Tiny science tests Russia's hi-tech ambitions
In the world's largest country, tiny objects measured in billionths of a metre are the future of the economy -- or so the government claims.
Scientists across Russia are setting their minds to new inventions to net some of the billions of state dollars being poured into the field of nanotechnology. But they remain sceptical after years of neglect by the government.
Thermal cameras to detect breast cancer, sensors for spotting pipeline leaks and special coatings to prolong the life of industrial equipment were among the nano-devices on display at a business forum in Saint Petersburg this month.
"I think we will soon be able to give the world more than just military technology, vodka, satellites and perestroika," said Leonid Melamed, head of a new nanotechnology state corporation, Rosnanotekh, speaking at the forum.
"These inventions will take the world by storm," he said.
Nanotechnology involves the use of tiny structures measured in nanometres -- one-billionth of a metre -- that scientists can manipulate to create items as varied as solar heating panels and human organs.
Rosnanotekh was set up last year with a budget of five billion dollars (3.2 billion euros), an unprecedented level of funding for Russian scientists starved of resources since the 1991 Soviet collapse.
The corporation aims to make the creations of Russian scientists commercially viable and, through co-financing, to promote private investment -- the main source of technology funding in countries such as Japan and the United States.
But scientists remain sceptical, arguing that so far they have seen no tangible signs of increased state funding for science and that it could take decades to rebuild a sector that crumbled with the Soviet Union.
"Science needs state support. So far that's just not happening," said Mikhail Shcherbakov, director of Moscow's IRTIS science institute.
The sector could be a litmus test for Russia's wider goal of reducing its dependency on oil and gas revenues and going hi-tech -- a giant task considering the collapse of science after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Driven by a mixture of directives and idealism, Soviet scientists were successful in fields such as space technology. But the sector was always oriented more towards military advances than civilian applications.
With the removal of state funding after the Soviet collapse, hundreds of thousands of scientists emigrated to places such as Silicon Valley. The often remote research institutes they abandoned largely stagnated.
Brand names in electronics shops in Russia are now almost invariably from countries such as Germany, Japan and the United States. Russia has no popular makes of mobile phones, computers or domestic appliances.
Russian officials are hoping all that will change. When Rosnanotekh was set up last year the then president, Vladimir Putin, said nanotechnology was "a key direction" for the country's economy.
Another current buzzword is "technology clusters," which the government hopes will be based around research institutes and universities to develop inventions and bring them to market more efficiently.
The global market for nanotechnology will be worth 2.9 trillion dollars by 2014, according to research data shown at the forum. Russia has signalled it wants to be up there with industry leaders such as the United States.
But scientists have voiced doubt that state funding will be used efficiently and say the gap between a science sector still stuck in the Soviet era and companies out to make a fast buck could take time to overcome.
"It's a bit like a car. You need the wheels and the chassis and the engine to work together. Then when you add the fuel it works," said Kirill Gogolinsky, a researcher at the TISNUM carbon research institute outside Moscow.
"There's a clear imbalance with the energy sector. Technology requires long-term investment, while energy investments give very quick results -- you just need to drill a hole and turn the tap.”