It's an emerging-market economy that still suffers from widespread poverty -- but somehow manages to produce more than 200,000 science grads a year. Students so well-trained in computer science, physics, mathematics, and engineering, that growing numbers are being snapped up by some of the world's biggest tech companies.
India? Wrong. China? Nope. The correct answer is Russia. "We continue to see very good students come out of the universities," says Steve Chase, president of Intel (INTC ) Russia. When it comes to writing complex computer programs, "the Russians are absolutely tops," he adds.
It's one of Russia's surprising survival stories -- the resurgence of the country's once-superb scientific education system. State funding for scientific research and education plummeted with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and many of Russia's best and brightest left the country, lured by higher-paying jobs abroad. But Russia's universities and scientific institutes are slowly adapting to the harsh realities of a market economy, by tapping private funding and research contracts and forming partnerships with international heavyweights such as Intel, IBM (IBM ), and Cisco Systems (CSCO ). Meanwhile, enrollment in science courses is rising once again.
That's the good news. The bad news is that the ranks of Russian academia are thinning, as most of the newly minted science grads are recruited by the private sector or foreign universities. Without an influx of qualified teachers, Russian science may be living on borrowed time. "Russian basic science is still at a very high level, but when the current generation of teachers retires, the experience may be lost," warns Irina G. Dezhina, senior researcher at the Institute for the Economy in Transition in Moscow.
WOWING THE WORLD
For now, at least, Russians young and old continue to wow the world with their scientific and mathematical talent. As has happened in three of the past five years, a Russian university won top honors at the 2004 ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest, an IBM-sponsored competition that pits university teams from around the world against each other in solving complex problems. Universities in the ex-Soviet Union took 10 of the top 30 slots this year. "The educational system has become shaky but still works well," says Natalia Kasperskaya, CEO of Kasperskaya Labs, a local software company.
The system might have collapsed altogether without a recent increase in state support, made possible by Russia's economic revival since the end of the 1990s, coupled with a growing stream of private funding. Government spending on science is up by 90% since 1998, although it remains a fraction of what it was under communism. Meanwhile, private finance now makes up around 45% of all research funding. "The 1990s was a difficult time for the whole system of education, but since 2000 we have been able to work more or less normally," says Nikolay Kudryavtsev, rector of the Moscow Institute of Physics & Technology. Founded on Joseph Stalin's personal orders in 1951, Phystech remains one of Russia's leading scientific universities. These days the institute no longer gets its electricity cut off because of unpaid bills -- and can even invest in much-needed student dormitories.
Some of the partnerships between academia and the private sector have already began to bear fruit. Take Unichimtek, a company founded by a group of Moscow State University researchers with the help of local investors. The enterprise invented Graflex, a material that can be used to insulate everything from electric cables to space ships, and now employs some 700 university chemists and research students. "It's a good example of the cooperation of Moscow State University with industry. That's exactly what our science needs now," says Moscow University Rector Viktor Sadovnichiy.
Russian science is also getting a helping hand from international heavyweights. Trailblazer Intel Corp. began working with a half-dozen Russian universities back in 1997. Intel Russia President Chase explains that the chipmaker usually starts off with an equipment donation, and gradually becomes more involved, helping develop curricula, and even contracting out work to university research staff. Right now, a team at Nizhny Novgorod State University is helping Intel develop security software for high-speed wireless communications.
But the biggest draw for Intel is the chance to scout for new talent. "We're partly doing this because we want a good pipeline [of students] in the future," explains Chase. Intel already employs 500 Russian engineers at research centers in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Nizhny Novgorod, and plans to recruit 500 more this year. Chase says Russian programmers are remarkable for their creative approach and for their grasp of complex mathematical algorithms. It helps, he says, that unlike their counterparts overseas, many of the best Russian programmers trained as physicists, chemists, or mathematicians.
Luckily for Intel and others, there's a growing pool of Russian science grads to fish in. According to research by Auriga Inc., a Russian information-technology company, this year's graduating class of computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and physicists will be 11% larger than last year's, totaling 225,831. Despite the recent vogue for management or marketing, Russian youth is rediscovering its traditional interest in old-fashioned science. Moscow University's Sadovnichiy says there are now six applicants for every place at the university, compared with just two or three in the mid-1990s, with the most intense demand for places on science and mathematics courses.
Trouble is, these newly minted grads are opting out of teaching, so Russia's professorial ranks are graying. "The main problem is low salaries," says Walter Pogosov, 28, a recent graduate of Phystech, who now works as a postdoctoral researcher at Okayama University in Japan. Pogosov earns $3,700 a month in Japan, while an assistant professor in Russia collects a mere $100 a month. He says around half of his classmates are working or studying abroad, while others have become millionaires in Russia by ditching science for banking or business.
According to a report that Moscow State University's Sadovnichiy prepared for the Russian government earlier this year, almost two-thirds of Russia's scientists are over 40. If current trends continue, 42% will be over 60 by 2010. In March, Sadovnichiy presented his findings to President Vladimir V. Putin himself. "It seemed that the President is very interested," he says. To draw more candidates into science careers, Sadovnichiy recommended a range of steps, from channeling funding to the most promising research areas, to allowing innovative scientists to get more of the commercial benefit from state-funded projects.
A further boost in state funding would help enormously. Despite the increases in recent years, Russia spends just 1.24% of gross domestic product on research and development, half the level of France or Germany, and a 60% decline from 1990 levels. The comparison is less flattering still when defense-related research -- still a huge chunk of Russia's science budget -- is excluded. Still, even expatriates like Pogosov aren't ready to write off their homeland. His ambition is to earn enough money in Japan so that one day he can return home to work as a scientist. With dedication like that -- and more support from government and business -- Russian science may yet have a future as well as a glorious past.
By Jason Bush in Moscow