Joe Biden should target Russia’s ability to innovate - Hindustan Times
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Joe Biden should target Russia’s ability to innovate

Mar 05, 2022 12:15 AM IST

For the US, immigration is its greatest advantage. For Russia, a brain drain will have serious impacts on its economy. The US must, therefore, move beyond sanctions and welcome Russian innovators with a green card and a plane ticket

In the summer of 1991, I travelled to St. Petersburg, Russia, to recruit a professor, Andrey Terekhov, and his research teams at St. Petersburg State University and Novosibirsk, Siberia. Terekhov, a world renowned mathematician, was literally growing potatoes to survive because he had not received his meagre $60 a month salary for nearly a year. This was the fate of most professionals in the former Soviet Union, the empire that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to rebuild by invading peaceful neighbouring States.

What’s good for the US (or other destinations for Russian skilled immigrants) is good for the world. If America lets Russian scientists and innovators in, their futures will be brighter and so will the world’s. (Bloomberg)
What’s good for the US (or other destinations for Russian skilled immigrants) is good for the world. If America lets Russian scientists and innovators in, their futures will be brighter and so will the world’s. (Bloomberg)

In addition to teaching and mentoring Russia’s best scientific minds, Terekhov had created the KGB’s critical telecommunications systems and technologies which were used to reverse engineer software systems of companies such as IBM. This combination of mathematical and engineering skills was not something I could find in the United States (US), but they were common in the Soviet Union, as in India — which tried at the time to replicate its education and economic models.

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For my startup in North Carolina, the acquisition of this talent was a bonanza, something that led to the creation of a public company with $120 million in revenues, from technology that enabled western firms and the US government to modernise their legacy computer systems.

This is why my advice to United States (US) President Joe Biden is to go beyond the imposition of financial sanctions, to literally destroy Russia’s ability to innovate. The US can do this by welcoming Russian engineers and scientists with open arms, offering them a green card and a plane ticket.

Immigration has always been America’s greatest advantage, it has driven its economic development and technological innovation. Through the internet technology boom, immigrants founded 52% of Silicon Valley’s startups. In the last decade, they founded 55% of America’s startup companies valued at $1 billion dollars or more and hold key management or product development positions in 80% of these companies. Some of America’s most innovative companies, including Google, Intel, AT&T, Pfizer, and Tesla, were launched by immigrants. More than one-third of all Nobel Prizes won by Americans since 1901 have gone to immigrants.

US immigration policy is the velvet sledgehammer that could deal a death blow to Putin’s vision of a militaristic Russia. Without brains, Russia will fail in every significant scientific and technological endeavour. Right now, the precious talent pool of Russia is primed to bolt. America should offer them a helping hand — and help itself while making the world a safer place in the process.

As it was for India after it stopped trying to mimic some of the disastrous policies of the Soviet Union, skilled immigration to the US has been a net positive for both the country of egress and the country of arrival. Immigrants who forge careers, make scientific discoveries, and form companies, tend to reach back to their places of origin to form bridges and economic relationships that are mutually beneficial. Both China and India have reaped tremendous gains from the networks of immigrants outside their shores; China has even attempted to turn the tables by aggressively recruiting ethnic Chinese US citizens with expertise in desired fields such as Artificial Intelligence and genetics to return to China.

In the case of Russia, however, a rapid brain drain would be a zero-sum body blow for a variety of reasons. To start with, the country is losing population swiftly as women have fewer and fewer children. Due to a large contraction in births during the lost decade from the fall of the Soviet Union to the end of the 20th century, there are far fewer young Russians in their early 20s. This will become more crucial because it delivers the double whammy of reducing the potential intellectual pool for scientists and technologists, and also presages a further decline in population when this generation hits prime child-bearing years.

To make matters worse, the once-vaunted Russian education system is on the decline due to a lack of funding and inattention by the political elites. While Russia continues to churn out scientists, their training is not what it once was, and many of the academic institutions that once flourished have withered. Should older Russian scientists and engineers bolt across the Atlantic, this will leave Putin with a brain drain that will reduce his capacity to develop arms, build innovative rockets, or create vaccines against future pandemics.

We have already witnessed the impact of the combination of hubris and scientific weakness when the Russian government refused more effective mRNA vaccines in favour of home-grown vaccines which failed to fully protect the rapidly aging population. We are about to witness more impacts due to the crisis. Many of Russia’s major oil fields will struggle to continue functioning efficiently without foreign support due to the relative backwardness of Russia’s own petroleum engineering and geoscience capabilities.

What’s good for the US (or other destinations for Russian skilled immigrants) is good for the world. Freed from the repressive confines of Putin’s coffin, these talented engineers can be expected to contribute more to the world in the form of scientific breakthroughs, jobs created, and innovative new products. Maybe it will be a cure for cancer. Maybe it will be a new form of AI that finally nails the driverless car problem. Maybe it will be a new company that delivers breakthroughs in solar energy and batteries. If America lets Russian scientists and engineers and innovators in, their futures will be brighter and so will the world’s. The alternative for them, after all, in Putin’s Russia, may be to plant potatoes for survival.

Vivek Wadhwa is the author of From Incremental to Exponential: How Large Companies Can See the Future and Rethink Innovation 

The views expressed are personal

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