Race Against Time: Russia’s Path to Sustainable Development and the Role of Science and Technology
UNESCO has released its seventh official Science Report. The document is published every five years*. This Science Report’s title, ‘The Race Against Time for Smarter Development’, reflects the trajectory of global transformation stipulated by the United Nations in its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030, from ending poverty to protecting the planet’s natural resources. The authors of the Report describe how science contributes to these goals, analyze global scientific trends, and present 23 detailed regional and national cases. Below, IQ.HSE examines the objectives Russian science is pursuing in the context of the SDGs and what efforts it is taking to achieve them. This article is based on the Russian chapter of the Report prepared by Leonid Gokhberg, First Vice Rector, Director of the Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge (ISSEK) of HSE University, and Tatiana Kuznetsova, Academic Supervisor of the Centre for Science, Technology, Innovation and Information Policy at ISSEK, HSE University.
Many long-term federal initiatives are consistent with Russia’s sustainable development agenda. Among the top priorities are projects that could lead to breakthroughs in science and technology to create Russian ‘markets of the future’ and help Russia become a well-established player in the economic world.
Adopted in 2026, the Strategy for the Scientific and Technological Development of the Russian Federation by 2035 outlines seven key areas and five principles of science and technology policy.
Making Russia a leader in the global technology market by 2035 is an objective of the National Technological Initiative (NTI). This umbrella initiative provides financial support and develops roadmaps in Russia’s promising areas such as:
advanced manufacturing technologies (TechNet),
distributed energy systems (EnergyNet),
unmanned aircraft (AeroNet),
marine (MariNet) and road (AutoNet) transport systems,
food products (FoodNet),
personalized healthcare (HealthNet),
artificial intelligence and neurotechnologies (NeuroNet)
information and communications technologies (ICT) and cybersecurity (SafeNet).
The report 'Russia 2030: Science and Technology Foresight' was approved in 2014. The Higher School of Economics coordinated the preparation of this document and assisted in establishing a network of regional foresight centres at leading universities, research institutes, and innovative companies. The authors of the Foresight also drew technological roadmaps which served as the basis for various governmental and industry programmes.
Read about the future
(Russia 2030: Science and Technology Foresight in HSE ISSEK industry reports)
The Presidential Decree On the National Goals and Strategic Objectives of the Development of the Russian Federation up to 2024 and other government policy documents promote private investment in innovations. Management tools such as research subsidies, tax incentives, personnel training, co-financing of startups, special legal frameworks (‘regulatory sandboxes’), and more have become increasingly popular for this purpose.
In 2019, this Decree paved the way for national projects for the period of 2019–2024. A total of 25.7 trillion roubles is expected to be spent on a number of significant national initiatives in the field of education, healthcare, demography, culture, housing, transport system, environmental management, science, entrepreneurship, labour market, international cooperation, and exports.
National projects are strategic areas of the country’s development, from boosting the economy to creating a comfortable environment and enhancing human capital. A new economic model is expected to be launched with the focus on cutting-edge technologies and increased investment into infrastructure and innovations.
The national Environment Project seeks to ensure environmental safety, which cannot be achieved without further evolution of the energy sector. In June 2020, the government approved the Russian Federation’s Energy Strategy to 2035. The Law on Energy Microgeneration came into force a little earlier—in December 2019. The law enables individuals and small businesses to produce renewable energy for their own utilities (e.g., they can install solar panels for this purpose) and sell the surplus. The revenue for sales will not be liable for taxation up until 2029In addition to one of the national projects (Digital Economy), the National Strategy for the Development of Artificial Intelligence to 2030 was adopted in 2019. Its aim is to accelerate progress in this area and help Russian AI designers become world market leaders. The authors of the Report regard this Russian programme as one of the most impressive documents adopted in 30 countries to boost AI developments.
Strengthening the Strong
No economic advances are possible without science. Therefore, the R&D sector deserves special attention both as a separate area of development and as a driving force of economic growth.
At the end of 2018, a separate science-oriented national project** was launched with a budget of RUB 636 bn. to 2024. The project promotes research in strategic areas, while developing and implementing cutting-edge technologies. The key objective is to achieve a synergy of science and industry and create an advanced research infrastructure with state-of-the-art equipment and materials available to Russian research organizations.
Advanced research infrastructure will include super-power megascience facilities. At least 50% of leading research institutes’ equipment is expected to be modernized and more staff under 39 years of age should be recruited to manage 30% of all new labs.
