MOSCOW (Reuters) - Corruption, bureaucracy and a lingering Soviet mindset are big obstacles in Moscow’s drive to boost science and technology to diversify its economy, this year’s Russian-born Nobel Physics Prize winner said.
Andre Geim, 51, who shared the prize for his work on ultra-thin carbon that may have uses in touch screens, light panels and solar cells, left Russia in the early 1990s.
In a telephone interview on Thursday from the University of Manchester in England where he is a physics professor, Geim was skeptical of President Dmitry Medvedev’s modernization drive.
“This change requires several generations,” he said. “It is going to progress very slowly and swim through trickles.”
Medvedev’s ambition is to use high technology to diversify Russia’s $1.2 trillion economy from its longstanding reliance on oil and gas revenues, and set up a science park this year near Moscow to emulate Silicon Valley.
Geim, who was born in the Black Sea town of Sochi and educated in Moscow before emigrating to the Netherlands, said modernizing the economy was impossible so long as Russia retained its Soviet-trained ruling elite.
“The government is trying to improve, but in the end everything gets muddled in the middle before money or the best efforts are even reached,” said Geim, who spoke humbly of his achievements and peppered his responses with anecdotes.
Medvedev styles himself as more liberal than his mentor Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who focused during his 2000-2008 presidency on restoring control over the country’s lucrative energy sector and consolidating strong central government.
Earlier this year Medvedev founded the Skolkovo technology hub just outside Moscow, his answer to California’s Silicon Valley, which he visited in June.
Russia, which in Soviet times put the first man in space and developed nuclear weapons, has a reputation for producing world class physicists and engineers.
But since Communism collapsed, Russia has failed to tap that technical expertise to develop the kind of innovative technology start-ups and high-tech consumer goods and services that have supported the U.S. economy in recent years.
The Skolkovo center is headed by energy and metals tycoon Viktor Vekselberg and aims to give state backing to companies to help them develop innovative products in IT, energy, telecoms, biotech and nuclear technology.
Though Skolkovo has attracted a multi-million dollar investment from Microsoft (MSFT.O) and a public endorsement from California state governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Geim said unnecessary bureaucracy looked set to smother innovation.
“(Skolkovo) looks great on the surface, but I am not sure of its realization,” he said.
Geim said state backing for better labs and equipment as well as competitive grants in education — copying the Western model — could steer Russian scientists from their current mode which is “inefficient and not very adventurous.”
But he said the process would be slow.
Medvedev praised Geim and Novoselov for winning the Nobel prize for showing how carbon just one atom thick behaved, but he said he regretted they worked abroad.
Some 2,200 Russian scientists wrote a letter to Medvedev in July saying his plan for economic innovation was doomed if Russia failed to attract new students or teachers into science.
This year, education will get 419.3 billion roubles ($13.79 billion), or 4.2 percent of total federal spending. The U.S. education budget for 2010 is more than three times that of Russia, at $46.7 billion.
Soviet-era inefficiency and corruption on the official level “very much influence current events,” he said. Russia could still be summed up by a phrase coined by the 18th century writer Nikolai Karamzin: “They steal.”
Russia is perceived as the most corrupt country in the G20, according to watchdog Transparency International, which rated Russia 154th out of 178 nations in its corruption perceptions index this year, along with Cambodia and Kenya.
Medvedev admitted in July that his administration had made almost no progress in fighting corruption.
“The Russian psyche hinders development,” Geim said.