Print
Rate this article
(votes: 1, rating: 5)
 (1 vote)
Share this article

Interview

Today the topic of innovation regularly appears in statements by government leaders and members of the media. The issues at hand have remained unchanged for several decades, raising difficult questions with no easy answers. What are some possible ways out of this vicious circle of problems, and what are the priorities for the future development of Russian science – two questions posed to Mikhail Butusov, Doctor of physics and mathematics, expert in scientific research commercialization and the restructuring of science industries and research institutions.

Interview

Today the topic of innovation regularly appears in statements by government leaders and members of the media. The issues at hand have remained unchanged for several decades, raising difficult questions with no easy answers. What are some possible ways out of this vicious circle of problems, and what are the priorities for the future development of Russian science – two questions posed to Mikhail Mikhailovich Butusov, Doctor of physics and mathematics, Director of research and technologies at Activil Corporation and an expert in scientific research commercialization and the restructuring of science industries and research institutions.

Over the last 10-12 years, Russia has gained significant financial dividends from the sale of raw materials abroad. But it seems that the proceeds have not been transformed into real modernization for the country and have not turned our economy into a knowledge-based one. Is this the case and why has it happened?

Unfortunately, it is the case. Those who have obtained windfall profits from the sale of raw materials abroad understand Marx’s Commodity – Money – Commodity magical string with an emphasis on the second component: money. In this situation, the fastest increase in money supply happens when expenditures on such a risky business with slow-accruing returns as innovative modernization are nonexistent or reduced to a minimum. Even if there are such investments they are basically directed at upgrading the production and delivery of fossil fuels as well as the secure functioning of the entire upstream and downstream system.

Despite the existing problems and lost opportunities, do we have any remaining chances for an innovation breakthrough?

With respect to our chances: hope is the last thing to die, but for me to live in the hope that somehow everything will straighten out would be personally shameful. The same would be if I simply called for innovations without having resources or knowledge. The main rule for those in charge of modernization of this country should be the words of Seneca – “If a man does not know the port he is steering, no wind is favorable to him”.That is why our ship is tossing around between Skolkovo and “Rosnano” …. But is that where our port is?

Are the people who define the country’s vector of innovation development aware of our port either? Take a look – Professor Malinetsky, whose Institute of Applied Mathematics developed the priorities for strategic technologies during the USSR, mentions the following goals adopted then by the leadership of the country: nuclear arms, space technologies and secure ciphers.

Mikhail Butusov, Doctor of physics and
mathematics, Director of research and
technologies at Activil Corporation and an expert
in scientific research commercialization and
the restructuring of science industries and
research institutions

And now, this is how ex-President Medvedev (Prime Minister of the Russian Federation since 2012 – ed.) formulated the priorities for the 21st century: development of nuclear energy, development of space technologies, development of strategic information technologies, higher energy efficiency, and development of medical equipment and pharmaceutics. This means that thirty years have passed but the priorities have changed just a little. Energy efficiency has been added, which may be because of the requirements of the oil and gas sector. Medical equipment and pharmaceutics also came into play. This might have to do with tomographs’ fraudulent procurement schemes and the massive problem of affordable medicines. The medical industrial sector is definitely important, especially, taking into account the fact that in the U.S. it trails immediately behind the military industrial complex by volume of profits.

Nevertheless, can you tell if it makes sense for this country to focus all its potential on the development of a supercomputer or a supernanoparticle, if the majority of population has to breathe polluted air, drink only bottled water and eat harmful food? Does the quality of our life depend only on the success of the Hadron collider? Is there anything simpler?

In defining the strategic course for innovation, as in the opinion of Professor Malinetsky, I would mention not so much ambitious but unique opportunities for this country to break through into the world markets, such as to:

  • Develop processing (recycling) sectors for gigantic -- as nowhere else in the rest of the world -- stocks of industrial waste. In view of continuous depletion of natural mineral resources around the world, we would be the world leaders as producers of large amounts of valuable products from renewable raw materials;
  • Reclaim enormous abandoned land masses, thus restoring the role of Russia as the world producerof food products that continuously increase in price;
  • Take advantage of the geographic location of the country to establish transcontinental corridors.

However, even as well-known policy-makers speak about the need to focus on these albeit not so nicely worded strategic objectives, their calls make no impact. Political will and understanding are required. It is a difficult task even for a successful businessman or an economist to lead the innovation process without understanding where the port of destination lies.

Obviously, the Government is a valuable player in the field of innovation. But it cannot manage all the problems alone. How can business be used for the development of innovation in Russia?

As you see, the government and business sectors have their own views on innovation development. Nowhere in the world is business a charity fund; its goal is simple – strategic development towards profit maximization. And we do not yet know what is cooking in the inner kitchen of the companies that so generously allocate R&D grants. It’s not all that simple.

