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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Academic Director of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC Member

Academic globalization is in full swing, and the social sciences and humanities are no exception to this process. However, with the lingering impact of “Sovietology”, Russian academics and social science research has found itself on the wayside of integration into the global academic discourse.

Dr. Andrey Kortunov identifies a number of root causes of the Western paternalistic approach to Russian social sciences and humanities research, and lays out a series of nine steps for how Russia can improve its position beyond simply being a producer of intellectual “raw materials” in the framework of international academic cooperation. Among suggested actions one can find defining the priority topic of the international project, identifying the institutional base for the possible project, project planning and putting a project team together. Later on the following steps are to be taken: developing an algorithm for interaction with partners, coordinating project activities in a distributed regime, documenting the results of the project, turning project results into educational material and finally, consolidating the results of cooperation.

It is unlikely that anyone would doubt the value of international cooperation in the development of the social sciences and the humanities. The formation of global scientific and education markets. The sharp increase in geographic mobility of scientists and experts. The rapid development of comparative studies. All of this dictates the long-overdue need to develop international scientific ties and work out more effective mechanisms of interaction among experts from various countries. In this regard, there has been movement at leading European and North American universities towards the recognition of foreign degrees and the use of dual degree programmes, as well as of the obvious fact that many issues that are the focus of the social sciences and the humanities are, by definition, transnational or even global in nature.   

Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that the task of integrating Russian social sciences and humanities into the global discourse remains for the most part unsolved. In this respect, the humanities are lagging far behind the natural sciences. Speaking of the latter, we can say that a single global academic market has been created, one which boasts, among other things, uniform standards and mechanisms of work, as well as a conceptual apparatus and principles for evaluating work. Only the most tentative steps have been made in this direction thus far with regard to the social sciences and the humanities. Of course, it all depends on the discipline in question: economics is generally more “international” in nature than political science, for example, while social sciences are way ahead of the humanities. This notwithstanding, there are certain common problems that are standing in the way of the successful integration of Russian social sciences and humanities into the global scientific space. And over time, it becomes more and more clear that these problems will not solve themselves, without concentrated and consistent efforts both from the government and from the Russian scientific community.       

A proviso should be made here, of course, with regard to what is meant by scientific cooperation. If we are referring to the formal mechanisms of scientific interaction — the number of international conferences, seminars, symposiums, internships and scientific field research expeditions — then the picture looks rather promising (although with the departure of the leading Western funds from Russia, these formal mechanisms are starting to falter). However, if we are talking about the results of joint scientific work — joint monographs (not to be confused with collections of papers presented at conferences!), publications in peer-reviewed journals and collaborative analytical reports, then hope is little more than ephemeral. A cursory look at the number of citations that Russian academics receive in leading Western journals is sufficient to conclude that large-scale integration has not yet taken place.

Even in cases where real scientific cooperation has taken place, the content of the work all too often reveals its “neo-colonial” nature. Russian participants in such projects are mainly there to produce intellectual “raw materials” (by carrying out sociological surveys and field studies and collecting statistics), while their Western partners put themselves in charge of handling the empirical data and presenting the final product to the international academic market. This kind of asymmetry, which was quite natural at the beginning of the 1990s, can no longer be put down to teething problems experienced during a period of transition. There is a firmly entrenched division of functions that is reproduced time and again, consolidating the lame-duck status of Russian social scientists and specialists in the humanities.       

What is more, in the majority of cases, the involvement of Russian social scientists in international research projects was limited to a specific area of Western regional studies (what is traditionally called “Sovietology”). Meanwhile, “Sovietology” was, and to a great degree remains, an “intellectual ghetto” with its archaic methodology, ever-present politicization of scientific research, and very specific traditions. “Sovietology” has always been isolated from basic disciplinary studies, regarded as a genre of its own. Involvement in “Sovietology” projects does not necessarily mean integration into basic disciplinary studies. Apart from everything else, the emphasis on regional and country studies turns Russian scholars into hostages of scientific conjuncture — the theme of Russia, just like any other in country studies, can simply fall out of fashion. With the waning interest in Russia, a significant portion of social scientists and specialists in the humanities are automatically excluded from international scientific communication, which is exactly what we have been witnessing in recent years.      

