Grand Designs: On Science and Nations

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Image: Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar 

On a cold and scrubby field outside of Moscow, unleaveed deciduous shadows drape themselves over a ramshackle construction site office. This is the pre-ghost of Russia’s greatest hope for science: Skolkovo.

The who’s-who of architects (SANAA, OMA, Herzog & deMeuron, David Chipperfield) have sketched out their striking shapes in designated districts of this future city of 26,000 residents, this post-graduate university (partnered with MIT), this “ecosystem of entrepreneurs and talents.”

And why not spring for the best of the best? After all, once the train stations go in, and the sports facilities and hotels, apartments and townhouses, cottages, convention complex, technopark, Research & Development centres, once the 50,000 square-meter glass entrance dome is erected, there’s still a 1.5 billion-dollar annual budget to play with.

Zooming in on Russia’s relative strengths – space, nuclear, energy, IT and biomed – Skolkovo aims to do exactly what any right-minded policy strategist would advise: to realize the potential of Russia’s extraordinary wealth of human capital, retaining and attracting Russian and international talents and building a knowledge economy that offers a long-lasting legacy to Russian citizens and the world.”

It’s part of a growing trend in nations that have been sending their elite youth to be educated in the United States and the United Kingdom. In order to keep them closer to home and in the environment where they’ll want to apply their skills, states on the upswing are essentially buying tertiary education as a package. Cornell, for example, has exported their brand to Doha.

The thorny problem is that intellectual cross-pollination is a tricky thing to get right. Throwing buildings at a problem has a mixed history, success-wise, and the greatest idea-kilns emerge in unexpected atmospheres. Skolkovo University’s partner MIT should know this well – their famed Building 20, a haven of collaboration, was a hastily-erected wooden structure that lasted 55 years on borrowed, temporary-status time. It would actively have driven away students had it been displayed on prospectus pamphlets.

What should a country do, then, if it wants to be at the forefront of science and technology? If inadequate facilities were the problem in the first place, then buildings can’t hurt, and iconic, high-quality ones have a chance of making a real statement. Too, often, though, like Canada’s newly announced high-arctic research station – following on the heels of a perfectly good one’s scrapping – it’s a political statement that doesn’t outlast the government cohort that initiated it. Thirty years from now, will Skolkovo’s halls echo with emptiness or with the cheers of Nobel Prize celebrations?

There are some barriers to the latter that would have to be overcome. For one thing, freedom of speech is critical for any sort of scientific progress. As Steven Pinker pointed out, wherever dissenting views are punished, people might not believe in the reigning thought paradigms, but they believe that everybody else believes it, and it takes much longer to overturn bad theories. This is the mechanism of mass-delusion and failure to host scientific revolutions.

In addition to free speech, the aspiring nation might work on its wealth disparity, as poverty is known to be one big squandering of human capital. Many of Russia’s top scientists have suffered in the past from low and sporadic paycheques – there has to be a stable and reliable system in place before the world invests for the long-haul. And while we’re at it, gender equity can help capitalize on fully half of a nation’s intellectual potential. It turns out that what’s good for society at large is good for science.

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2 thoughts on “Grand Designs: On Science and Nations

  1. Interesting piece – our Canadian government has been embarrassing us regularly with its cuts to science, especially our acid rain research station.

    2 small typos to report: I think you must have meant _unleavened_ and _advise_ .

  2. Thanks Sandy — i fixed the typos, although i’m not sure what i was going for with unleavened. I guess it can’t be a neologism when it already means something else!

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