Friday’s International Herald Tribune has a really interesting article: “Russia Unable to Tap Science for Profit.” The Russian edition of Popular Mechanics has chronicled the story of Viktor Gordeyev, the inventor of a gasoline-powered boot that supposedly lets users run (on the stilt-like platforms pictured) about 20 kilometers (12 miles) per hour. From IHT:
“Now, they [the boots] have been held up as a symbol of both Russia’s deep and rich scientific traditions and the country’s utter inability to convert that talent into useful — and commercial — merchandise, except in the weapons business. The Russian edition of Popular Mechanics magazine argued that the unsuccessful attempt to commercialize the shoes is a symbol of this country’s failure to tap its considerable scientific talent for profitable business ideas.”
First of all, 12 mph is not very fast. Volunteers in one study at Harvard were able to run at least 27 mph, and the average person walks at around 2-3 mph.
Second, the piece got me to thinking about why Russia and its scientists are so different from those elsewhere. A comparison with America comes to mind immediately: open vs. closed societies, democracy vs. historic experience with communism, free market vs. state meddling. All of these strike me as too facile, though, especially given the comparison with the success of Chinese scientists who also operate in an imperfectly democratic, relatively closed society. Part of the explanation, as IHT notes, is likely the importance (read: money) each government spends on encouraging science:
“The Chinese government, for example, allocated $20 billion to its Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2006, compared with a subsidy of $1.1 billion in Russia, according to Aleksandr Nekipelov, vice president of the Russian Academy of Science.”
I wish I knew more about the differences between the scientific communities in Russia and China, but an intriguing thought occurs to me. China has spent years serving as a low-cost manufacturing center for richer, more developed buyers across the world, especially in Europe and North America. Russia, on the other hand, has produced goods mostly for domestic consumption (with notable exceptions), while exporting mostly natural resources (especially oil right now).
Could it be that Chinese scientists’ experience with the goods that sell best in the West — the ones we wanted a lot of — has given them better judgment about how to differentiate between marketable products and junk? I was particularly struck by the Russian military’s decision to snap up the boots — without any inkling of what they might be used for — and keep them classified for 20 years. I can’t picture this ever happening in China — perhaps China’s experience as the West’s assembly line for so many years was beneficial in ways neither side anticipated.
(Pictures are from IT-blog.)