Internationalisation ‘could transform Russian science’

Russian science is characterised by very low rates of publication, citation and joint international authorship, relative to system and university size. It requires a vigorous internationalisation policy to catalyse its transformation, Professor Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at UCL Institute of Education in the United Kingdom, argues in a paper just released.

In the paper, The Role of the State in University Science: Russian and China compared, Marginson compares science research and development in Russia with China and East Asia. While scientific capacity and outputs are declining in the former, they have grown spectacularly in the latter, particularly over the past decade.

Marginson analyses the trajectory of East Asian science and shows that factors such as the Confucian learning tradition at home and in-school learning achievement have contributed to the growth of science in this region. More importantly, China and East Asia exhibit a strong internationalisation drive, the paper says.

This is lacking in Russia, where, by contrast, there is a closed door to international links – a legacy of the Soviet period.

Marginson argues that research is now organised on the basis of a global science system articulated by English language journals. This system partly subsumes national systems and is the source of most innovations. To be effective, national science institutions must be closely and continually engaged in, and contributing to, this global system. ‘Science and technology in one country’ is no longer a strategic option.

But the total number of papers produced each year by Russia is declining. Only Lomonsov Moscow State University is ranked in the top 750 universities in the world on the volume of published science in English.

Between 1995 and 2012, the number of internationally co-authored papers increased by 168% worldwide but only by 35% in Russia.

To understand why this gap has opened up, Marginson examines the different trajectories of science in Russia and China despite both countries having entered the 1990s with a similar Soviet-shaped structure in science and higher education.

After the 1949 revolution in China, Russian science and technology was actually far in advance of that of China. China was much poorer than Soviet Russia, and Soviet policy always saw capacity in science and technology as central to long-term survival, Marginson notes, and until the Sino-Soviet split in 1960, Soviet aid and Soviet models strongly influenced China’s development.

Under the Soviet model in China, science was concentrated in academies and specialised institutes associated with a range of ministries, while universities were predominantly teaching-focused, except for a small number of comprehensive institutions.

However, in the past two decades the pathways of science in both countries have fundamentally diverged, the paper argues.

First, while both countries have moved universities in the direction of comprehensive teaching and research institutions, and moved some specialised researchers from separate institutes into higher education, this process has gone much further in China than Russia.

Second, investment patterns have been fundamentally different. The end of the Soviet period in Russia triggered the complete or partial collapse of many research organisations and the exit of a large number of trained personnel. This was just before China made the mid-1990s decision to invest heavily in science and research, and build an R&D sector on the American scale – an ambition once harboured by Soviet Russia.

Post-Soviet Russia, meanwhile, “shifted its economic trajectory from a defence-driven military industrial state, to a predominantly resource- and finance-driven state,” Marginson says. “Arguably, the Soviet system is still running down and the next Russian science system is yet to emerge.”

The paper says, in Russia, in the past two decades, in contrast with almost every other research system in the industrialised world, published scientific outputs have declined, and there has been little progress in science infrastructure.

In the same time period in East Asia and Singapore there has been a rapid and massive growth in research infrastructure and scientific outputs, and in the extent of internationalisation of science and universities.

The dynamic growth of science in East Asia started in the 1960s in Japan and spread to Korea, Taiwan and Singapore in the 1990s and to China in the past 15 years.

“Japanese research is no longer improving, in terms of the quantity of science papers, the rate of citations, and the ranking of universities, but in the other East Asian countries rapid improvement continues, in all three categories, with no end in sight to the upward progress,” Marginson says.

Internet age a key factor

The context of Asia’s improvement is the internet age, prior to which science was something of a global conversation, but was primarily organised in national systems.

Today science is a “single largely open system”, Marginson says. “There are pockets of secrecy especially in relation to technology, for strategic military and industrial reasons, but the vast bulk of strategic knowledge – knowledge that is powerful and useful for states and companies – is in the open space and flows freely around the world. It is a remarkable change in human affairs. It calls up the need for new strategies and behaviours.”

