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

Pictured: Loren Graham, an MIT professor during his lecture at the European University at St. Petersburg. Photo: Press Photo

Loren Graham, a professor of the History of Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the author of the book “Lonely Ideas,” discusses with Russia Direct the challenges that prevent Russia from innovating its economy and educational system.

“Most discussions of reforming education and innovation centers in Russia concentrate on institutional reform,” he argues. “The main problem of education and innovation in Russia is not institutional (although that 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 a nurturing environment for innovation, he argues. 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 venue in which the accused stands a chance of being found innocent, 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 told Russia Direct.

Read Russia Direct's report: "From University 1.0 to 4.0"

“Also, the mentality of the Russian society needs to change. Business is not dirty; it is the way societies advance. Scientists do not demean themselves when they become interested in business; instead, they are aiding their society to become healthier and more prosperous. Without these sorts of deep basic changes, institutional reform by itself will not accomplish its goals,” Graham added.

Russia Direct: To what extent is the University 3.0 model, which seeks to make universities more entrepreneurial and innovative, viable in Russia?

Loren Graham: The University 3.0 model is, in principle, viable in Russia, but not likely to be successful in practice because of the reasons given above.  Also, the categories of “research institution,” “education center” and “enterprise” should not be seen as separate categories. In particular, research and teaching should be seen as one activity, not two.

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

Accomplished researchers do the best teaching, and undergraduates should feel that they participate in research as well as go to class. “Enterprise” is somewhat different, since universities should not be converted into private businesses. But they should be friendly to business, work closely with it and spin off businesses readily.

Russia went too far in separating research (Russian Academy of Sciences) and teaching (universities). I know that efforts are being made to change this, but so far, not nearly enough.

RD: What are the odds of Russia being able to innovate its universities and educational system in general given the current situation, with underdeveloped institutions and an increasing brain drain?

L.G.: The odds are not good in the present political situation. Many teachers and researchers feel that the government does not support them, that it is afraid of independent people who might get powerful enough (e.g. through entrepreneurship) to challenge them.

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 is not just because they think that science and innovation are not funded sufficiently in Russia (although that is certainly true), but because many of them do not want to raise their children in Russia as it currently exists.

RD: So, what major challenges should Russia overcome to implement the University 3.0 model?

L.G.: An institutional challenge is that it is difficult to raise the prestige of Russian universities when the institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences are more prestigious. In research terms, the universities feel that they are in second place.

I know that the Academy is being reformed, and that its institutes have been taken away and put in the Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations (FASO), but the system of institutes still exists, largely separate from the universities.

RD: You said that Russia should raise the prestige of Russian universities, which implies they don’t get the highest positions in the world’s rankings. And this is the case despite the fact that Russia’s scientists, professors and students are talented, with a lot of potential. How can you account for this? 

L.G.: Many Russian scientists publish little, and when they do, they often publish in Russian-language journals with low impact-factor ratings, and therefore Russian universities do not get high rankings in the international rating systems (Times, Shanghai, etc.).

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

RD: How can the American experience be useful for Russia (specifically, the experience of MIT)? 

L.G.: At the present moment, the American experience may not be as relevant to Russia as the German and French experience. After all, both Germany and France have systems of research institutes separate from the universities (Max Planck Gesellschaft and CNRS, respectively), and therefore they also are having trouble getting many universities that rank high in world rankings [CNRS is the French National Center for Scientific Research – Editor’s note].

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

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

L.G.: The first change is a change to 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. That means giving them more money and elevating their position in society. Research universities create knowledge economies.

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

L.G.: Russians are a very creative people. It would be entirely possible for Russian technology to occupy the position in the world that Russian literature, mathematics, and music currently do. But that cannot happen so long as the present political regime continues. Music, mathematics, and literature are mental creations and can survive and even flourish in bad political times. Technology is a material creation and cannot prosper unless the government provides a sustaining environment (legal, economic, political) for it.

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

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

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

L.G.: 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, in this case do you think that the top-down approach can co-exist with the grassroots approach in the sphere of innovation?

L.G.: The top-down approach combined with a healthy grassroots approach could work if the government and the teachers and researchers trusted and respected each other.  At the present moment, however, they do not.

This interview was published as part of Russia Direct's August report “From University 1.0 to 4.0: Nurturing innovation and entrepreneurship in Russian academia.” The authors of the report are Deputy Director of the Russian Venture Company Evgeny Kuznetsov, U.S. entrepreneur and Advisor to the rector of the Lobachevsky State University of Nizhny Novgorod Kendrick White, and Lomonosov Moscow State University's associate professors – Alexandra Engovatova and Georgy Laptev. To get access to the report, subscribe to Russia Direct and download it.