World-class research and educational centres (REC) open up in selected regions to develop new technologies and train future professionals in line with their profiles. A total of 15 centres are going to be established jointly by research institutes, universities, and companies, supported by federal and regional government authorities. The key principle is to ‘strengthen the strong’.
Out of 15*** planned RECs, five had been selected on a competitive basis by 2019:
Kuzbass Research and Academic Centre (Kemerovo Region);
Sound Subsoil Use, world-class research and academic centre (Permsky Krai);
Innovative Solutions in the Agro-Industrial Complex, world-class scientific and academic centre (Belgorodskaya Region);
Technoplatform 2035, world-class research and academic centre (Nizhniy Novgorod Region);
West Siberian Interregional Scientific and Educational Centre (Tyumen Region, Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug–Yugra, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug)
Apart from RECs, other world-class research centres are being established ( NCMU).Seven of them were launched in 2019: four specializing in mathematics and three in biosecurity, genetic technologies for agriculture, and industrial microbiology.
In 2020, the Russian Ministry of Education and Science approved a list of 10 NCMUs in six priority areas. Among them is the Human Capital Multidisciplinary Research Centre, bringing together research teams of HSE University, the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), MGIMO University, and the Miklukho-Maklay Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The Centre focuses on joint projects in the humanities and social sciences aimed at studying human-environmental and human-technology interaction, as well as social institutions’ activities in addressing major challenges.
Without Exaggerating Higher Education
Almost every fourth Russian research organization (23% in 2018) has university status. Although the number of research universities is growing, their graduates seem to be reluctant to pursue careers in research — less than 1% of university graduates choose to work for research organizations. This suggests that job conditions in other sectors are more attractive.
The number of people with a Bachelor’s degree or higher is expected to decrease in the coming years due to demographic constraints. Currently, this number is on a par with developed countries. Russia is among the global leaders for the rate of completion of higher education programmes: almost 57% of those aged 15 years or above hold a university degree.
Fewer Russians value higher education, which is a cause for concern. A growing proportion of Russians have come to the conclusion that the importance of higher education is ‘exaggerated’. More than half of the population (56%) held this view in 2018, up from 45% in 2008 (VCIOM, 2018). The proportion of sceptics even rises to 72% for 18–24-year olds.
Higher education has become more elitist. Tuition fees rose by 45% over the period of 2015-2018, and cities hosting leading universities tend to have a high cost of living.
Wages of university graduates are 60% above the national average, but graduates have found that a well-paid job can be difficult to come by, even with a degree.
Currently, public expenditure on higher education in Russia is lower than in developed countries. Meanwhile, improving the quality of Russian universities is a government priority and public policies will need to invest more in the higher education sector.
The Russian government’s 5/100 Programme**** was adopted in 2013 to raise the global competitiveness of Russian universities to the point where at least five rank in the top 100 and the remainder rank in the top 200 of global university rankings.
21 universities competed to be selected for the programme. The project allowed all of them to receive state support.
The 5/100 universities have managed to increase their contribution to research and innovation. In 2013, they accounted for a quarter of the top most highly cited Russian academic publications in international journals. This share grew to almost 50% in 2018.
They have also managed to attract leading Russian and foreign academics, as well as talented young people, while expanding their range of international educational programmes—this has become possible thanks to Megagrants, another state programme. Since 2010, new laboratories have been founded at universities and research organizations to conduct advanced research under the leadership of invited world-renowned academics.
Science as Diplomacy
International scientific cooperation is not only a powerful way of acquiring new knowledge. Science diplomacy provides opportunities to look for common solutions to global challenges, decrease international tension, and enhance Russia’s image on the world stage.
Space is the main channel for cooperation with the USA, mainly through the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), in relation to the International Space Station. Signed in 2019, the new agreement between the Russian Academy of Sciences and the US National Academy of Sciences paved the way for research in energy, astrophysics, medicine, and environmental studies.The Association for Scientific and Technical Cooperation between the Russian Federation and China has been in operation since 2018. An agreement has been reached to implement four subprojects with China at the new Nuclotron-Based Ion Collider Facility. This facility is being built at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna in the Russian Federation. As part of Russian-Chinese bilateral agreements, Huawei has opened two R&D centres in Moscow and St Petersburg.
