A strategic session on innovation and research at TSU
On the TOP-100 and a ‘fear of Terminator’, or how I took part in a strategic session
6-7 October 2014
In themselves, different fora are a quite widespread and, therefore, familiar phenomenon nowadays, including to university youth. However, even students, who choose science as their career and actively participate in all sorts of Olympiads, conferences, round table discussions on research and feel rather used to participating in those, are hardly familiar with events aimed at elaborating administrative and management decisions. So, I myself, as a second-year master’s student of the Department of History, having already participated in some research fora, was somewhat confused when I received an email inviting me to a strategic session organized by Skolkovo representatives.
In response to that e-mail I was supposed to write an essay on one of the given topics concerning the organization of research and educational process. The character of session work as well as the meaning of the essay became clear to me only in a month, at the preliminary meeting. It turned out that there had been a discussion of the prospects for the development of our university planned, with the participation of TSU senior management and representatives of Skolkovo, with regard to four intertwined areas of interest: competitiveness – inbreeding – norms – anthropology of scientists. In order to make the discussion more meaningful, there were working groups made up according to the topics of essays which had to deliver a report on each of the four areas. I found it more interesting to join the fourth group dealing with the anthropology of scientists, given that among its members was professor of the TSU Department of History Sergey A. Nekrylov. Looking ahead, I would note that my participation in that group was symbolic both in practical terms and in accordance with the organizers’ plan but I learnt about that just on the second day.
There is no need or opportunity to describe in detail everything that was discussed there. Throughout the session, the main message of what was happening was that TSU has to take certain administrative decisions and actions in all the four above-mentioned areas as required by the grand plan of TSU entering the TOP-100 world university rankings. The rhetoric that unfolded around this question is not new, for example, the development under the slogans of competitiveness improvement is, in fact, the main sign of our current market time. What was meant by the unusual and seemingly biological term ‘inbreeding’ was pressing issues of HR policy of modern universities. And within the wide category of ‘norms’ one could actually discuss a lot – from the legal framework of university operation to the unwritten rules of research ethos which have for many years now been in various ways considered by numerous postmodernist philosophers of science. It is noteworthy that even for the researchers present at the session the term ‘anthropology of scientists’ with its sociological context turned out to be relatively new. To correlate the socio-psychological profile of a modern scientist with any practical steps and actions to be taken within the university development strategy also proved to be quite a challenge. Interestingly, among other things there was an opinion expressed about the need for studying ‘anthropology of scientists’, an area already being developed by the TSU Laboratory for social and anthropological research within a research project on the corporate identity of scientists.
During the second day of the session, when, as it seemed, the discussions were about to be finished and there were only conclusions left to be drawn, like other young researchers, I found myself in an unexpected situation. After the names of six participants, including mine, were announced, the Skolkovo representatives set two tasks for us: to come up with some innovative research, even if it is based on any crazy idea, that, nevertheless, TSU could start conducting in practice, and afterwards we would have to define what the needs of ours, of students and young researchers are, with regard to this research. What followed then could be undoubtedly called the triumph of brainstorm in the total interdisciplinarity. We, representing the community of historians, psychologists, radio physicists, and sports teachers, having overcome our initial confusion, got to generate ‘crazy ideas’. One of those was put forward by me was to address the issue of a man in the virtual and man-made environment. Everyone else in the group welcomed the idea, and together we formulated a number of relevant research lines: social and intellectual changes of human thinking; physiological and biological changes in the human organism; the forecast of implications of technological breakthroughs, and even the philosophical aspect of preventing the domination of machines over human beings. To illustrate the latter problem, someone used an interesting metaphor of a ‘fear of Terminator’. As for research needs, young scientists wanted the following: to be more actively involved in major research projects; a simpler access to the material resources and facilities of the university; an expansion of the research and recreation space at the university through the creation of some rooms where people could gather together and discuss research ideas or projects, e.g. at the TSU Research Library. Given the intense development of scholarships, grants and advanced research training programmes, we found to be of extreme importance the optimization of the university information space and the organization of the personnel capable of offering exhaustive guidance concerning application details.
All the arguments and reasons were presented in the form of a report by a fifth, spontaneously formed, working group. Our ideas and needs were quite favourably and in some points even approvingly taken. There was also a suggestion made to keep our group on a permanent basis for next sessions. However, it was stressed that some of our ideas are not new or inherent in young scientists only.
The impression that the session made on us is two-fold. In personal terms it unexpectedly resulted in the establishment of new relationships and opportunities to exchange opinions with like-minded people from different research backgrounds and also to get acquainted with the new format of intellectual activity. I, by no means, belong to those having administrative power, and find it rather difficult to assess the strategic importance of the session for I am not the one to take any specific practical decisions. But I did not hear anything new in the discussions held, with frequent references made to international expertise and criteria of effectiveness and efficiency defined internationally, such as the needed increase in cited journals’ publications, the intensification of external contacts, the emphasis put on interdisciplinary research, international recognition, etc.
Those points seem to have long been on the agenda for any major research group and our laboratory is no exception. In my, seemingly, deeply humanities-oriented view, the session discussions lacked some overall meaningfulness. Undoubtedly, the struggle for domestic and world rankings is an honourable task in itself but what then? What will TSU research community be able to offer the Russian state and society? What kind of people will our university be cultivating? For discussing the question ‘how’, one should naturally be called on answering the question ‘in the name of what’?..
Egor Fedosov, master’s student in history, LSAR assistant