Russia pins its hopes on 'nano'

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Parliament approves nanotechnology initiative.

Moscow

In what could be the biggest windfall for science since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian parliament last week gave the green light to a massive US$7-billion investment in nanotechnology over five years. The Russian government hopes the programme will make the country a world leader in nanoscale technologies with a wide range of military and civilian uses.

However, the move has been criticized as poorly prepared and unlikely to yield results.

Nano-devices, designed from single atoms and molecules, are predicted to have applications in fields as diverse as consumer electronics and biomedicine. All research and development activities will be coordinated by Rosnanotekh, a new tax-exempt body with far-reaching freedom to set up institutes, put work out to tender and commercialize results.

But no details have been announced about the precise structure, goals and content of the initiative. It is unclear, for example, how projects will be selected for funding.

Small talk: Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) has recruited Mikhail Kovalchuk to head a push into nanotechnology. Credit: M. KLIMENTYEV/RIA NOVOSTI/PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE/AP

Some Russian scientists, sceptical about fair allocation of funds, have given the announcement a lukewarm response. The country has hardly any competence in nanotechnology, they say. And given the widespread absence of efficient quality control in Russian science funding, many fear the scheme will be poisoned by corruption.

“Our government just doesn't understand anything about science,” says one high-level Russian physicist who asked not to be named. “They think if they throw enough money at it they'll get some nice exploitable results in return. But we don't even have the experts.”

The programme is the brainchild of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is keen to reduce the country's dependence on oil and gas.

Putin recently compared the importance of nanotechnology to that of nuclear science. He is said to have secretly recruited Mikhail Kovalchuk, the director the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow, to head Rosnanotekh.

“Lack of transparency and programme abuse are the usual Russian dangers.”

Kovalchuk, who is not an expert in nanotechnology, is the brother of Yuri Kovalchuk, a banker and businessman with close ties to Putin.

The independent Russian media has poured scorn on Russia's foray into what some call the “banano” technology business. “Lack of transparency and programme abuse for personal goals are the usual Russian dangers,” says former science minister Boris Saltykov, an expert in science management.

“Risks do exist,” agrees Alexander Nekipelov, vice-president of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. “But the money involved is so huge that scrutiny will be very good this time.”

The academy is keen not to be bypassed by the programme, for which the government has set aside more funds than the entire academy receives. In a move that critics say violates its own rules, in June the academy leadership appointed Kovalchuk, who is not a full member, as acting vice-president for nanotechnology.

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Schiermeier, Q. Russia pins its hopes on 'nano'. Nature 448, 233 (2007) doi:10.1038/448233a

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