfully interesting, but it's not deep. You don't have to spend years learning how to write formulas to understand what's being done. Almost all modern biology can be told to any interested listener, with any background. Well yes, it will take more or less time to introduce, but there's nothing cerebral there. And it's not in the school curriculum.
There's sine and cosine, but no genetic engineering, as you say. — This is strange because in terms of the state and society, we incur huge costs. For example, because of anti-vaxxers, we see outbreaks of seemingly forgotten diseases, and with the example of coronavirus, we see terrible mortality and a huge resource that must be spent to teach, explain and convince the people... — And keep them alive! — Yes! The same thing is happening with homeopathy, it's a huge industry today, maybe people aren't interested in fighting it anymore... — Well I know at least one corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who is not interested in fighting against homeopathy, because he is homeopathy. Epstein is his last name...
— Yes, there are some strange things going on! [Oleg Epstein, corresponding member of RAS, chair of Materia Medica Group] — He owns a concern called Materia Medica, which makes a lot of homeopathic pseudo-medicines. By the way, I sued him once. — Really? How did it go? — We reached a settlement, he paid the fees. Well, not to me personally, he paid legal fees. There are people who are dealing with it. For example, Alexander Panchin.
— Yes, Alexander Panchin is doing a great job, although lately he has been lazy, let's be honest. If he watches us, let’s point out that he’s started being lazy, he rarely posts new videos... — No, well, but on the other hand, you know, you can't turn yourself into a cannon that shoots at homeopaths and anti-vaxxers every day.
— Well, that's the state's job. — Well, we've already talked about the state. The task of the state is not to engage in propaganda, it’s job is to create such tools so that people engaged in education and doing it successfully will have some financial support and the opportunity to do it better, more widely and with better technology and so on. Yes, Sasha Panchin is lazy, but partly because he needs to earn a living. I am lazy too, I should mention that this is not my main profession. By the way, I’ve chatted with anti-GMO activists quite a lot at some point (now, they've disappeared somewhere, by the way), with anti-vaxxers it’s more difficult.
You have to prepare harder there, I just don't have enough time to prepare well for a dialogue with anti-vaxxers. Well it's practically a profession by and large. So the task of the state there is really to create a good mechanism... Look, I'm repeating what you've always said really. The task of the state is to create a good mechanism. The job of Panchin, or me, or you, or anyone else, is to use these mechanisms. Why is that not happening? Ask Shulman to come and talk about it, we do have some experts on state and politics.
— I think she is in Germany... — Well, I'm no political expert. All right, who can we ask? Call Rakova and ask her, "Why didn't you, Rakova, introduce an extra biology class in Moscow schools?" See what she says. [Anastasia Rakova, Deputy Mayor of Moscow] — In general it would certainly be funny if, for example, Solovyov suddenly switched to talking about the need for vaccination in his broadcasts with the same zeal! — That would have had an existential conflict at that moment! I would have gone on a binge! All right, well... By the way, it didn't help when
there was this whole thing around vaccination, there was quite a lot of propaganda on TV. — It was very strange, because those who were working for the people from the smaller towns, they either didn't do it, or they were careful with it. Something on the lines of, "I'm not a racist, but..." — Well I don't have a TV, so I don't know how it was done. — Also, Nikita Mikhalkov, our new everything in the science field, by the way, you've probably heard of him? Now in schools...
— No, of course not! — You've probably heard of Mikhalkov in general... — What about schools? — There's now a list of literature that kids are assigned to read, and some teachers are assigning them to watch Mikhalkov. — Oh, "Besogon [Expeller] TV"? No, well, not some teachers, but a certain fool has written a summer assignment for her class. But wait, we can't turn
every idiot into a social phenomenon, that would also be too much. — A theatre has recently put on a whole play based on Mikhalkov... — Mikhalkov is an old dirtball that’s out of his mind, but why are we discussing him? Why in connection with biology? — Because he also talks about biology... — All right, let him talk, for God's sake. It would be in the state's interest to increase biological literacy of its citizens in some significant way. This is an example of telling the truth. The next question is, what do we mean by "state"?
Do we understand some individual ideal state as it should be, or do we mean a non-ideal but functioning state like Western democracy, or do we see it as what is happening outside our houses? As Edik Amperian used to say, "Monday begins on Saturday, nature has its goals and I have mine." ["Monday begins on Saturday" - novel by Strugatsky brothers] Only Edik was a positive character and some other character might say the same. On the other hand, when you raise the biological literacy of the citizens, you won't be able to spread news about biolabs. — That's the next thing I wanted to say. How much does the state, if we are talking about the Russian State, need an intelligent, educated population that will, if anything happens, immediately say, "what nonsense are you trying to sell to us? — Why are you asking me that? I don't know why the state needs it. — Maybe that's why they don't tell you about the theory of evolution.
