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Science is an indispensable part of any nation’s culture and at the same time an important prerequisite for economic and social progress of a country. The development of scientific thought in Lithuania went through periods of progress and decline.
As a system, science in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania began developing after the founding of Vilnius University – Academia et Universitas Vilnensis – in 1579. Among the academic staff of the newly-founded university there were a number of researchers renowned for their achievements in the fields of mathematics, medicine, natural and social sciences, and the humanities. Many of them were graduates of famous Western European universities, and on the other hand, a number of professors and graduates of Vilnius University were invited to work in institutions of higher education abroad.
In 1773, a group of professors of Vilnius University led by the prominent astronomer Martynas Počobutas (Marcin Poczobut) decided to establish the Vilnius Academy of Sciences, an institution for research and promotion of science. Their plans, however, were thwarted by continuous wars that devastated the country. In 1803 Vilnius University was reorganized and the number of courses taught here rose significantly to include mechanics, technology, the probability theory, agronomy, statistics, and diplomacy. It goes without saying that research in these disciplines also expanded.
In 1832, the tsarist government closed Vilnius University because its professors and students participated in the November 1831 uprising in the partitioned Republic (Rzeczpospolita) against the Russian Empire. The astronomical observatory of the university was taken over by the Russian Academy of Sciences. Vilnius Academy of Medicine and Surgery were closed in 1842, and the Theological Academy was moved to St Petersburg. Many of the university’s professors and students were repressed and exiled, and numerous requests to reopen Vilnius University were ignored by the tsarist authorities. Lithuania was left without a single institution of higher education.
The end of the nineteenth century was marked by a rising wave of national revival. Local and émigré intellectuals began to form political, cultural, public, and scientific organizations. This process was further accelerated after the lifting of the ban on the Lithuanian press in 1904. In 1907, Lietuvių mokslo draugija (Lithuanian Society for Science) was founded with Dr Jonas Basanavičius as its chairperson. According to the charter of the society, its aims included conducting research into various fields of science, promoting scientific thought and information, and publishing. These objectives were quite similar to those of present-day academies of sciences.
Other scientific societies appeared in Lithuania at the same time or later. The Polish scientific organization, Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Nauk w Wilnie (Society of Friends of Science in Vilnius) was founded in 1907. In 1925, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research was opened in Vilnius, and it was a significant addition to the existing and well developed system of Jewish cultural and educational institutions in Vilnius.
After the First World War, in 1918, Lithuania declared its independence and a number of institutions of learning and research were either reopened or newly established. Among these, mention should be made of the re-opened Vilnius University and the Higher Courses in Kaunas opened in 1920. In 1922, the Higher Courses were reorganized into the University of Lithuania which was later renamed as Vytautas Magnus University. The Agricultural Academy was founded in Dotnuva, a town 50 kilometres to the north of Kaunas in 1924, and the Veterinary Academy opened in Kaunas in 1936.
The idea of the Academy of Sciences was not forgotten in independent Lithuania. However, it was difficult to establish an organization like this without tangible support of the country’s government, and it was only at the end of 1938 that the Institute of Lithuanian Studies was established. Its founders envisaged that it would evolve into an academy that would conduct research in various fields of science.
Owing to historical circumstances, the Academy of Sciences was established on 16 January 1941, that is, after Lithuania had already lost its independence. The three institutions that could be collectively called the precursors of the Academy of Sciences – the Lithuanian Society for Science, Vytautas Magnus University, and the Institute of Lithuanian Studies – offered their unconditional support to the new organization of science and research. Meanwhile, the new Academy of Sciences was expected to find solutions for large-scale issues such as the exploration and rational use of Lithuania’s natural resources, study of the history and cultural heritage of the Lithuanian people and the research into key issues of the building of socialism in all its aspects, compulsory at the time.
The first President of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences was the famous Lithuanian scholar and writer Prof. Vincas Krėvė-Mickevičius. The first Charter of the Academy provided for the establishment of three scientific divisions: the humanities, social sciences and economics, as well as natural and technical sciences and mathematics. The divisions were delegated powers to establish research institutes and other supporting organizations and offices. The first thirteen academicians were appointed by the government despite the fact that they were to be elected according to the Charter.
During the first stage of its existence, which coincided with the years of the Second World War, the humanities prevailed in the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences. In the post-war years, the re-established Academy of Sciences functioned under harsh conditions when the activities of scientists were strictly regulated and monitored. Nonetheless, the progressive scientific thought was always alive within the Academy of Sciences. It was especially stimulated by Prof. Juozas Matulis, a great authority in electrochemistry and President of the Academy of Sciences from 1946 to 1984. A number of research institutions were established, and the scientific community was growing. The most advanced was research in the fields of physics, mathematics, and in some natural sciences. Their main research trends were evolving. It was in these fields that the most significant scientific results, widely known and globally recognized, were achieved. Meanwhile, the humanities and social sciences were strongly affected by the socialist ideology. However, the ideals of the nation’s statehood and sovereignty, as well as concern for the country’s problems and fate lingered on.
The role of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences in the promotion of the idea of the restoration of Lithuania’s independence, of paving the paths and creating the means for its implementation cannot be overstated. The first public meeting of the steering group of the Sąjūdis, orNational Reform Movement, was held in the Academy’s conference hall on 9 June 1988; the Green movement, which started at approximately the same time, was also born in the Academy of Sciences.
In as early as 1989, the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences declared its independence from the USSR Academy of Sciences. The declaration triggered a period of reforms. At that time the prominent physicist Academician Juras Požela was President of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences. In March 1990, the Academy declared its decision to be independent of any public or political institution. The Academy of Sciences was structured as a network of 17 scientific research institutes, and a number of auxiliary scientific and industrial enterprises. It had a staff of over 5,600 employees, including 2,000 scientists engaged in research.
On 12 February 1991, the law of the Republic of Lithuania on Research and Studies was passed which defined the status of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences within the system of the country’s scientific institutions and defined its relations with the State. Following this law, a new Statute of the Academy of Sciences was drafted and was approved by the Parliament of the Republic of Lithuania on 18 March 2003. The enactment of this law and the new Statute of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences ended the period of reforms in the Academy. From 1992 to 2003, the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences was headed by the well-known biochemist Academician Benediktas Juodka. The acclaimed physicist Academician Zenonas Rokus Rudzikas presided over the Academy from 2003 to 2009. Academician Valdemaras Razumas presided over the Academy from 2009 to 2018. Academician Jūras Banys, the present President of the Academy, was elected on 1 February 2018.
The prestige and influence of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences is felt in nearly every field of the country’s academic life. Out of 29 currently functioning state scientific research institutes, 24 institutes were established and expanded by the Academy of Sciences. The members of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences work in all the leading universities in Lithuania and participate in shaping the trends of research performed in other establishments as well, including those of high-tech biochemical and laser industry.