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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Science Funding Down to a Science



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I continue to be fascinated by Russia's foray into the nanotechnology business. The government has allocated 130 billion rubles ($6.9 billion) for the project and installed Mikhail Kovalchuk, who has close ties to President Vladimir Putin that stretch way back, to head up the project.

The funds set aside for nanotechnology will be channeled to the project in two ways. The first method can be characterized as follows: A man approaches his boss with a proposal.

"I've got an idea for a project requiring 100 million rubles in funding, of which you and I can pocket 80 million."

"Sounds great, his boss replies, "but how can we make it look good on paper?"

"Just say we're building a photoreactive nanorefractometer."

"And how will we explain the absence of a refractometer?" the boss asks.

"Just say it didn't work out."

The money is allocated, divvied up, and deposited in Swiss bank accounts. End of story.

The second method works like this: An idealistic young researcher approaches the program director and says, "I want to build carbon nanotubes for the good of Mother Russia."

"What are those?" his boss asks.

"They can work as transistors!" the researcher enthuses. "They are logical structures, and ..."

The boss is ecstatic. Not only can he steal the discovery, but now he has something to justify his pay.

"How much did you say you needed?" the boss asks.

When the idealistic researcher returns for the money, he discovers the director is either too busy to meet him or that he must fill out endless forms to obtain even part of the funds.

Three months later, the director brings in his nephew as project deputy director. The nephew is a drunk who rarely comes to work, and when he does, throws his feet up on his desk and asks the researcher, "So, where are the results? I've got my eye on a Nobel Prize."

Six months later, members of the secret police show up. They claim that the researcher has earned himself a good 10 years behind bars for sharing restricted nanotechnology with colleagues in the United States. But for $10 million in cash they would be willing to forget all about it.

A year after the project's start, the director shows up trailing an entourage of officials. Pointing to a formula on the blackboard, he asks the researcher, "What's that written there?"

"That's oxygen," replies the researcher.

"Are you sure it isn't hydrogen?" the director asks. He doesn't care if it's the formula for pudding, as long as everybody sees that he's in charge.

Soon a new deputy director appears, insisting they purchase tunneling microscopes from a particular firm. The researcher is puzzled, since the firm in question normally deals in imported chicken legs. "And what of it?!" the director shoots back. "My sister runs that company, and that's all that matters."

The contract is signed, but in place of tunneling microscopes, they get MRI tomographs, costing more than even a cyclotron. In the end, the various deputy directors have either bought themselves villas in Switzerland, left for research labs in the United States, or been jailed on trumped-up treason charges connected with sensitive technology.

Five years later comes news that the researcher who immigrated to the United States has created computers based on nanotube technology, making him the country's youngest billionaire.

The point of this story is that in the quest for funding the first of these methods is by far the simplest, and comes across better than the second in the competitive bidding process. In the same way that light travels from one point to another along the shortest path, budgetary funds travel from government coffers to Swiss bank accounts along the path that takes the least time.

It's a very particular science.

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.