Science, Technology, and Higher Education in Post Communist Russia

By Dimitar Zlatev

Russia’s long tradition of excellence in higher education and in development of science has recently been jeopardized. The unofficial root of Russian higher learning was the founding of the Russian Academy of Science in 1724 by Peter the Great. Although the tsarist system did not provide a uniform education for everyone, it maintained a high level of research and scientific accomplishment. Passing into Socialist times, Russian higher education and science was managed and financed by the central government—a system that produced a near 100% literacy. While employment of the labor force was managed by the central institutions of the communist state, research and development of new technologies—concentrated in science centers in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, and Academgorodok (Novosibirsk), the Siberian division of the Academy of Science—were predominantly directed at such selected problems as the defense industry and aerospace program. After undergoing drastic changes in 1991, the Russian labor force, although skilled and well-educated, was "mismatched to the rapidly changing needs of the Russian economy" (U.S. Department of State), posting a higher than twenty percent unemployment rate and leaving precarious the state of science, technology, and higher education.

Higher Education

More than three million students attend Russia’s 519 institutions of higher education and 48 universities (U.S. Department of State). General knowledge in mathematics of Russia’s 12th graders is among the lowest in the world, bunched together with the United States, South Africa, and Cyprus near the bottom of the list, according to a resent comprehensive international comparison report published by the United States Government (U.S. Trail the World in Math and Science). This is one extreme. The other is that certain Russian institutions produce world-best specialists, as evidenced by the following: this year, sixty teams of students from 2,400 teams representing universities and colleges from six continents competed to advance to the World Finals of the 24th Annual ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest, sponsored by IMB; the 2000 World Champions were students from St. Petersburg State University, while students from St. Petersburg Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics placed fourth (the best American university finish was California Institute of Technology, at number nine). Apparently the talent has not vanished from Russian institutions, but only seems to have been underdeveloped.

Science and Technology

The relatively new conditions of the free-market economy have changed the rules that had controlled science in Russia. Unlike during times of Communism, science today follows the market. This is markedly true when technological leaps necessitate costly scientific equipment and well-supplied research laboratories. The cost of science’s adherence to the free-market, however, comes with a benefit: Scientific advance inclines to have increasing returns to scale, that is, adding more scientists to a society increases individual marginal productivity. But for this benefit to usually occur, science must develop a partnership the public and private sectors, a condition that has been slow to evolve in capitalist Russia (Sachs).

In addition to its slow adaptation to capital demands, Russia displayed remarkable imbalance in the production of knowledge in the 1990s. Despite certain profound scientific successes, Russian laboratories are primarily outfitted with 1970s equipment, while computers and telecommunication devices are a scarce "ghost" in the science community. Most industry investors are merely interested in short-term projects and are reluctant to engage in long-term partnership with existing science centers. Salaries paid to scientists by the government are only symbolic, averaging around $70 a month (MacWilliams), while private payment in the form of international grants and funds are not the practice, but the exception. As a result, much like most of her industries, Russia’s science community is constrained by the rules of the free-market, but does not take advantage of capitalism’s great benefit of competition and inherent stimulus for industries.

International Collaboration and Initiatives

One positive example for international collaboration is that of the United States Civilian Research and Development Foundation (CRDF) for the independent states of the Former Soviet Union (FSU). Created in 1995 by Gorge Soros and the Department of Defense, CRDF helps reach vital scientific, political, and national security objectives. A private, charitable organization, CRDF was established to provide scientists and engineers in the FSU with creative and generative Research and Development opportunities in collaboration with U.S. scientists, to promote the transition of FSU scientists and engineers from defense-oriented activities to private research, and to help establish a market economy in the FSU by offering mechanisms for greater understanding of mercantile business customs and by supplying U.S. businesses with access to FSU talent, technologies, and markets (CRDF News). Signifying the program’s success is the increase in its budget, from $10 million in 1996—distributed in two-year grants for U.S. and FSU joint projects—to $95 million in 2000 (Lane).

Technology Commercialization

In the 1990s, the Russian government encouraged the development of Technology Parks, called "incubators," for the role of middleman between regional business, science, and higher education. Incubators offered infrastructure and training in the directions of commercialization (i.e. development, financing, and strategy), licensing of technologies (i.e. legal aspects, technology pricing, agreements), business planning and management (assessment of the market, challenging analysis, well-defined research and development objectives, resource plans, business plans, organizational plans), and intellectual property (the process of patent application, international patent protection). The incubators have been a step in the right direction, but are still in a very early stage of development.


Under the new leadership of President Vladimir Putin, Russia has entered the new millennium with a greater experience in the system of capitalism and free-market practices and with greater pragmatic objectives for its industries, including the field of science, technology and higher education. However, Russia must recognize that the hard lessons from the past ten years cannot be ignored. It is necessary that Russia and developed capitalist countries collaborate to assist the updating of the science and technology industries and to mobilize them to deal with Russia’s problems on a private level. In addition, just as knowledge has become the universal centerpiece of the global economy (and lack of it, the essence of a country’s depression), Russia must play an active role in redefining the global jurisdiction on intellectual property rights. In order for Russia to break through into prosperity, long-term finance and investment for domestic and international public goods must be established (Sachs).

Works Consulted:

Boston Globe, The reversal of Russia’s brain drain US tech companies turn to offshore programmers [By David Filipov and Anne Barnard, 05-May-2000]

CRDF News, CRDF begins technology development workshop in Kjiv, 01-Mar-1999

Lane, Neal, 1st International Symposium Scientific Cooperation with the former Soviet Union: Results and Opportunities, 8-Jun-1999

MacWilliams, Bryon, Russian Science to Revive Past Glory,

New York Times, U.S. Trail the World in Math and Science, 25-Feb-1998

Sachs, Jeffrey "By Invitation Helping the Worlds Poorest" The Economist, 14-Aug-1999

U.S. Department of State, Russia, October 1998,