29 September 2020

Tuesday, 09:34



In Russia they are worried that the country has turned from a participant in scientific progress into an observer



In the new ranking of the world's 50 most innovative economies, compiled annually by the Bloomberg agency, Russia places 12th, which is not bad at all, leaving behind such countries as, for example, Austria, United Kingdom, China and Hong Kong. Last year, it was ranked 14th, and the year before that, 18th. The rating is compiled on the basis of seven criteria, including the level of education of the population, spending on research and development and the number of registered patents, the efficiency of research centres, the concentration of high-tech companies and researchers. South Korea tops this year's overall ranking, while Kazakhstan brings up the rear.

It turns out that Russia, rather than staying among the outsiders in a high-tech race unfolding in the world in recent decades, improves its performance year by year.

Therefore, the recent eyebrow-raising statement made by Sberbank Governor Herman Gref to the effect that Russia lost the competition may seem strange at first glance. As he put it, "this is technological enslavement, we just happened to be in the camp of countries that lose out, in the camp of downshifted countries". The banker explained that he was referring to the technical backwardness of the country, which is turning from an actor into a viewer of processes.

In fact, the term "downshifting" in its classical sense means the life of the abandonment of traditional values such as career and wealth. In Russia, it is used more in the sense of leading a carefree life in any country with a mild climate at the expense of renting out a flat to tenants, often in Moscow. Gref probably meant the degradation of personality, which can occur in the context of such a lifestyle. 

Then, how could Russia have progressed so high in the ranking of the most innovative economies of the world? A closer study of its components shows that this result was made possible mainly due to such criteria as the general level of education, the percentage of graduates with higher education in engineering and scientific disciplines, as well as cheaper workforce due to the serious devaluation of the national currency.

However, in the scientific field as well as in the development and implementation of advanced technologies, Russia is lagging far behind many countries, and not just the developed countries. As regards these criteria, Russia has dropped to the level of Iran, said Head of the Russian Academy of Sciences Vladimir Fortov at a meeting of the Presidential Council on Science, Technology and Education held on 21 January. "Throughout the world, there is literally explosive growth in the scientific sphere, and unfortunately, we cannot keep abreast with it," he added. Some experts believe that in certain scientific areas, Russia will never be able to catch up with developed countries.


No money for science

For historical reasons, the main, if not the only source of funding for basic scientific research in Russia is the state budget. Small and medium enterprises cannot afford it, whereas big business, for the most part, is not interested in paying for researches that do not yield immediate benefits.

In the context of economic crisis, science - along with education and health care - play a role of a "nest egg", which can be used in a difficult situation to finance higher priority areas - security agencies and state administration.

Science occupies the last, 48th place in the 2016 budget, after the Housing and Utilities sector, using 0.3 per cent of GDP. It should be noted that the highest value was in 2009 - 1.25 per cent. In the developed countries, these indicators are generally greater than 2 per cent. In the US, for example, this figure is 2.79 per cent. The gap is all the more evident in real figures, given that Russia's GDP is 1.1 trillion dollars (data for 2015) while that of the United States is 17.4 trillion dollars (2014).

The gap between Russia and the West regarding technical and logistical support to research is getting wider year after year. In Russia, research costs per one scientist are 10 times lower than in the United States. As a result, Russia's share in the global market for science-intensive products is less than one per cent, while the US share is estimated at 36 per cent, Japan's at 30 per cent, and Germany's at 16 per cent.

The main problem of Russian science rests not with inadequate financing, but with the lack of demand for scientific results on the part of the economy and society.


Brain drain

According to Moscow State University rector Viktor Sadovnichiy, Russia has wasted about one-third of its intellectual potential since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

Whole research teams were leaving the country. By its scale, the wave of post-Soviet Russian scientific and cultural emigration has by far exceeded the previous wave that took place after the revolution and the civil war.

Over the past two years, Russian scientists have begun to leave Russia for other countries more often, as the already low wages have been severely impaired because of the collapse of the rouble. But the material cause is not the only reason that encourages people to leave the country. Other reasons that matter are the low prestige of the status of scientist in Russia, poor logistical provision of research centres, as well as bureaucracy and bribery.

Most people go to Western Europe (42 per cent) and North America (30 per cent). The United States accounts for 29 per cent, followed by Germany (19 per cent), France (6 per cent), England (5 per cent), Japan (4 per cent), and Sweden (3 per cent).

Among Russian scientists going abroad are physicists, biologists, chemists, specialists in engineering sciences, mathematicians and representatives of other much-needed professions. According to statistics, about half of young scientists do not consider Russia attractive for further research activities.

Up to 40,000 immigrants from Russia are working in Silicon Valley. It is believed that Israel quickly rose to second place in the world as regards the number of inventions per capita due to the level of education of Soviet repatriates.

A remarkable example of how Russian scientists, who have emigrated to the West, are making impressive gains, is the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Prize to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, researchers from Great Britain, graduates of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), for the creation of a unique carbon material - graphene.

According to the Open Economy fund, brain drain from Russia will only grow in the coming years, while the geography of the outflow will expand. Russian scientists are welcome in Venezuela, South Korea, Brazil, Singapore and China.

However, in addition to the direct brain drain, there exist its latent forms. One such form is employment with foreign companies. Furthermore, mass migration of researchers to commercial organizations and other areas, which are far from their education and work experience, has intensified due to the crisis. There is also such a thing as "leakage of ideas". Many scientists, who live in Russia, are working on various research programmes carried out on behalf of foreign clients. Creators of intellectual products are often not able to sell them and resort to the services of American and European mediators.


But for all that…

Are there innovative Russian projects which are called upon to make a contribution to the high-tech future of the Earth? ROSNANO corporation CEO Anatoly Chubais reported at the Gaidar Forum that the most outstanding project today is the development of image recognition technology used, for example, as he mentioned, on the Internet. According to Chubais, when he visited Google, they told him there that the task of text and voice recognition had already been solved. But image recognition is a real break-through. 

Some people were surprised, while others weren't. But the speech by German Gref with the scandalous suggestion that Russia was just observing how the scientific revolution is progressing in other countries, really made many people think about it.

Perhaps that is why one of the sessions at the Gaidar Forum was conducted under this heading.