It is both understandable and inevitable that the social sciences and the humanities would fall behind the natural sciences. First, the natural sciences did not suffer from the deforming influence of Soviet ideology to the extent that the social sciences and the humanities did and were thus far better suited to globalization. Second, the natural sciences have always had a single language, a single methodological apparatus and a single system of basic concepts. The same cannot be said of the social sciences and the humanities. Third, for a number of reasons there has been a consistent demand for experts in the natural sciences on the international academic markets over the past few decades (in the West in particular), while at the same time the number of social scientists and specialists in the humanities has grown beyond requirements.          

Thus, the starting conditions for international cooperation in the humanities were not exactly favourable. Of course, a kind of “export sector” emerged in this area during the 1990s; in practically every discipline, researchers working on the Western academic markets appeared, participating in international scientific projects, publishing their findings in English and spending much of their time in Western universities and research centres. Unfortunately, with very few exceptions, this “export sector” was until very recently almost completely unrelated to the development of the corresponding disciplines in Russia itself. Rather, it developed according to its own laws and only very indirectly influenced the evolution of the academic market within the country.

It should be noted that the development of the “export sector” revealed an obvious contradiction between individual and institutional motivations with regard to the expansion of international cooperation. The fact that representatives of Russian universities and other academic institutions carried out individual research projects in the West did not always lead to greater research potential. On the contrary, the vast number of internships became one of the more obvious mechanisms of the “brain drain,” whereby interns would often not return to their universities, preferring instead to pursue an academic career abroad or find employment in the private sector.

It would seem that one of the problems of social sciences and the humanities in Russia is the lack of skills in terms of planning and managing projects. It is telling that, as a rule, experts note that the quality of individual proposals in tender applications is generally higher than the quality of collaborative projects. Setting up a large project (if it is interdisciplinary in nature and spread out in terms of geography) is a genuinely difficult task that requires special skills and traditions, as well as a mobile professional society that would attract experts from diverse organizations on a “one-off” basis. The management of a research project differs significantly from the leadership of a university department. It would seem that the task of training project managers as a separate and extremely important area in the development of the social sciences and the humanities should be explored.

Problems with developing methodologies and a conceptual apparatus are an equally important factor preventing international cooperation. Unfortunately, issues of general methodology in disciplinary studies (not to mention interdisciplinary research) very rarely become the topic of in-depth discussion at international conferences. Russian researchers who take part in these conferences are most often seen as the possessors of unique empirical data that requires additional systematization, generalization, and integration into the Western methodological construction. The lame-duck role played by Russian social scientists and specialists in the humanities suits our partners in the West perfectly. But should we Russians be satisfied with this situation?         

Another trivial, but extremely important, problem worth noting here is knowledge of foreign languages at a professional level and the ability to work in the “Western” format. A significant portion of the resources of Russian social sciences and the humanities is not in demand on the international markets for the sole reason that the people in control of these resources have no knowledge of foreign languages whatsoever, or do not have the skills required to write reports, research articles and monographs in a format that Western readers are used to. This is where the problem of adapting Russian developments for international academic markets arises; Russian experts often have to seek out foreign co-authors and editors (naturally, part of the scientific product is lost — and sometimes distorted significantly — as a result of this kind of adaptation).

Without claiming to offer the best possible solutions to all the problems mentioned above, I would like to put forward a possible model of international cooperation in the social sciences and the humanities which, in our opinion, is more in line with the current development of the social sciences in Russia and which can be applied in various disciplines. This model should meet the following initial conditions, which can be defined as necessary and sufficient.

First, the model should ensure the transition from formal presentational cooperation formats (seminars and conferences) to content-driven formats (carrying out research projects on a collaborative basis).

Second, a distinguishing feature of the model should be that it combines scientific research with training (that is, participants from Russia should be given the opportunity to master the Western method of carrying out scientific research and gradually move away from their current role as producers of intellectual “raw materials” to producers of the final product).    

Third, the model should suggest a balance between the interests of individual researchers involved in projects and the institutional interests of the structures with which these researchers are associated (universities, academic institutes, etc.).

Fourth, a mechanism for converting the scientific knowledge obtained into educational materials must be found, because under current conditions the fundamental sciences, which have been separated from the educational process, are not in a position to seek public recognition or serious financing.       

Fifth, the new model should not imply a sharp break from existing forms of international cooperation; on the contrary, it should be a natural continuation and evolution of existing international ties and, accordingly, it should be acceptable not only to Russian academics, but also for their Western counterparts.

