Modern Diplomacy
Possibilities Amid a Crisis: Russian Science and the International Confrontation

Strong science means a strong state. The fact is that Russia is well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of its own tradition of organising science and knows the international experience of organising this sphere; this yields confidence, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.

Through its history, Russia has proved its ability to solve world-class scientific and technological problems entirely on its own. It launched the first spacecraft and the first man into space, developed advanced missile and nuclear programs, and, at the present stage, rolled out its own coronavirus vaccine and supersonic hyperspace technology. All this shows that Russian science is at the forefront in solving the most pressing scientific problems of our time.

However, Russia cannot organically advance all spheres of science at the world level: the current global crisis requires a clearer definition of the priorities in scientific development.

What questions need to be answered in order to determine the direction of development of domestic science in the context of increased international confrontation? First, what is the fate of scientometrics as a scale for evaluating scientific effectiveness? What tasks has it managed to solve and where has it failed? To what extent can peer review publication objectively serve as a measure of a scientist’s performance?

Second, Soviet and Russian science could boast of historically important achievements thanks to the participation of relatively young people in its management. The founding fathers of MIFI, the Kurchatov Institute and other important scientific centres of the 1940s were barely 40 years old. However, while the concept of a “young scientist” is widespread in Russian science, we must ask ourselves if this is an adequate characterisation. Or is another notion true: either a person has become a scientist, or he is not yet a scientist.

One way or another, it is young researchers and organisers of science who will have to achieve the most important scientific results at the current stage of Russian development.

Third, what is our standard for linking science with the needs of the national economy? A feature of the organisation of Russian science has historically been a weak connection with the market: what should the country’s scientific policy look like, which would support research in the interests of the national economy today?

Fourth, Russia mirrors current trends in the development of global science towards applied results. What should be done with the funding of fundamental scientific research that does not yield an immediate practical result? What will be the fate of fundamental research at universities and research institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences?

Fifth, the problem of the dispute between “physicists and lyricists” is again manifesting itself. It is widely believed that the social and humanitarian disciplines are not scientific, and therefore do not deserve government investment, especially in the context of an international crisis. It is difficult to agree with this: social and humanitarian disciplines store and reproduce the identity, memory and self-awareness of society. This is precisely what is in demand in the conditions of an international crisis, where one of the dimensions of rivalry is the consciousness of the elite and society.

Russia will have to determine which scientific collaborations must be preserved at all costs, and which ones can be sacrificed.

It is obvious that Russia is expanding the geography of its international cooperation and establishing new ties with the scientific community of the countries of the East. However, one can note the efforts of some leading scientists in unfriendly countries to maintain contact with Russia. How should we deal with these initiatives?

The backbone infrastructure of Soviet science was created during the years of the main crisis of the 20thcentury — the Second World War. In 1942 — 1943, MIFI, the Kurchatov Institute, MGIMO and other leading universities and research centres were successively created. It is quite appropriate to draw parallels with the current moment — as before, the crisis has forced us to clearly formulate the hierarchy of scientific priorities. It is also significant that the Soviet scientific results were produced in closed conditions. However, the current generation of Russian scientists is widely involved in international scientific processes; many young researchers have been educated abroad. What will be the policy of the state in the field of international exchange, mobility and scientific cooperation?

Strong science means a strong state. The fact is that Russia is well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of its own tradition of organising science and knows the international experience of organising this sphere; this yields confidence. This knowledge allows us to develop the best strategy that will allow our country to remain as a leading scientific power and at the moment when the international crisis recedes and the “dust” settles, observers will be surprised to find that Russian science in these years was able to achieve significant results at the global level.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.