Nearly 60 years ago, the Russians were the first to put a satellite into space. They were the ones to beat in the space race. But the collapse of the Soviet Union brought about the near collapse of Russian science, and it hasn’t recovered since.

“The brain drain in fields like physics and mathematics has been enormous, and if you go around to almost any physics department in a good university in the United States and look down the roster of the professors, you’ll probably find a Russian or two,” said Loren Graham, Professor Emeritus in the history of science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. 

Despite the loss of scientists at the top of their field in Russia, Russian undergraduates still manage to make a name for themselves.

“Every year, IBM sponsors a contest for undergraduate students from all over the world in computer programming,” Graham said. “Russians have won first prize for the last eight years straight. No American has won first prize in that contest since 1990.”

So, why don’t Russians play a bigger role in computer hardware and software production?

“Poor protection of intellectual property, a very bad legal system, no investors, a bad economic scene. All these things come together,” Graham said.

Political problems in Russia are holding it back scientifically, and Graham says that's unlikely to change under President Vladimir Putin, citing examples in which Putin has driven entrepreneurs out of the country when they get too successful.

“I would say that the same kind of political order that’s good for democracy, and human rights, and a healthy society, is good for science,” he said.

Russia is unique in the gap between its strong scientific history and its weak ability to commercialize scientific breakthroughs, according to Graham.

“Can it change?” Graham said. “Yes. And, in fact, I’m convinced that eventually it will change. But I’m not sure that I’ll see it in my lifetime, and I’m positive we won’t see it in Putin’s lifetime.”