Is it possible to satisfy all these rather complicated and contradictory conditions within the framework of a single model? We believe that there are no fundamental obstacles to this, although emphasis may be placed on various combinations depending on the situation. I do not claim to offer a fully developed and acutely detailed model, but I would nevertheless like to propose an initial, wholly schematic description of what it could look like. I would add that this model is based on rather diverse experience that encompasses diverse disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities, as well as a wide range of Western partners.

First stage — defining the priority topic of the international project. If we are talking about truly bilateral international cooperation carried out on an equal basis (and not about yet another transfer of “Western knowledge” to their Russian partners), then the topic of the international project should meet the interests of both sides. In other words, the topic should be attractive to Western partners not only because a tender concerning research into the area has been announced or because there is an investor ready to pump funds into the project, etc., but also because several professional groups are working on the topic and are therefore not dependent on the development of a partnership to carry out their research activities. Experience has shown that the most promising areas of cooperation are: (1) interdisciplinary; and (2) comparative research projects that pave the way for powerful coalitions of interested researchers to be formed — coalitions that are not limited to the narrow framework of regional problematics.   

Second stage — identifying the institutional base for the possible project. For a long time, Russian participants in international projects have demonstrated a tendency to look to the leading research and educational centres in the United States and Europe as the most promising and well-respected partners (Harvard and other Ivy League schools in the United States, Oxford and Cambridge universities in the United Kingdom, etc.). Meanwhile, experience has shown that the race for these leaders is by no means the most effective strategy for developing international ties. The leading Western educational institutions (and we can add the most respected universities in East Asia to this category) often have far more international projects than they know what to do with, which does not give them significant incentive to further expand the geographic scope and content of their international ties. What is more, they are rarely open to truly bilateral cooperation and for the most part see themselves as the providers of scientific knowledge and mentors to their Russian partners. It may be more promising to look to “second-tier” educational and research organizations, which at present are faced with pressing issues with regard to entering global academic markets, attracting foreign students and instructors, improving their rating, and expanding the scope of their research activities as a whole. Working with “second-tier” structures guarantees a strong interest and willingness on the part of potential partners to develop a more balanced format of cooperation.  

Third stage — project planning. The critical importance of planning for the successful implementation of any project is obvious; without a clear idea of the content of the proposed research activity, the format of cooperation, timeframes, participants, budget, monitoring mechanisms, and criteria for assessing performance, the project is doomed to failure. Of course, many of the parameters mentioned above are laid out in the terms of the tender for the project. What tender documents fail to mention, however, are the potential risks involved — for example, developing the project according to the wishes of the donor. Fixating on the requirements and recommendations of the donor often leads to a decrease in the effectiveness of the cooperation. Formal indicators (the number of conferences and internships held, and the number of reports submitted) become an end in themselves, pushing the real scientific results of the cooperation into the background. In addition, donors need feedback in the form of proposals, criticisms and recommendations from the people they are sponsoring. Ideally, a feedback mechanism is built during the project planning stages, when the grant holders and the donor determine the parameters of the project work and agree on the specific areas and financial particulars of the project. It should be said that project management remains one of the weakest areas of Russian social sciences and the humanities, thus significantly reducing their competitiveness on the international arena.        

Fourth stage — putting a project team together. The task of putting a team together can be quite difficult, especially if we are talking about a project that involves several institutions in a number of regions around the world. And the point here is not simply that the usual participants in international cooperation are not always willing to welcome new people into their circle, especially if they are young researchers and interns. A fallout from the “atomization” of the Russian academic community that took place in the 2000s was that we lost unified scientific standards. More precisely, the majority of researchers were no longer willing to follow these standards. This is why it has been so difficult for Russian scholars in recent years to publish “collective monographs,” for example (in actual fact, most “collective monographs” are little more than collections of individual works). It would seem that at least two conditions must be met when it comes to setting up a project team: (1) the competitive selection of participants; and (2) the availability of firm and detailed terms of reference for every component of the research project. The choice of project leader is also key; it should be a person who is capable of sticking to the planned content and working within the organizational framework. Experience has shown that holding a seminar or conference before the project begins to select the final team and work out a unified methodology and common standards for all the components of a project can be a useful instrument in the formation of a team.

