Scientists man the control desk at the Atomic Electric Station of the Soviet Union’s Academy of Sciences. (Keystone/Getty Images)

September 17, 2015

Analysis

Forecast

  • Independent funding for scientific research and development in Russia will be limited now that the private funding agency Dynasty Foundation has been deemed a foreign agent and its head, Dmitry Zimin, has left the country.
  • With funding scarce and international scientific collaboration restricted, Russia’s scientific sector is unlikely to recover.
  • As research and development declines, Russia’s space program will deteriorate.
  • Russia will rely on foreign rather than indigenous technology to support and develop key sectors, including energy.

Russian innovation seems poised to continue its gradual decline into obsolescence through neglect. Even if Russia’s economy were healthy, it would be an uphill struggle for Russian research and development because of the difficulty of attracting and maintaining talent. Globalization in science allows the best minds to travel to the best institutions, largely unfettered by borders. Struggles to maintain funding and attract brilliant researchers are not Russia’s problems alone. Moscow likely will concentrate its resources on key areas such as the military, but it will be limited to such an extent that the Russian scientific community will not make the kinds of frequent breakthroughs that occurred in Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. Russia’s geographic constraints make a strong central power a necessity, and that central power will seek to control scientific research and investment, limiting innovation and the potential for future growth.

One recent event could very well be marked by history as the proverbial nail in the coffin of Russian research: Dmitry Zimin’s Dynasty Foundation was deemed a foreign agent on May 26. Zimin left the country by June 5, and it is uncertain when he will return. The oligarch has long been a supporter, if not the banner carrier, of innovation within Russia. He developed telecommunications firm VimpelCom before the fall of the Soviet Union and brought modernity to Russia during and after the collapse. Zimin was seen as one of the last vestiges still capable of attracting thinkers to the country. Although he has typically held opposing views from those of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Zimin previously had remained unscathed by Kremlin political upheaval.

The decision on whether to officially close the Dynasty Foundation has been delayed while ongoing projects are completed. The organization’s funds were small compared to the government’s but were far more focused on innovation for the sake of scientific advancement. The monetary loss will be painful; the support for basic science will be even more so.

The Importance of Sustained Scientific Support

Technology remains mankind’s greatest weapon to combat the constraints foisted upon nations bygeography, geology and demography. Blue-water navies allowed for the expansion of empires and the advent of global trade. The Panama Canal expanded on this more than 100 years ago, connecting two oceans and significantly shortening the length of voyages. More recently, the Internet has fundamentally altered communication and commerce around the globe.

But technological innovation cannot pause or cease with a singular invention or accomplishment. To remain powerful, scientific progress must always be pushing forward to further technological advancement in many areas. Isaac Newton once wrote, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Innovation in science-related technology builds on itself, as well as on greater understanding of basic scientific principles and previous technologies, and the system must be continually advancing. This cannot be done in a vacuum. It requires financial support, both public and private.

Russia’s History of Innovation

Russia’s defining characteristic is its geographic indefensibility. To maintain security, Moscow must rely on a strong, often authoritarian central government. Robust state control is also required for urbanization and industrialization within the country. Scientific research does not often escape the hands of the strong central authority.

Nonetheless, Russia has a storied history of scientific excellence. The country produced scientists such as Dmitri Mendeleev (creator of the periodic table) and Ivan Pavlov in the 19th century, plus a variety of Nobel Prize winners throughout the 20th century. Russian scientists were highly competitive and comparable with their European and American counterparts. State interest in scientific research began long before this, becoming woven into the fabric of the country itself.

For example, Peter the Great sought to establish a scientific center in St. Petersburg. Although the czar would not live to see the final product, the St. Petersburg Academy of Science would open in 1725. Originally modeled after Western systems, it attracted prominent European faculty such as great Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler. Until 1917, policies at the academy would often follow the policies of the czar or czarina. Unlike the Romanov dynasty, the center would survive the Russian revolution, although its name would change over the years to the USSR Academy of Sciences and, later, the Russian Academy of Sciences. In 2013, reforms to the institution brought it under direct federal control for both organization and financing.

