Opportunities for international researchers in Russia

Russia and Japan to build stronger science bonds

August 22, 2017

With research indicated as important factor for the bilateral cooperation in the course of Putin-Abe summit last December, Russian and Japanese research communities started to seek means to innovate the way out of the complex Russia-Japan relations - and make new discoveries for the world’s good in the process. The newly appointed minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology of Japan, Dr. Yoshimasa HAYASHI, may take lead in that.

The development of hi-tech was a primary focus of this year’s Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum so that we learned Russian President Putin was passionately fond of digital economy with understanding that growth rates are based on the country’s leadership in high-tech areas. In August Prime Minister Medvedev approved the government program focused on digital economy with targeted funding available until 2024. This program will be undertaken by a new non-profit organization with the participation of the Agency for Strategic Initiatives (ASI), Rostelecom, Sberbank, "Rostech", "Rosatom" and the Skolkovo Foundation. The list of participants may be expanded to Mail.ru Group, Yandex, MTS and Megafon communication operators, 1C software developers and Open Mobile Platform.

Earlier this year an ambitious Presidential research funding program was announced in Russia. Around $10 billion in additional budget are expected to be made available through 2017-2023 to the Russian Science Foundation (RSF), which will distribute these supplementary funds to support cutting-edge research projects implemented by outstanding early-career researchers and to create new world-class laboratories with industrial co-funding. According to the results of the first competitive selection, 504 young scientists, 239 youth research groups and 31 laboratories were awarded in 2017 for up to 7 years of funding so that they can build their own independent research teams and pursue their best ideas at the frontiers of knowledge. This complements the existing diversified portfolio of other 2,500 RSF-funded projects.

According to the Nature index data, the Russian share of the world's high-quality research increased significantly between 2012 and 2015. The country's contribution to life sciences in particular grew by more than 60%, indicating the largest rise among the top 10 countries in this field. The number of Russian publications in social sciences in Scopus database rose by more than 6 times from 661 in 2010 to 4094 in 2015, Russian research output doubled in neurosciences, pharmacology and pharmaceutics.

Unlike the case of Russia, leaders of Japanese science have legitimate concern that the quality and quantity of country’s research is stagnating. Although Japan had an excellent research pedigree, with 17 Nobel Prizes in the sciences awarded since 2000, Japan’s output increased by only 14%, losing to its regional rivals such as South Korea and China, while the total number of articles in Scopus grew by about 80% between 2005 and 2015. Japan lagged behind the average global scholar output in 13 of 14 fields, according to data from the Web of Science, particularly acute declines were in biochemistry/molecular biology, computer science and, a traditionally strong area for Japan, immunology. Japan ranked fifth in the most-cited papers in 1999–2001, but its position had fallen to eighth a decade later. Careers in academia are losing their allure. The number of graduate students in the science and engineering doctoral courses at national universities appears to be slipping - down 24% from 2000. The number of tenure positions in research fell 10% from 2005 to 2012. Government initiatives could improve Japan's competitiveness in science but the external collaboration may be the opportunity to explore.

In July, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg. Their next meeting is expected soon on the sidelines of the third Eastern Economic Forum in the Russian city of Vladivostok. One of the bilateral issues bonding two countries seeking a historical peace treaty may be the cooperation in science and technology as both countries face high-stakes in science and have a strong track record of heavy investments in research excellence.

Agriculture is the field where tangible research cooperation has developed quickly thanks to the Russian Science Foundation partnered with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan (MAFF) last December. Two funding agencies announced joint call for proposals in agricultural sciences and selected the winners to be funded jointly. As a result, five research consortiums started their research activities already in July 2017. The total funding for their research projects will amount $5 million in the next five years. These consortiums of Japanese and Russian research teams are expected to lead to a substantial improvement in the solution of problems associated with avian influenza, preservation of agricultural products, development of sustainable agriculture and forestry industry in the Russian Far East. This is the first time the co-funding scheme developed by RSF in close cooperation with the Japanese government ministry is applied.

This initiative should lead to more robust Russian-Japanese cooperation in science. The particularly promising areas of research cooperation with high potential are artificial intelligence, robotics, big data, resource-smart energy, personalized medicine, aging, hi-tech health care, high quality food, smart transport and telecommunication systems; anthropogenic, biogenic and sociocultural threats.

Although the nations’ leading research funders, the Russian Science Foundation, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) and Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED), have not launched yet bilateral co-funding programs, they succeeded in establishing trustful relations. Later this August high officials delegation from AMED will visit RSF headquarters as well as the leading medical research institutions in Moscow. In May 2018 Japanese research funders are scheduled to visit Russian capital hosting the Global Research Council meeting. RSF, MEXT, JST and AMED continue to sense the growing interest from the researchers in both Japan and Russia seeking more funding for their projects.

Business also indicated its interest to consolidate R&D investments in high-tech. In April 2017 Japanese Corporation Mitsui & Co. acquired 10% stake in Russian pharmaceutical manufacturer “R-Pharm” worth of $200 million, with an option to increase its stake up to 20%. Through this partnership Russian pharma company is conducting in Japan pre-clinical research in cardiovascular diseases and oncology while Mitsui supports for the development of technologies for the production of medicines.

Under the framework of the Russian government-funded mega-grant program designed to invite and support excelling researchers from within and outside the country to work in Russia, 6 of 200 grantees are Japanese scientists who stay at Russian universities for more than four months a year and guide a team of Russian researchers and students in performing their research. Their research projects in Russia last 3-5 years with solid funding of about $1 million a year.

Like European Research Council or US-based National Science Foundation, the RSF funding schemes are open to top researchers from all over the world who wish to carry out a project in a host institution in Russia. Japanese scientists participate in the RSF calls, and in the past three years there were 17 grant applications from the top Japanese researchers. To date, two principal investigators from Japan have been awarded RSF grant and are based in leading Russian research universities in Kazan and Vladivostok.

International funding agencies experience suggests that collaborative research projects based on the principles of scientific excellence, parity funding and credible peer-review have normally higher impact of R&D investments from the public funds compared to the research funded by the single nation.

If Russia and Japan join their great sci-fi endeavors in the modern big-budget science, the pay-off is going to be enormous and we will see perhaps some Nobel-worthy transformative projects developed by talented researchers from two countries jointly. In order to assure such genuine Russian-Japanese cooperation, the Russian Science Foundation, MEXT, MAFF, JST, AMED, Tohoku University and other stakeholders will cooperate closely together to give further visibility to the Russia-Japan cooperation in research and innovation. These initiatives should address gaps that must be filled to make research an engine of economic growth in both neighboring countries. Japanese say “ Yatte minai to wakaranai”. Some things you just don't find out until you try them.

This article was revised and modified by the writer based on a piece previously published in the Yomiuri Shinbun. © 2017

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