Let’s take the picture of a rapid and turbulent river. On one of its banks, there are a lot of small science-intensive companies. Unlike the Skolkovo incubatory nestlings, these are precisely the companies immersed in a competitive environment and developing potentially innovative technologies. The major companies are sitting quietlyon the opposite bank, companies that will play the role of strategic partners in industrial introduction of these technologies. They wait and carefully watch as the rickety boats of innovators drop into the rapid river stream and see most of them drown. Those who have managed to get across to the opposite side are lucky enough – their business become a part of a big company (in various forms), and the innovators see their dream come true and what they took a risk for implementation. And what is the role of the Government? Its role is to regulate the speed of the stream and the number of the river rapids.

How does this picture lookin Russia? Frustratingly, only a few science-intensive companies can satisfy even the most basic criteria. The river is too turbulent and it swarms with greedy officials and bureaucrats looking for graft. There are not so many big companies waiting at the opposite side that are interested in innovation. Indeed, they learnfrom life experience and see what their innovator compatriots struggle against across the river and in the stream. Wouldn’t it be easier under these circumstances to go abroad and buy something new and with guarantees? Let it be more expensive and not always the best, but reliable.

That’s why I wouldn’t overestimate the role of big Russian business at the current stage –first, they need someone they can wait for at their side of the river. And here again we come back to the role of the Government as a regulator rather than a sitting duck for a dozen companies / residents of Skolkovo.

There are a number of long-term innovation development factors that can tough to change. These range from a critical mass of critically minded people and trained specialists to necessary infrastructure, traditions and culture. What is left in Russia and what is to be recovered? How long might it take?

Let me take a pass on this question. I don’t know. I only know that with every passing year, the waiting period takes three times as long.

And second, there is no place in Russia where you might get a reasonable answer. Maybe the Malinetsky Institute? I’m not sure either.

Are there any chances that Russian scientists will return to Russia? What should be done for this to happen?

Let me cite an example. I know three heads of leading U.S. companies in non-military (mainly medical) laser applications. All three of them achieved what could be considered the dream of any innovative scientist. None of them intends to go back to Russia. Don’t ask me why. Let’s rather think about why all three of them left Russia in the 90s. The reasons are few:

  • Sharp downgrading of the prestige of the applied sciences in order to please the “sacred cows” of that time: trade, power hunting in the government, and serving the interests of the new elites;
  • Catastrophic drop in science funding and scientists’ salaries against a sharp increase in the cost of living;
  • Worseningcrime rate in cities and aggravation of other factors threatening the quality of life;
  • A lack of interest by big businesses in preventing brain drain (either abroad or simply due to the degradation or change of profession).

What has changed in twenty years after their departure? The polls show that only 40% of citizens find scientific work to be somewhat prestigious. Funding for scientific research, besides military applications, barely reaches 1% of GDP. The life expectancy of Russians is decreasing, not only because of alcohol and narcotics, but also due to psychological and environmental reasons. As for brain drain, this has decreased simply because there are fewer brains that potentially could be used in other countries. The disruption of the reproduction cycle of competitive scientific personnel is the cause.

If you know when these causes will be finally eliminated, you could answer this question yourself.

It is in fashion today to discuss the topic of capitalization of knowledge. Could you share with us your experience?

I have spent thirty years of my life on this topic, beginning from the position of professor – the head of department of one of the St. Petersburg Universities. Having spent over one year in Finland as a visiting professor, giving lectures and supervising theses, I set before myself an absolutely unscientific question : “Why do our Finnish colleagues, whose knowledge in many respects is inferior to my fellow researchers, live so much better – they are well-to-do, more relaxed and can communicate with their colleagues abroad?” So, when I came back to my home department I set a goal to put things right – both with respect to equipment of the department and wages and foreign trips for researchers. I must say that I did it, but sometimes I had to take quite risky steps during that time. Praise the Lord, it all worked out all right.

Because didn’t see myself as an administrator in the future (i.e. Deputy Principal) and was not very excited about such titles as a “corresponding member of the USSR Academy of Science”, I managed to do something unthinkable without support from high-ranking relatives in a high-up place in previous (or perhaps, even present) times.I got an appointment at the scientific research commercialization unit in the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). It is there that I underwent a tough training school in drafting business plans, budget justifications, funding and innovation project management.

I also formulated for my own future certain imperatives about such projects that I decided to implement myself already as a private entrepreneur and scientist, a business that has taken the last 17 years. Over these years, I have managed (or rather was “lucky enough”, which is not the case) to carry out two such cycles “from a scientific idea to a working enterprise”. That’s why, without any exaggeration, I can say that I’m in the know.

It is also particularly important that many biographies of eminent scientists, businessmen with success stories, are published in Russia. However, it is obvious that in order to describe a function, one needs to know not only the position and height of its maximum values but equally its minimum values as well – or, in other words, the story of upsets and failures. Now then, I’m the one that’s been canned who is, as is known …. But, let’s stop here for a while.

How can “grassroots” innovation activity be stimulated in Russia?

To begin with, you need to go to the sources of enthusiasm and innovation “drive” – students and post-graduates of recognized technical institutes – and tell them what I have managed to learn. However, where, if at all,can you find teachers who could present all this not by the book but based on their own first-hand experience?

The interview was conducted by Ivan Timofeev, RIAC Program Director

Rate this article
(votes: 1, rating: 5)
 (1 vote)
Share this article

Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
For business
For researchers
For students