Between 2016 and 2019, 93 scientific projects were supported by Russia in cooperation with fellow BRICS member countries (Brazil, India, China, and South Africa). Established by BRICS in 2015, the New Development Bank has accumulated USD 100 bn. The bank is investing this amount in infrastructure development projects, environment protection, and culture heritage support.
Under its cooperation with Asian nations, Russia has made a strong focus on technological innovations. In 2019, some joint projects with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) were implemented on biological safety and new technologies for industrial water treatment. The partners are also fostering academic mobility and student exchanges.
Russia is participating in the Asia-Pacific Economic Community’s (APEC) Policy Partnership on Science, Technology and Innovations (2016–2025). The interactive APEC Platform is used to approve policies, share information related to market regulation, and more. On the Russian side, the platform is being coordinated by the Russian Cluster Observatory, HSE by ISSEK.
Ten facts about Russian science based on the Russian chapter in the UNESCO Science Report
Between 2014 and 2018, gross domestic expenditure on R&D (GERD) grew by 20% in current prices. This places the Russian Federation 9th worldwide for this indicator in absolute terms. However, the share of GERD in the Russian GDP is not big, having reduced over the past decade from 1.25% (2009) to 0.99% (2018).
R&D is still predominantly government funded. The Russian federal government owns some 60% of R&D organizations. In 2019, about 9/10 of the civil research budget was allocated through state programmes.
The average age of Russian researchers is 47. In 2018, almost one in four reached retirement age, while one in ten was over 70 years old. By 2018, following hefty cash injections from the federal budget, the average salary for researchers in most regions reached, or exceeded, 200% of the average regional wage, and the share of researchers under the age of 39 increased to 44%, up from 41% in 2014. Meanwhile, the total number of researchers continued to decline.
Public opinion surveys conducted by ISSEK over the past five years reveal that Russians have an increasingly positive view of the impact of science and technology on their daily lives. 70% of respondents believe that scientific and technological progress would be more beneficial than harmful for society. Although most Russians (62%) would welcome their child’s decision to become a researcher, more than half (54%) of those surveyed considered research to be a boring occupation.
39% of Russian researchers are women; they account for 57% of the university teaching population. This seems to be the legacy of the Soviet policies that actively promoted gender equality. However, only about one third of female researchers hold a doctorate degree and just 2% of full members of the Academy of Sciences are women.
The distribution of researchers by scientific field has remained stable for decades, reflecting the country’s predominant specialization in engineering (62% in 2018), and mathematics and physical sciences (22%).
Russia now hosts more than 130 technoparks, including the flagship Skolkovo Innovation Centre with 2,800 startup companies. Founded in Novosibirsk in 2007, Academpark is home to over 300 innovative firms. In 2015, Innopolis, a new ‘high tech’ city, was born in the Republic of Tatarstan. The city boasts a special economic zone used to attract investments into information technologies.
Russian research centres, universities, and companies have weak standing in international markets for intellectual property. Applicants tend to focus primarily on the domestic market. The Russian Federation’s share of global patents remains stable and accounts for only 1% (2018), compared to 44% for China and 16% for the USA.
Only one in five Russian companies engage in technological innovation. In high-tech sectors, the level of technological innovation ranges from 48% (in pharmaceuticals) to 60% (in IT), on par with EU countries. However, high-tech sectors only make up about 4% of Russian industrial output.
The share of publications by Russian authors indexed in the Scopus database accounted for 3.5% of the world total in 2019. Russia is counted among the world’s leaders in fields such as physics, engineering, mathematics, and chemistry. Publications on AI and robotics grew most rapidly—by 3.6% annually (in 2011–2019).
Articles published in national journals since 2015 can be searched for and measured by citation on the Web of Science. The Russian Science Citation Index (RSCI) has been launched on this international platform at the initiative of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow State University, HSE University, and e-LIBRARY.ru. The RSCI resource includes nearly 900 publications (as of May 2021).
Read and watch more:
Video with an overview of the development of science in Russia and Eastern European countries
* The UNESCO Science Report 2021 covers the period of 2014–2019. The changes in the global landscape of science, technology, and innovation policy over the past year will be reflected in the next report. This summary focuses on the Russian agenda, with more relevant documents and political measures described in the notes.
** In 2021, this initiative was transformed into a national Science and Universities Project to be completed by 2030.
*** In 2020, another five centres were selected on a competitive basis.
**** The programme was completed in 2020. It was superseded by the Programme of Strategic Academic Leadership Priority 2030.