State financial support for the sciences also meant that research had to be focused on areas deemed important by Moscow. During the Soviet era, military matters reigned supreme, as perhaps best exemplified by the space race with the United States. This prioritization led to a series of successes for Soviet physicists, chemists, engineers and mathematicians in areas such as the aerospace industry, munitions, civil engineering and, later on, cyber security. Areas that were not in line with the state’s imperatives did not see similar advancements.

The Beginning of the End

The fall of the Soviet Union left the research community, like the rest of Russia, in a state of upheaval. Funding and direction from the state disappeared, and output dropped rapidly in the early 1990s. Despite some initial recovery, a gradual yet monumental decline in publications began in that decade and extended into the next. A major driving force of innovation — competition with the United States — was gone. Moreover, the pressure on the economy only increased with the financial crisis of 1998, leaving little room in the budget for public funding of research and development. Although there have been attempts to increase funding since 1998, Russia continues to lag behind the United States and many European nations, investing a paltry 1.1 percent of its gross domestic product toward research and development.

Without technical innovation, Russia has relied on its previous scientific exploits to maintain some sense of relevance in the aerospace and oil and natural gas industries. However, significant progress in these areas has essentially plateaued since 1990, and existing operations are deteriorating. This does not bode well for the future of the Russian economy, which depends heavily on the export of natural resources. Additionally, the recent failures of both the Proton and Soyuz rockets and the lack of an open, innovative system has allowed other launch providers, including SpaceX, to threaten Russia’s leading share in the satellite launch market.

Furthermore, the Soviet Union’s collapse lifted restrictions on the movement of people and contributed to something perhaps even more detrimental to Russian innovation than the decline in funding: brain drain. In 2013, the number of emigrants from Russia increased by roughly 50 percent over the previous year. The lack of prestige in and support for science in Russia has led many of the country’s finer minds to leave to conduct research elsewhere, leaving Moscow with an ever-aging talent pool from which to draw. Even an increase in funding likely would yield lackluster results without the talent to use it.

Putin and other lawmakers recognize the problem, and their rhetoric often vilifies or mocks foreign grants that encourage Russian scientists and engineers to seek work outside the country. One lawmaker has proposed banning them entirely. The loss of access in May to thousands of international journal subscriptions as a result of the decline of the ruble portends a further deterioration in the quality of academic research in Russia, making the West look like a far more attractive place to work.

Attempts at Resuscitation

Moscow did not sit on its hands as its capacity for innovation declined. There have been attempts — the multibillion-dollar Skolkovo project launched by Dmitri Medvedev during his presidency being the largest — to bring innovative companies, investment and workers back to Russia. Although the project was successful initially, ultimately, a lack of finances and shifting political priorities and support will likely render the project a failure.

Russia was seen at the forefront of technology during the Soviet period because of both indigenous brain power and the theft of technology. One of Putin’s roles as a Soviet intelligence officer involved stealing Western technology. Such espionage still takes place, and Russia also partnered with many Western firms in the 1990s and 2000s to gain access to new technologies, particularly in the energy sector. However, with tension rising between Russia and the West, Russia has become more protectionist. Its preference to guard itself from outside influence rather than make scientific and technological leaps for its future is exemplified in the decision to bring the Russian Academy of Sciences under federal control in 2013. This insular mindset and the tension with the West has also made collaboration and cooperation more difficult, even at the academic level. For example, in late 2014, several U.S. scientists pulled out of Russian conferences they initially had planned to attend.

As during the Soviet period, scientific research in Russia remains focused primarily on government interests. The motivation for research is often as important as the funding, and the emphasis on the final product rather than foundational support of basic scientific research has further contributed to the degradation of innovation in Russia. The political mindset — that national security is paramount and that research and development are expendable — will continue to threaten the future of Russian innovation.