Some of the features of this world science system include the explosive growth of web-based global publishing in English both in the form of major disciplinary journals, and open source circulation of papers, ideas and data; the continuing growth in the number of science active nations; and the great increase in and publications with international co-authors, and the central role now played by collaborative research grant programmes, such as the European Research Area, the paper says.

Two-thirds of citations in the global English-language science literature are international.

Science output has been growing fast in emerging countries – nations publishing a thousand papers in 2011 included Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Chile, Malaysia, Thailand, Iran and Tunisia, with output growing fastest in Iran at 25.2% per annum between 1995 and 2011.

The growing emphasis on research has been joined to national policies designed to create world-class universities – in 2013 the president of Russia announced there should be five Russian universities in the global top 100 by 2020 – or raise the ranking of existing universities. As Jamil Salmi has pointed out, there are significant world-class university programmes in Germany, France, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.

“It seems that nations need an indigenous science infrastructure just as they need clean water, stable governance, and a globally viable financial sector,” Marginson says.

Most innovations in technology and product development, with the possible exception of innovations in the United States, are now sourced wholly or partly from outside the country, as opposed to being nationally sourced, he says.

This follows directly from the pattern of publication of scientific knowledge – in which no country other than the US publishes more than a small proportion of highly cited papers and little basic science is now produced that remains outside the world’s literature.

“Nations therefore need to be effective participants in the one-world science system and be fully in touch with current work; and to do this they must themselves be contributors and partners in the science system,” Marginson says.

“In turn, to be producers of research they must have an indigenous research capacity and train at least some of their research personnel. The alternative is a position of continuing scientific and technological dependence.”

Capacity to operate globally

Marginson says the effectiveness of national and university science – whether old or new – now depends on its capacity to operate globally. National and university science everywhere is positioned on the edge of the global science system, and feeds off it.

Countries that do not work openly and collaborate freely do not have full access to knowledge and cutting-edge expertise from elsewhere; and scientists from countries that do not contribute freely into the global system, lack profile and fail to build international relationships, based on continuous exchange and collaboration, which allow them to anticipate new knowledge as it emerges. They also do not draw strategic talent from other countries. Many of their best people want to leave to work at the cutting edge elsewhere, Marginson argues.

Russia’s output of published science in 2011 was 6.6% of that of the US and 15.8% of that of China, and by that stage it had been falling on average 1% per year since 2001.

Marginson says this decline can be attributed to the continued erosion and ageing of the Soviet research system, the slow emergence of comprehensive research universities, and the slow rate at which the whole system has internationalised.

Published science in Russia is weaker than funded research in part because much research in Russia takes place in the academies and other institutes outside the universities, and in specialist universities that service local manufacturing, energy, extraction and defence sectors.

Many of the papers produced by specialist institutes and universities are in Russian not English, do not show up in the global science data, and do not lead to worldwide exchange of knowledge.

In addition, the weakness in the global engagement of Russian science means localised work simply never gets close to the common global pool of knowledge, which contains the overwhelming bulk of new scientific ideas.

“In its failure to grow collaborations sharply in the global era, Russia’s science system has been radically out of step with most of the rest of the world, and radically out of step with all leading research countries outside Russia, whatever their political regime or foreign policy,” Marginson says.

Out of step with the world

Russia hasn’t benefited from economic growth on the scale enjoyed by China, which has augmented household incomes which in turn has fed into the cost of tuition, releasing the state to fund infrastructure, research, world-class universities and scholarships for high achieving students. But Russia has experienced some economic growth and could have focused more than it has on expanding R&D funding.

Another key factor, Marginson says, is that Russia lacks the quality of bureaucracy and acceptance of the merit principle characteristic to East Asian states; and it suffers from arbitrary government interference in decisions that should be made by scientists and cracks down on critical public intellectuals.

But he concludes that while Russia cannot replicate the East Asian family or political culture, a vigorous internationalisation policy would kickstart the transformation of national science. However, this is unlikely to happen without strong buy-in by the state and for that the culture of government needs to change.

“In science policy, the post-Soviet state inherited from the breakup of the Soviet Union has been lethargic, parsimonious, and at worst, indifferent to the running down of research,” he says.