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Bringing It All Back Home: Can Russia Import Some Innovation?

Moscow State UniversityOne of the fashionable fields of thought in recent years has been the question of how people innovate. Or, "where do good ideas come from?"

American journalist and author Steven Johnson published a book with this very title last year. In it, he analyzes the spaces that foster innovation, arguing that some spaces "squelch new ideas; some environments seem to breed them effortlessly." Here is a TED talk where Johnson goes over some of his ideas, including the idea that open, "liquid networks" are essential for birthing ideas, that innovation is founded on free and chaotic social interactions.
Article copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036

Clearly, in its best form, the modern university is such a place and the best universities remain the key innovation centers globally, although some companies and, to a lesser extent, some governments have tried to imitate their model.

Perhaps that is why Russia took such offense a couple months back when the Times Higher Education World University Rankings did not include a single Russian university in its list of the world's 200 best. The result led to a predictable call by the rector of Moscow State University for Russia to create its own university ranking system which, presumably, would be fairer to Russian institutions.

(The QS Top Universities rankings put Moscow State at No. 93, with St. Petersburg State the next highest-ranked Russian university in 210th position.)

Maybe this is a telling anecdote. Last November, students of the journalism department of Moscow State University hung a banner out a window that faces the Kremlin asking who attacked journalist Oleg Kashin. Kashin, it will be recalled, was savagely beaten by unknown assailants a few days earlier. Anyway, the banner hung there for all of 40 minutes before agents of the Federal Security Service swept in and removed it under the pretext that it was defacing a historical building.

Anyway, fixing Russia's universities will be a long-term task, even for an administration as seemingly devoted to innovation and modernization as President Dmitry Medvedev's purports to be. Especially if the process begins from such a profound state of denial.

However, there is another potential resource that could jump-start the innovation machine for Moscow: Russians educated in foreign universities. All you have to do is attract them back to Russia and give them the freedom to replicate the innovation environments and "liquid networks" that they experienced abroad.

It has been two decades now since the Soviet Union collapsed and people who were in college in the late 1980s and early 1990s are in their 40s now. I remember when I was in graduate school at that time, we had a fair number of Russian students even in the humanities departments (with a lot more in science and engineering, I'm sure). I wonder if there are studies out there of how many Russian students have studied abroad and how many have returned to Russia.

One thing is clear, though, none of those who did is currently serving in the cabinet of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Even Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, a darling of the West, got all his book learning in Russia. The prime minister himself famously lived for a while in communist East Germany, but he did not formally study there.

On the other hand, the post-Soviet countries that have moved furthest from Soviet-style stagnation and corruption are the Baltic states and Georgia. The Baltics, of course, have all famously embraced their diasporas and have all elected Western-educated presidents. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili studied in Ukraine and the United States.

RFE/RL recently published a commentary that gave an impressive rundown of the world-class education credentials of many Georgian officials, up to and including Prime Minister Nikoloz Gilauri, who studied in the United States and Ireland. "The [Georgian] government in fact encourages this migration from the old system and openness to new ideas by offering study grants for postgraduate Georgian students under age 40 who are accepted into select global universities," the author notes.

This is the government that has pulled Georgia up from 127th place on the Transparency International corruption index in 2003 to 68th place last year (the highest among post-Soviet countries, except for the Baltics). Russia, by contrast, is mired in a tie with Papua New Guinea for 154th place, marginally ahead of Tajikistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, while Medvedev trots out yet another anticorruption plan.

Recently a group appeared on Facebook called "Return And Make Russia Better." It is an offshoot of the strangely named website www.moneyandpolitics.ru and its goal is to encourage Western-educated Russians to help modernize their homeland. One of the initiators of the project is Kremlin-connected oligarch Mikhail Fridman.

The Facebook page notes that "all nine of the most successful modernizations of recent history happened in countries that attracted graduates of leading global universities into state service" (it doesn't list the nine successful modernizations). It also says that all the top 20 companies in Bangladore, India, belong to former diaspora members and that 14 percent of China's cabinet ministers were educated abroad.

The page also claims the only 0.2 percent of Russian bureaucrats have foreign educations, while "even developed countries like the United States and the European Union have more than 15 percent of their civil servants having studied abroad."

The group has its work cut out for it if the views of 2010 Nobel Physics Prize laureates Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov are at all representative. Both have rejected offers to participate in the Skolkovo innovation project. Geim told "The Moscow Times" that Russia has "neither the facilities nor the conditions" to promote cutting-edge physics, and that it has unacceptable levels of "bureaucracy, corruption, and idiocy."

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