Professor Rupert Gerzer

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The expat scientific community has quietly been getting on with its work throughout the present global turbulences. Professor Rupert Gerzer, one of Germany’s eminent scientists recently moved to Moscow to head up Skoltech’s Space department. In this interview professor Gerzer gives us a glimpse into the new hi-tech world of Russia’s new educational establishment Skoltech.

You are now a professor at Skoltech in Moscow. Please tell us about this institution.

It’s a new university, I think it is now 5 years old. It has been started from scratch, from an initiative by the then President Medvedev and oligarch Victor Vekselberg. The politicians and the business people got together and allocated a lot of money to launch a new business area with business incubators, and also a new educational facility. The idea is to bring together academics on the one side, and innovation on the other. The vision is to have something like a silicon valley in Russia.

The Innovation Park covers 50 or 60 hectares at the moment. At Skoltech, we currently have about 50 faculty members and we aim to have about 200 members by 2020. There are about 200 students at the moment, and we aim to have at least 1,500, so all this incurs rapid growth. Currently the university buildings are still under construction, and they will be complete in 2017.

Are you introducing western scientific principles into a Russian curriculum, or how is it being organised?

There is a model for the curriculum, and the model is from M.I.T. in Boston. The original plan, which is still holding up, is that M.I.T. injects its secrets of success into this context. But it is not only one way; it is more like the merging of Russian technologies, techniques and knowledge with techniques and knowledge from abroad to create something unique.

What is your role there?

I am 65, which is when you retire in Germany. I was the Director of the Institute of Aerospace Medicine of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and Professor and Chairman of the Institute of Aerospace Medicine in Aachen, Germany, from 1992. I was asked if I’d like to come here. During my previous career I visited Russia quite a lot. I was in Russia at least once a year. I have friends here in Moscow, so after consulting with them, I decided to come here. I now find it absolutely fascinating to try and fuse the advantages of the Russian world with the advantages of the Western world.

How is it possible to teach science and technology that has been created in the West inside Russia, which has a different political system or are science and technology and political systems different things?

I think they are different things. We are not building rockets here. We are scientists and we are developing solutions to questions. Typically with science, you are interested in something that can be applied, and you file a patent, something that is done all over the world; there is nothing secret about that. We also have to publish. So what we are doing as scientists is hopefully good for innovation, and business, but also good for science as a whole. Traditionally, over the last 20-25 years we have cooperated with Russia, even during the socialist times, we developed very close links with our friends in Moscow, especially in the field of space medicine. There was never any political problem among the science community. The main difficulty was getting visas sometimes. Humans are humans and scientists are scientists. Basically, we have no problems.

The change from living in Germany to living in Moscow must be quite extreme for you. How have you handled that?

Actually it is not so extreme. I like it very much here. I had been to Moscow many times and I kind of knew what to expect, especially in the winter. There is a saying in Germany, maybe also in Russia: ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, there is only the wrong clothing.’ So this is a very positive change. Unlike for my American friends a flight home takes three hours and only about €200. Moscow is fascinating, I live in the centre of Moscow, I can walk anywhere, and when I can’t the Metro and public transport system is great. Taxis are cheap, so I really enjoy it.

How do you find Russians?

Well, Russians are the one reason I came here. It may take some time to get to know them, but when you have, you really have friends. You can learn a lot from their ways, about how to live.

How long do you intend to stay here?

Not for ever because I must think about my age, but for as long as I am wanted here, and for as long as I am fit enough, and for as long as my brain works well enough. Fortunately my wife is with me, she has different interests but she likes it very much as well.

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