RD Interview: Artem Oganov, a professor from Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, explains how Russia’s National Technology Initiative might contribute to reversing the nation’s brain drain.

Artem Oganov, a professor at Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) and Stony Brook University in New York, presents the “reverse brain drain” project during the Foresight Fleet trip. Photo: The Agency for Strategic Initiatives 

Russia Direct sat down with well-known scientist Artem Oganov, professor at Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) and Stony Brook University in New York, to discuss the challenges of reversing Russia’s scientific brain drain.

Oganov estimates that between 100,000 and 200,000 people have left Russia since the nation’s 1985-1991 perestroika reforms. However, Oganov expects 15,000 Russian scholars living abroad to return, somewhat mitigating the effect of this brain drain.

In addition, Oganov shared his take on Russia’s National Technology Initiative (NTI), announced by Russia President Vladimir Putin during his address to the Federal Assembly in December 2014. This was the key project developed by the Foresight Fleet, a steamboat trip along the Volga River, from Samara to Astrakhan, which took place on May 15-19.

Organized by the Agency for Strategic Initiatives (ASI) and the Russian Venture Company (RVC), the trip brings together Russian and foreign scholars, entrepreneurs and officials to address Russia’s technological challenges as well as determine future markets where Russia can compete.

Russia Direct:  You participated in last year’s Foresight Fleet as part of the National Technology Initiative. What are the differences between last year’s Foresight Fleet and this year? 

Artem Oganov: Last year, the NTI focused 100 percent on new markets. Participants determined the key markets and discussed the ways of how to monetize transportation, technology, and the healthcare industry. This year we focus not only on the markets, but also on different aspects and tools of promoting the high-tech future of Russia. For example, our group, which is called “Science.”

We don’t deal with markets and this is what we find interesting. Last year the discussion was entirely about markets, I am not sure why I was invited, because I had nothing to say and listen to, I don’t even understand the language of business angels and entrepreneurs.           

RD: You mean the 2016 Foresight Fleet was much more interdisciplinary than in 2015?

A.O.: Yes, it was broader and deeper, so that everybody’s interests were satisfied.

RD: To what extent it is realistic to look for new markets and implement all these ambitious projects and roadmaps in such an unfavorable environment for Russia?

A.O.: Today, Russia urgently needs to make a bold step forward. It needs to revive high technologies and cutting-edge science. How will the NTI contribute to it? Will it be able to lead a breakthrough in this field? Nobody knows before it happens.

In our Science group, we are discussing the ways to revive science in Russia and link it stronger with both the education and commercialization of high-tech. It seems to me we have a lot of interesting ideas. For example, in our small sub-group we are discussing how to reverse the brain drain, returning Russian scientists from abroad, and attracting foreign scientists to Russia.

This is very important, because Russia lost so much talent and is now drained. We need high-tech personnel to drive our science forward. This is a big challenge and we have some ideas of how to tackle it.

RD: You have a great deal of experience abroad and have lived there for a long time. You obtained a Ph.D. degree in Crystallography from University College London, and in 2007 got a Habilitation degree from Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Why did you decide to come back to Russia from the West?

A.O.: I find living and working in Russia very interesting and pleasant. In fact, I am working now in a very favorable environment, with good conditions. And the goal of the Foresight Fleet’s “reverse brain drain” subgroup is to come up with ways of creating a good environment in the country and attracting foreign scholars, regardless economic and political situation.

RD: Could you be more specific?

A.O.: Well, in a nutshell, we need to create a friendly environment for both young Russian scientists living in the country and those who wish to return. It is no secret that young scholars are currently facing hard times in the West - getting a tenured position is exceptionally tough.

Also read Q&A with RANEPA Rector Vladimir Mau: "How to prevent a Russian brain drain"

They could be attracted to Russia, if this country manages to create a more open and stimulating system. For example, for young scientists that have made important discoveries, special merit funding could be given to create their own mini-laboratories: for example, 5-year grants to create a laboratory with three-four people, two-three doctoral students and a Ph.D. researcher. Such a lab could help them to fulfil their ambitions and explore their ideas, however challenging, without unnecessary pressure.

To reach this goal, we also have to give Russian researchers an opportunity to get the one- or three-year internship in other countries, under condition that they return to Russia and work here for at least a few years, while given opportunities to climb the career ladder very fast.

RD: To what extent do you think is it realistic to attract foreign researchers now in the current political situation?

A.O.: I think it is perfectly possible. Case in point: Russian Empress Catherine the Great, demonized (and later admired) in the West just as current Russian government is, had attracted a great number of foreign scholars in the 18th century. If she succeeded, we will also succeed. We just need to be smart.

RD: So, what is to be done?

A.O.: We are setting a very ambitious goal of inviting about 5-10 Nobel Prize winners, providing them with the best conditions. This would boost the prestige of Russian science and create the image of a scientific superpower.

RD: Ok, we aim at creating a friendly environment for foreign scholars, but at the same time, some of them who worked in Russia are leaving. It’s one thing to attract them, another thing to retain them in the country. How to do it?

A.O.: As long as Russia offers opportunities, there will be more people coming than leaving. Some tricks can be played. For example, universities could pay some 30-50 percent of the price of the house of incoming professors, if they decide to buy an apartment or house – but if they decide to sell the house, 30-50 percent of the selling price would return to the university. This is a sort of financial anchor that encourages scholars to stay in the country.       

RD: What are the major problems of Russian science?

A.O.: Russia’s science is depleted – this is the first problem. Bureaucracy is the second problem. The third challenge is inconsistency: We always change the rules of the game in a working system, rules change slowly. There is no reason to create something and then destroy it. Such inconsistencies are common in Russia.

RD: One of the NTI projects deals with the concept of University 3.0, which means that universities should be the centers of education, research and entrepreneurship. What does Russia need to implement it?

A.O.: The University 3.0 model seeks to boost commercialization in universities. In order to make it viable, we need to resolve the problem that we discuss: the lack of competent scholars and innovators in Russia. There are many great scientists in Russia, but the country needs a lot more talent than it currently has.

RD: In a nutshell, how can Russia reverse the brain drain or, at least, benefit from it?

A.O.: Those who have worked in leading scientific centers, would bring with them a lot of acquired competences to Russia. This way, we can take advantage of brain drain. For example, a doctoral student, who learned state-of-the-art methodologies and obtained top skills in foreign research centers, can come to Russia and bring his or her competencies and inventions into Russia.

Secondly, reverse brain drain can help integrating Russian science into the international science. The more joint projects Russia will have with other countries, the more comfortable it will feel on the international arena, the more difficult it will be to isolate Russia from the rest of the world. However, it is not enough to have joint projects with other countries there must also be entirely Russian projects.

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