President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Mr Fortov, I propose that we look at the results of the Academy’s work. How did the work process go, and what are your priorities?
President of the Russian Academy of Sciences Vladimir Fortov: I will not hide from you the fact that 2015 was not an easy year for us, as we are still in a rather turbulent period linked to the reforms underway. At the same time, we have succeeded, together with the Federal Agency for Scientific Organisations, in making some progress and achieving some results.
As far as our scientific results go, let me give a few examples. Our scientists made some outstanding discoveries of new trans-uranium elements: elements No. 118, 117 and 115. They were registered as new elements just before New Year. This was the work of scientists from the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna. Academician Oganessian from Flerov Laboratory of Nuclear Reactions and his team made a big contribution to this work. We are very pleased with this result.
As you know, we are in the process of intensifying interdisciplinary work now that we have been joined by two new academies [the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Academy of Agricultural Sciences]. The year-long transition period has come to an end and the year we are reviewing now was spent on joint work with the people from the Academy of Medical Sciences. I can cite the example of proton cancer treatment, which uses a heavy ion accelerator to treat cancer inside the brain.
As you can imagine, this is very delicate work because if we want to remove a cancerous tumour, we need to get through healthy cells. The ions used here are relativistic ions, that is to say, ions that, using methods used in physics, have been brought up to an energy of tens of megaelectronvolts. The properties they gain as a result mean that when they enter any solid or liquid body, they give off energy not at the start of their journey, but at the end, deep within the target, so to speak. This decelerating process is very different from an electromagnetic field, which gradually fades.
A series of such apparatuses were made in the Academy of Sciences’ Physics Institute, our leading centre. They turned out to be so effective, in particular in terms of size, that they could fit here in your office, say, and they are 5–6 times cheaper than what the Germans and Americans offer on this market. I think these are examples worth noting.
We held a general Academy of Sciences meeting on the subject of medicines. As you know, this is a very topical issue right now, and also a serious problem. Pharmacology today uses the latest methods in chemistry, physics, biology, computer technology and so on. Developing medicines is a particularly difficult area of work. We think that our meeting was very useful, with people from the different scientific fields sharing their ideas, views and visions. Our ultimate goal is to bring together scientists from different fields and make their work interesting.
The Academy fully agrees with this logic and is ready to work in this mode. We know of many interesting projects that are no worse than and often surpass what is being done abroad. Regrettably, we cannot say that we have already become the leaders in this field, but I think that we have taken steps in the right direction.
Taking into account the priorities you formulated (one of which was medicine), we took another step within the Academy. Use of physics in medicine is another very interesting area. I can give you the example of femtosecond lasers – lasers that emit ultrashort pulses. They are very effective in treating eye diseases. The General Physics Institute and relevant clinics have developed a whole range of these devices, which can be used for various treatments, from removing cataracts to treating the retina.
Vladimir Putin: In this respect, merging the Academy of Medical Sciences with the main Academy has produced some positive results.
Vladimir Fortov: I must say that yes, we see good prospects in this area. We have a programme for plasma medicine ready now.
People think of plasma as the main material that makes stars. It is all about high pressure and high temperatures. But in some cases, plasma can have the needed effect on germs that have become resistant to antibiotics. As you know, this is a serious problem that the World Health Organisation has raised in the UN.
It is possible to create a plasma burner in which electrons will reach a high temperature, with the effect of killing bacteria. The ions that contain most of the energy will not heat the substance, however. In other words, there is no destruction of tissue. This cunning approach has been developed. We are working on this field together with Healthcare Ministry’s Gamaleya Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology and the Max Planck Institute in Munich, whose Professor Gregor Morfill is also a member of our Academy and we are working with him and with Japanese scientists.
Vladimir Putin: Good. Of course, we also need to look at issues concerning agriculture development.
Vladimir Fortov: It is good that you bring this up. This is a new field of work for us. I cannot say I was well versed in this area, but when I got to know the field better, I saw that there are some very interesting areas there. There is the effect of ultraviolet radiation on seeds, for example, and genetic issues, which are a difficult field for us, seeing as we have laws that prohibit us from pursuing work in these areas. Nonetheless, we do bring in genetically modified plants.
Vladimir Putin: For research purposes?
Vladimir Fortov: They have amazing properties. They produce a far higher yield and are far more resistant to bacteria and pests. We cannot ignore all of this. This is a serious area of work.
Vladimir Putin: Yes, this is true.
Vladimir Fortov: It is hard for us now in the sense that we are doing research that we hope will produce breakthrough developments, but we need to finance this work. We already had our working methods organised before the merger. We had what we called the [Academy of Sciences] Presidium Programme, which would bring together, say, biologists, physicists and specialists in the humanities to examine the huge range of tasks out there and choose the priority areas. This programme is not expensive. It began with 4 billion rubles, then this sum decreased, and last year, we had a hard time getting it up to 1.6 billion.
This has put a real brake on our scientific research. The scientists want to work, and this is a way to finance their research. We ask for support and would like you to give your backing, if possible, to this programme, as the only programme allowing us to launch new projects.