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Loren Graham

Professor of the History of Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Why has Russia’s brilliant science not been translated into technological products that sell widely in international markets?

Russia’s economy is highly dependent on the price of oil, as are a few other countries, such as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Russia differs from those other countries, however, in having a very strong scientific community. In fact, Russian scientists have been the authors of some of the great discoveries of the past century. Based on this excellent science, Russia should have a diversified, high-technology economy, but it does not.

Why has Russia’s brilliant science not been translated into technological products that sell widely in international markets and contribute to the wealth and stability of the country?

A key to answering this question is seeing the difference between “invention” and “innovation.” To invent something means you have a new product on your lab bench or a new process in your computer that works. If you have done this, you are an “inventor.” To be an “innovator” means a lot more: taking that product or process and making a commercial success of it that benefits you and your society. Russians are excellent inventors and abysmal innovators, as history shows.

Why are Russians so good at the development of scientific and technological ideas and so miserable at gaining economic benefit from those ideas? The answer is not the lack of talent or ability of their scientists or engineers; it is their failure to develop a society in which the brilliance of its citizens can find fulfillment in economic development.

All the rulers of Russia, from Peter the Great to Vladimir Putin, have believed that the answer to the problems of modernization is technology itself, rather than the societal environment which promotes the development and commercialization of technology.

This Russian misunderstanding became graphically clear to me in recent years when I traveled to Russia with top administrators of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, my university. The Russians constantly quizzed us on how they could match MIT in developing “the next big thing.” The MIT administrators tried to explain that their institution’s success depended on the culture not only of MIT but of the Boston area and the US in general.

The Russians could not understand the point, and kept asking about specific technologies. Finally, an exasperated leading administrator of MIT blurted out “You want the milk without the cow!” Finally, an exasperated leading administrator of MIT blurted out to his Russian collegues “You want the milk without the cow!”

To Russia’s rulers, like past Soviet and tsarist rulers, modernization means getting his hands on technologies but rejecting the economic and political principles that pushed these technologies elsewhere to commercial success. He wants the milk without the cow. And so long as his policies remain in effect, the scientific genius of the Russian people will remain economically unfulfilled.