For those who have bought a souvenir from a visit to Russia, you may be familiar with the matryoshka doll, or the nesting doll, that starts off quite large but when you unscrew all the dolls you find a very tiny one at the end.
Apparently this phenomenon is quite popular in Russian culture as evidenced by the dwindling funds for Russia’s nanotech initiative. Initially touted as being funded with $5 billion in 2007, it now appears that the initiative has had to return $3 billion back to the government as the economic crisis has played havoc with the government’s budget.
Or so Julia Ioffe describes it in her investigative piece for Slate magazine’s “The Big Money” publication.
My own take on the Russian nanotech initiative has evolved from highly skeptical to begrudging admiration. It appears from Ioffe’s article that my turnaround, largely informed by the grandeur of their recent Rusnano Forum, was somewhat premature. (Note to self: Beware of Hollywood-style productions.)
Ioffe manages to take some of the promoted strengths of Russia and stand them on their head so that they are revealed as more weaknesses than anything else. For instance, Russia’s reserve of scientists from the Cold War era that has been boasted as fueling this technological turnaround for the country is largely gone and they are not being replaced.
“In the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, more than half a million scientists and engineers left Russia for greener pastures. Yet there aren’t many saplings waiting to replace them. A recent study showed that 60 percent of engineering students in Russian universities had failed their college entrance exams.”For Russia, or for any other country for that matter, nanotechnology will only go as far in enabling your economy as your infrastructure can support. In other words, if you’re an agrarian economy, nanotechnology is not going make you into a producer of semiconductors, but it might improve your farming techniques.
The adage of “build it and they will come” just doesn’t apply to nanotechnology. Picking the most advanced technology you can think of, or have heard of, to fund with huge cash infusions will not make you into a knowledge-based economy over night, if ever.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.