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Building An MIT In Moscow

Russia founds a new private university as part of a multi-billion-dollar science and technology city

by Sarah Everts
June 25, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 26

Credit: Herzog and de Meuron
Construction for the Skolkovo project is set to begin this summer.
In this rendering, a large campus of futuristic buildings is set in a wooded area. A two-lane road with a green median runs through the middle, and the lights of a city can be seen in the background.
Credit: Herzog and de Meuron
Construction for the Skolkovo project is set to begin this summer.

In late 2009, Russia’s then-president, Dmitry Medvedev, told the country’s federal assembly that he wanted to launch a “powerful research and development center … something like Silicon Valley in California.”

Two-and-a-half years later, this idea has coalesced into an approximately $6 billion plan to build a research city for science and technology in the Moscow suburb of Skolkovo. Set to break ground this summer, the site will host a new university called the Skolkovo Institute of Science & Technology (SkTech), which has partnered with Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Also planned for the Skolkovo site are venture capital organizations, as well as labs for start-up and established companies, all of which will benefit from tax breaks and other economic incentives. Medvedev’s idea was to attract “scientists, engineers, designers, programmers, managers, and financiers” who would develop “new competitive technologies” to boost and diversify Russia’s economy.

If this new endeavor sounds like part of the recent trend in large-scale R&D parks and international partnerships between first-rate U.S. universities and countries looking to build top-notch mimics in their own lands, that’s because it is.

However, organizers say that the Skolkovo project, particularly SkTech university, distinguishes itself from others in its scope. In addition to the new Russian campus, the university administration plans to fund 15 research centers on university campuses abroad, each with $6 million to $12 million annually in operating support for up to five years, and each of which will include principal investigators from the host university, from SkTech, and from other academic institutions in Russia. The hope is that these research centers will foster international collaborations between SkTech and excellent universities abroad, says Mats Nordlund, vice president of research for SkTech. A funding call for the first three research centers seems to have been successful. It resulted in 129 applications from scientists at some 360 universities in 20 countries, including six Nobel Laureates, he says.

Another way in which SkTech distinguishes itself from other international educational collaborations is in the already strong scientific capacity SkTech brings to the table, says Michael Cima, an engineering professor at MIT who is involved in facilitating the partnership. “There’s a long tradition of truly fantastic academic training in Russia that dates back to the Soviet era,” Cima says.

For MIT, the relationship is less of a mentorship and more of a win-win opportunity, he adds. MIT will have access to “Russia’s intellectual raw material and outstanding talent pool,” and it will gain five of the 15 research centers on its Cambridge campus. In exchange, MIT will provide advice on curriculum, peer review, logistics, administration, and how to spin off research into new companies. Research funding in Russia has often been criticized as being subject to cronyism and political interference. SkTech is also looking to MIT to help set up a high-quality, transparent peer review process so that funding decisions are based on scientific excellence and not political fancy, says Alexei Sitnikov, SkTech vice president of administration and development.

Construction workers have yet to break ground for SkTech—that’s slated for this summer. But the university has already begun recruitment for the 200 full-time professors they hope to eventually employ in five strategic areas: biomedical, space, energy, nuclear, and information science and technology, Nordlund says.

SkTech at a glance

◾ Total funding for the Skolkovo project: about $6 billion

Total annual funding for SkTech after construction: about $250 million

◾ Total planned faculty at SkTech: 200

◾ Total planned students (M.Sc. and Ph.D.): 1,200

◾ Total planned postdocs: 300

◾ Number of international research centers: 15

◾ Research center annual funding: $6 million–$12 million

Sources: Alexei Sitnikov, Skolkovo website

They have also recruited and accepted the university’s first master’s class, which is slated to start school this fall. The plan is for SkTech to establish a graduate school with 1,200 doctorate and master’s students, Sitnikov says. The first master’s students will spend their first year at top-notch universities around the world, including Imperial College London and MIT, Nordlund says. Then the master’s students will return to Russia and participate in curriculum development for the university, Nordlund adds. The Ph.D. program will have to wait for when SkTech’s first laboratories are finished and professors move in, which is slated for 2013 or 2014, Sitnikov says.

SkTech organizers have also begun the selection process for the 15 research centers that will be built on international campuses. Nordlund says they are in the final selection process for the first three centers and will announce the results at the end of June. This July, SkTech will also host a meet-and-greet event in Moscow for international and Russian researchers interested in competing in the next application process for the research centers, the deadline for which is this October.

Across town in Moscow, reaction from university academics ranges from “very skeptical to quite enthusiastic,” comments a Russian scientist who regularly publishes in high-impact journals and who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of science politics in Russia. “I know that many researchers have applied for funding and for positions at SkTech,” but others think this is imprudent spending of national funds, he says.

“The project looks very promising,” he says. “Skolkovo Tech—as it is described on their website—would be an excellent place to make science and science-associated business. At the same time, I am not sure that the announced plans will be implemented. They look too ambitious for so short a timescale. The success will depend on the organizers’ persistence and many uncontrollable things, such as world economics, local regulations, customs, etcetera. Let’s see.”

It’s certainly a compressed schedule “but it’s an exciting place to be,” Nordlund says. He joined as vice president of research and development in March of this year, when SkTech had only 13 employees. Now there are 47, he says.

As for criticism that too much money is being invested in the Skolokovo project, Sitnikov argues that there’s enough science funding to go around in Russia. In recent years, “science funding in Russia has been increasing annually,” he says. In March, Vladimir Putin, the current president, told the Russian Academy of Sciences that he aims to make science funding 2.5% of the country’s gross domestic product by 2018.

“We are just a tiny piece of the pie,” Sitnikov adds. “But we are hoping to be disproportionately useful to Russia.”



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