Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a big fuss about modernizing Russia in his November "State of the Nation" speech and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made a big fuss over his pet project, nanotechnology. Trouble is, the essential third leg of this currently wobbly stool also needs to be fixed and has been ignored: Russia must invest into its higher education system and it isn't.
Thanks to the Cold War, Russia has a lot of scientists, well over three times more than the other four member of the "BRIC" club. But despite this army of boffins, Russia has a very poor record of filing international patent applications (in 2007 and 2008, latest available results).
What seems to be going on is that many of the R&D establishments set up in Soviet times are still alive and well and employing scientists, but the dilapidated departments are barely doing any science and don't seemed to have changed much from the old days. India and Brazil both have a fraction of the scientists Russia has, but both file just as many patents.
Russia's elite has taken for granted for too long the oft-repeated assumption that the Russian academic system is strong. The current generation of professors running the country's best universities are products of the Soviet system, when being an academic was prestigious and provided a comfortable life. But lecturing is now a pretty poor job to have and there is no new generation waiting to fill the shoes of retiring dons. At the same time, the current staff has been rotting the system from the inside through corruption, selling places and results to make the degree or diploma at the end of the course a meaningless piece of paper.
This compares to China's bold experiment to revamp its upper education system almost 20 years ago and its current campaign to get "Sea turtles," as Chinese academics working aboard are nicknamed, to return home by offering them fat salaries and well-funded, well-equipped departments to run.
As the table below shows, China has a third of Russia's scientists, but more than double the number of top internationally ranked universities that produce four times as many patents as the Russians.
There has been some attempt to reform the higher education system and stamp out corruption, but if Russia is serious about becoming the innovator or hot bed of venture capitalism the president and prime minister say they want, it must invest as heavily into education as it plans to do for nanotech and infrastructure. If it doesn't start soon, then that rare jewel of communism - the excellent universities - will wither and die, taking Russia's intellectual capital with them.
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