Tiny Science Tests Russia's Hi-Tech Ambitions

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 in June.

In the world's largest country, tiny objects measured in billionths of a meter 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 skeptical 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 in June. "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 nanometers -- one-billionth of a meter -- 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 $5 billion, 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 skptical, 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. 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."

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.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2008

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