— That can be true. — As far as I'm concerned, the theory of evolution doesn't go well with religion? — With religion... — Well, you either have to believe in God or the theory of evolution. — No, they're perpendicular, really.
First of all, you don't have to believe in the theory of evolution. When you say in the same sentence to believe in a god and to believe in the theory of evolution, the latter just becomes the name of another god. That's where you have to be careful with the terminology. Believing in the theory of evolution is not a thing that is an act of this kind of blind faith, it is a matter of evaluating arguments. To teach at school and also at university to evaluate arguments, and then to learn to evaluate arguments all your life, that would be perfect in general.
It would be the happiest of countries if all citizens knew how to do it. Why doesn’t it and won't happen? Well again, in some ways we will be stating the obvious. But nevertheless, evolutionary biology does not contradict religiosity at all. And there are wonderful examples of very good evolutionists
who were to some degree religious. They don’t particularly believe in the 6 days of creation, and that those who fit into the Noah’s Ark are those we observe now. And those who didn't fit into the Ark… Well, we're discovering their bones. Where did the dinosaur bones come from? Well, they didn't fit in the Ark, they were too late. I know honest people who are successfully engaged in very advanced, world-class, truly evolutionary biology, while being quite religious people.
The empirical fact is that these are not contradictory things. It's strange to me, it doesn't fit in my head, but I just now as an empirical scientist just observe and see that yes, it happens that way. You know, like a platypus. You'd think it shouldn't be like that, and when the first platypuses were brought in they thought it was a fake or just had a beak sewn on. And then when they saw a live platypus,
they said, "Unbelievable" And then I'm left with my hands raised and I'm like, "Unbelievable!" — This education thing, over the years, what's the trend? — I don't know. I had a very bad biology teacher at school, so for me any trend is good. I don't think there is a trend. Well, look, about school education I just don't know. I haven't compared school curricula. Individual cases can be terrible.
I had a wonderful schoolboy, a high school student, come to a lecture about GMOs, and he was pestering me for a long time, asking some questions. I said to him, "Why are you asking me if you know everything?" "No," he says, "of course I know everything, it's not for me, I need to learn how to explain it to Mrs Smith. She’s my biology teacher." So there’s an anti-GMO, biology teacher.
And he wanted to talk with her, being an angry teenager and he learned from me how to make a polemic, what arguments to make, not how biology works. He already knew all about biology. — Did you teach him? — I hope so. At least he came in and said, "Yeah, thanks, that's a relief, I know what I'm going to tell her tomorrow."
Anti-GMO activists are usually stupid. They're hysterical and stupid. It's impossible to change their minds, but convincing the audience that it's rubbish isn't really very difficult. Anti-vaxxers are harder to polemic with in that sense. That's why I'm afraid to debate with anti-vaxxers in public.
Because I know that at some point I'll have a baby in a wheelchair and they'll say, "we vaccinated them in February and they’re paralysed in March." And what do you say to that? Firstly, maybe that's not why they’re paralysed. Secondly, yes, vaccinations have side effects, but the beneficial effects of vaccination are far more significant than the small likelihood of side effects. And you're saying all this while there's a poor sick kid in a wheelchair drooling in your head.
That's it, you've lost. Especially, if it happens in public. Because no matter how logical your arguments are, they’re never going to be more convincing than a sick baby. So the only way if you go to polemic with an anti-vaxxer, there should be a wheelchair with another sick child who has not been vaccinated and who is sick. Polio, for example. But here's the thing about wheelchair battles, I somehow don't have that much of a temperament. So it's harder with anti-vaxxers. It's easy with the anti-GMO people.
Well, they're stupid. Anti-vaxxers are stupid too, but they always have a strong emotional argument, and anti-GMOs don't. We've already talked about the level of education... I'm trying to understand where we're going with this.
Here if you look at the students, the best students, there is no horror going on. Students from Engineering and IT Departments from MSU are amazing. Students from other institutes also come to my lab, they are also absolutely great. It’ll go downhill this year because many of the best ones will go to universities other than Russian ones. It is already very well seen in terms of master's students, in terms of first-year students... — So you can see the trend already? — On the master's courses, yes. The number of applications for master's
degrees show it really well. — This year already? — Yes, this year the level of applications for master's programmes has dropped very much, and in different places. But it is like... If we talk about Skoltech, the level has fallen not in the sense that there is no one