Fifth stage — developing an algorithm for interaction with partners. This is perhaps the most delicate stage in the implementation of the project. On the one hand, it is vitally important for Russian scholars to avoid the all-too familiar paternalism of foreign partners that turns projects into one-way streets. On the other hand, the opposite extreme — where projects turn into a formal exchange of research results without any real attempts to align the research — is wholly undesirable as well. Experience has shown that a great deal is determined during the initial meeting between the partners (orientation seminar or conference), and the success of cooperation moving forward to a large degree depends on the ability of the Russian side to prepare for this meeting. Before the meeting even takes place, it would be preferable to determine those substantive and methodological issues where the participation of foreign partners would be particularly valuable and look at the meeting not as a platform where one can “report” the results of one’s work, but rather as an opportunity to receive worthwhile advice and recommendations with regard to future research. In this way, the academic community will acquire a new dimension for foreign partners — it will become a discrete form of training for Russian participants.       

Sixth stage — coordinating project activities in a distributed regime. If the preceding stage can be considered the most delicate in terms of implementing the project, then this stage is without a doubt the most labour-intensive. Coordinating a project that is both time-consuming and spread out over several regions is always difficult, even when comparatively effective communication mechanisms are in place (internet, video conferencing, periodic meetings). Work to coordinate activities is usually carried out in two languages (sometimes more). The fact that the schedules of the main project participants may not always be predictable must also be taken into account — plans can change, they may be required to carry out activities for their institution, etc. It sometimes happens that during the course of work the actual results of a project turn out to be fundamentally different from what had been expected, the project team cannot keep to the specified timeframes, and the original budget inflates. The correct choice of project leader on both the Russian and non-Russian sides, as well as the ability of the leaders to develop flexible relations with donors, helps to minimize the project’s risks, although they cannot prevent them entirely. From the very beginning it is important to ensure that a reserve talent pool is in place with regard to the main areas of the project’s activities, as well as to build a realistic schedule, one that is in line with the capabilities of the researchers.  

Seventh stage — documenting the results of the project. We are not talking here about the formal final reports that must be delivered to donors (both substantive and financial), as these documents as a rule are not widely used within the academic community. It is far more important to make the relevant target audiences aware of the research results at the right time, and in a form that these audiences are more likely to accept. At this stage, the support of foreign partners becomes crucial — if, of course, the Russian team does not have leaders who are firmly entrenched in the Western scientific discourse. Perhaps the most valuable (and most difficult to achieve) result of the project is publishing the results in a high-profile international journal (one that does not engage in “Sovietology”!) or producing a collective monograph for one of the leading university presses in the West. A more efficient mechanism would be to organize sessions (panel discussions) at annual conventions held by national and international professional associations. In some cases, the level of operational efficiency can be further increased by publishing op-eds in well-respected newspapers or magazines. Finally, holding a public lecture at a prominent university to present the results of the research can serve the same function. Of course, none of these steps can be a substitute for the dissemination of the research project’s results in Russia.    

Eighth stage — turning project results into educational material. As a rule, it is not a condition of international research projects that the results be turned into educational material, since the link between research and the educational process in Western social sciences and humanities is relatively organic. In the context of Russia, however, when the traditional gap between science and education can hardly be considered a thing of the past, it would seem that it is incredibly important to introduce an additional educational component in the grant work, even if that component is not dictated by the donor. On the one hand, involving graduate students and even final year undergraduates in international research work may help to create the talent pool that was mentioned above. On the other hand, creating new educational courses and preparing textbooks and other materials on the basis of ongoing international projects helps to increase the value of the given projects for Russian universities, if the project was developed at the universities in question. Experience shows that the existence of an educational component enhances the sustainability of international academic cooperation, while at the same time reducing the dependence on external sources of financing.        

Ninth stage — consolidating the results of cooperation. If efforts are not taken at the implementation stage to find new areas of cooperation, then all projects face the possibility of being isolated initiatives that lack long-term perspectives. Such efforts include searching for resources to help fund continued work on a given research project and moving into related areas with the aim of expanding the scope of potential interaction with foreign partners. It is important that this work be carried out throughout the course of the project, rather than in its final stages, when motivation among participants usually falls rapidly. Then a real opportunity will arise to turn a successful project into a comprehensive and long-term cooperative partnership organization.     

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