MIT professor explains why Russia is not innovating in its education system

RD Interview: Loren Graham, Professor of History of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), explains what Russia needs to do to make its university system more innovative and entrepreneurial.

Pictured: MIT Professor Loren Graham during his lecture at the European University of St. Petersburg. Photo: Press Photo

Loren Graham, professor of the history of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and author of the book “Lonely Ideas”, talks with Direct Russia the challenges that prevent Russia from innovating in its economy and education system.

“Most of the discussions on the reform of education and innovation centers in Russia focus on institutional reform,” he says. “The main problem of education and innovation in Russia is not institutional (although this is also a problem) but political and societal.”

Although Russian scientists and engineers are very talented, they live in a society that does not provide an environment conducive to innovation, he says. To change their society in a way that would foster innovation, the whole political, legal, economic and social system would have to be reformed.

“The political system needs to be more democratic, the judicial system needs to protect intellectual property and provide a place where the accused has a chance to be exonerated, the economic system needs to be much more open and provide opportunities and incentives for investors , the social system needs to be more mobile and welcoming to entrepreneurs,” he said. Direct Russia.

“In addition, the mentality of Russian society must change. Business is not dirty; this is how societies move forward. Scientists don’t stoop when it comes to business; instead, they help their society become healthier and more prosperous. Without these kinds of deep fundamental changes, institutional reform alone will not achieve its goals,” Graham added.

Russia Direct: How viable is the University 3.0 model, which aims to make universities more entrepreneurial and innovative, in Russia?

Loren Graham: The University 3.0 model is, in principle, viable in Russia, but is unlikely to succeed in practice for the reasons given above. Similarly, the categories ‘research institution’, ‘education centre’ and ‘enterprise’ should not be considered as separate categories. In particular, research and teaching must be considered as one activity, and not as two.

Many MIT undergraduates have published scientific and technical articles in leading journals before graduating. Research and teaching should not be seen as two separate functions of a leading university, but as one merged function (a combination of research and teaching).

Accomplished researchers do the best teaching, and undergraduate students should feel like they are participating in research while going to class. “Enterprise” is somewhat different, as universities should not be converted into private enterprises. But they should be business-friendly, work closely with them, and start businesses easily.

Russia has gone too far in separating research (Russian Academy of Sciences) and education (universities). I know there are efforts to change this, but so far not enough.

RD: What are the chances that Russia can innovate its universities and its education system in general given the current situation, with underdeveloped institutions and a growing brain drain?

LG: The odds are not good in the current political situation. Many teachers and researchers feel that the government does not support them, that it is afraid of independent people who might become powerful enough (eg through entrepreneurship) to challenge them.

The brain drain is not so much the cause of the decline of Russian science as a symptom of it. Why do talented scientists and engineers want to leave Russia? It’s not just because they think science and innovation is underfunded in Russia (although that’s certainly true), but because many of them don’t want to raise their children in Russia as it currently exists.

DR: So, wWhat major challenges does Russia need to overcome to implement the University 3.0 model?

LG: An institutional challenge is that it is difficult to raise the prestige of Russian universities while the institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences are more prestigious. In terms of research, universities feel second.

I know the Academy is being reformed and its institutes removed and placed in the Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations (FASO), but the institute system still exists, largely separate from the universities.

RD: You said that Russia should raise the prestige of Russian universities, which implies that they do not obtain the highest positions in world rankings. And this is the case despite the fact that Russian scientists, professors and students are talented, with a lot of potential. How can you explain this?

LG: Many Russian scientists publish little, and when they do, they often publish in Russian-language journals with low impact factor ratings, and as a result Russian universities do not achieve high rankings in the systems of international ratings (Times, Shanghai, etc.).

Russian scientists and engineers are not members of the international science and engineering communities to the extent that they should be. (China is much more integrated, surprisingly). And some current Russian laws discourage such integration, making Russian scientists and engineers who cooperate with their Western colleagues suspect of betraying secrets.

RD: How can the American experience be useful to Russia (in particular the experience of MIT)?

LG: At present, the American experience may not be as relevant to Russia as the German and French experience. After all, Germany and France both have systems of research institutes separate from universities (Max Planck Gesellschaft and CNRS, respectively), and as a result they also struggle to get many universities that rank in top of the world rankings. [CNRS is the French National Center for Scientific Research – Editor’s note].

Germany, in particular, is currently making a major effort to reform this system and to get more top-tier innovative universities, so the German experience is particularly relevant for Russia. The United States has never had a prestigious system of research institutes separate from universities.

RD: What can be done to implement the University 3.0 concept in Russia? What would you recommend based on your experience?

LG: The first change is a modification of the legal system to make it fair in general and protective of intellectual property rights in particular. The second change is to recognize that research universities are the greatest intellectual and innovative engines in the world. It means giving them more money and raising their position in society. Research universities create knowledge economies.

RD: How do you assess Russian science and its scientists?

LG: Russians are a very creative people. It would be quite possible that Russian technology would occupy in the world the position that Russian literature, mathematics and music currently occupy. But that cannot happen as long as the current political regime continues. Music, mathematics and literature are creations of the mind and can survive and even thrive in difficult political times. Technology is a material creation and can only thrive if the government provides it with a sustainable environment (legal, economic, political).

RD: Which Russian universities do you find the most promising?

LG: The most promising Russian universities are Saint Petersburg State University, Novosibirsk State University and Tomsk State University. Moscow State University is also obviously very good, but it is so entangled in political issues that it cannot fulfill its potential.

RD: Russia will implement the University 3.0 model through the government. Do you think the top-down approach is really effective in innovating the country’s education system?

LG: The top-down approach is particularly ineffective at a time when many Russian professors and researchers have such a low opinion of their government.

RD: Ok, then, do you think the top-down approach can coexist with the bottom-up approach in the field of innovation?

LG: The top-down approach combined with a healthy local approach could work if government and teachers and researchers trust and respect each other. At the moment, however, they do not.

This interview was published as part of Russia Direct’s August report titled “From University 1.0 to 4.0: Fostering Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Russian Academia”. The authors of the report are Deputy Director of Russian Venture Company Evgeny Kuznetsov, American entrepreneur and adviser to the rector of Lobachevsky Nizhny Novgorod State University Kendrick White, and associate professors of Lomonosov State University from Moscow – Alexandra Engovatova and Georgy Laptev. To access the report, subscribe to Russia Direct and download it.

Pavel Koshkin is the editor of Russia Direct. He has contributed to numerous publications, including Kommersant, BBC Moscow Bureau and Russia Profile, specializing in politics, society, education and international affairs.

Janice G. Ball