‘Our science has been suspiciously stable: costs have risen, while the knowledge intensity of the economy hasn’t gone up’

Konstantin Fursov on the fight with pseudo-scientists and the state of Russian science in the world

‘Our science has been suspiciously stable: costs have risen, while the knowledge intensity of the economy hasn’t gone up’
Photo: school.msk.ru

“With the help of surveys, we find out that the number of parents who consider the career as a scientist attractive for their children has notably increased over the last year. And people who manage this sphere intend to not only invest money but also content, infrastructure and so on in it,” notes sociologist Konstantin Fursov. The conservatism of the scientific community as well as fakes and hype instead of real acts remain an obstacle to it. Read more about this in the next part of the scientist’s interview with Realnoe Vremya. See the first part here.

“An algorithm that wrote such a good text that half of the experimental group didn’t manage to distinguish it from the one written by humans”

Mr Fursov, how can one understand if scientists really do research in fundamental science or if they began to simply take money from the budget?

There is an opinion that science is the satisfaction of scientists’ curiosity at the state’s expense. However, today when resources are very limited, while scientists represent rather academic corporations, it isn’t that easy. Science functions as a social institution, and this implies different tools of control. There is an institution of professional review, and grant programmes and scientific magazines depend on it. The rule of double-blind peer review that the world’s leading scientific papers follow is the telling example. In a word, the point is that when a work is considered, none of the peer reviewers knows the name of the author and who else is reading the work. It is considered to give a more objective evaluation.

There are other forms of control too. The Russian Academy of Sciences’ Commission on Pseudoscience has worked in the country for 20 years. A new group fighting falsification of scientific research branched out in 2018. Now there are two bodies: the first one is aimed to propagate scientific knowledge and ideals of science, the second one is to examine the quality of scientific research.

There are less formal associations of educators and scientific communicators. Their participants act more autonomously, but the general faith in science and its importance for development of society unites them.

The group AXON, for instance, holds annual forums uniting professional researchers, educators, science journalists, publicists and everyone interested in the process of interaction of science and society. Some scientific disciplines have very interesting practices of control. Doctors, for example, have a virtual platform on which you can present the scheme of a scheduled experiment before it is launched. Colleagues evaluate you either confirm the viability of the idea and in fact “give the green light” or point out the errors. Consequently, this simplifies the peer-review procedures when an article with the results of the experiment is given to a scientific magazine.

Together with the control of the scientific community, there is technical control as well. When, for example, you report on the money of a grant or applied project of a ministry, you compulsorily go through a procedure for estimating the originality and the quality of the result. As a rule, the first one is done with the help of anti-plagiarism software — your text is checked with the help of machine methods. Then an independent expert evaluates you. It is a person who is good at your field of science and can say how good and founded the obtained result is.

Then we already can talk about the quality of existing methods and their improvement. Automated check algorithms as well as people anyway make mistakes. For instance, when borrowings from legal acts are found in the text. It will be a problem of lawyers because all their job is based on the interpretation of laws. Try to evaluate them from a perspective of the percentage of borrowing.

We live in an era of big data and machine text processing systems. And there are more advanced ways of comparing big amounts of information by distinguishing the meanings that are put into texts.

In the work of our institute, we use complex algorithms of semantic analysis with elements of machine learning to analyse global technology trends. This is done to compare and verify information coming from different sources by separating a fake and hype from real changes.

But there is a catch here as well. Researchers quite recently presented an algorithm that wrote such a good text that half of the experimental group didn’t manage to distinguish it from the one written by humans. It is a very serious challenge because further machines can check the quality of other machines. In the end, the writing and review of a scientific text will turn into an endless simulacrum. The best minds are now solving the task, but the efforts so far are just generating new and more complex semantic analysis methods. While science isn’t just technique but also relationships, first of all, based on trust, professional and public.

How do scientific managers fight swindler scientists and pseudo-scientists?

It is a famous economic and sociological rule that as soon as you accept some game rules, there are always those who want to outsmart the system. The same thing happens to swindlers, they make up new ways of disguising themselves as real science.

But it is the point here. The point is that science looks forward, but, moreover, it is quite conservative. Truly breakthrough experimental research at times don’t fit the frames adopted in the scientific community and can be interpreted as pseudo-scientific or parascientific (not really scientific) research.

What is called a paradigm shift does changes the point of view doesn’t happen in science overnight. It is quite a long process. Scientific discipline demonstrates its unsoundness or can accumulate a critical number of new facts that the old theory can’t explain, then the basic concept is reconsidered. When you simply come with a new idea, people look at you quite sceptically: “What is your evidence?” scientists will ask.

If we look at the structure of any scientific article, you always should determine the niche you fit in in your work. In other words, you should single out a tradition, define the class of tasks and problems this tradition is considering. And then you describe the problem or the issue that nobody has ever raised. In fact, you choose your seat and ask for permission for it. And it is anyway a conventional approach that still regulates the development of science.

“NRUs are an attempt to introduce an element of strategic planning and management to universities”

What is the effect of the introduction of national research universities? Did universities in Russia begin to do more research?

NRUs are the universities with not only powerful educational but also scientific activity. It is quite a revolutionary story for the country because, firstly, the Humboldtian education ideal was officially recognised significant and, secondly, Russian universities were challenged because obtaining the status of NRU means creating a development programme for several years in advance, that’s to say, thinking of a long-term strategy.

It is much more than we think during the annual budgeting process. In this respect, it is quite a positive story because it allowed singling out universities that were ready to take on more, develop, including despite difficulties, move forwards, gather and develop their own scientific staffs.

It doesn’t limit to the development programme, it is necessary to implement it because additional public financing depends on it. NRUs annually report on achievements, while development programmes are reviewed approximately once in five years.

From my experience of communication with our university’s project office, I can say that the creation and implementation of the NRU’s strategy is quite a complicated business that implies serious organisational changes as well. All faculties transformed at Higher School of Economics, international scientific laboratories were created, the so-called individual trajectories were introduced to education from a certain moment. The gist is that students have a minimal number of compulsory subjects in the educational programme, while they choose the rest themselves. From a perspective of management, it means a completely different organisation model of the educational process. It isn’t a faculty of a set of courses that are given to a specific circle of students. A lecturer turns out open to the whole flow of students and doesn’t know beforehand how many people will enrol. It can be both 100 and 200 people if the course is interesting. It is a mechanism of competition to a certain degree. If your course is interesting, people enrol on it, it means you are valuable as a teacher. Sometimes it is the other way round, the courses that aren’t chosen close in a couple of years.

In conclusion, I will say that NRU isn’t just a status and money. It is to a large extent an attempt to introduce an element of strategic planning and management to universities.

There can be different strategies and priorities. Somebody focuses on preparing unique publications and promotion of one’s status in the global space of fundamental science, somebody will choose experiments, somebody will open new specialities that nobody hasn’t so far offered. It is a matter of the organisation’s positioning in a wider context.

What position does Russia occupy in statistical indicators of science? Have we had positive progress, significant failures in the last years?

We’ve been suspiciously stable in the last ten years, little has changed in indicators. In other words, costs on science have stably risen, but the knowledge intensity of the economy hasn’t gone up. Knowledge isn’t applied in the economy.

Formally, Russia today ranks ninth in the world regarding the scale of financing of science. It is sixth in amount of public money allocated for science. It is between the fourth and fifth places in number of scientists, though actually, the number of researchers in Russia in dynamics has been falling for quite a while. In terms of patenting, we are in the top 10 countries. This, of course, is very dependent on how it is assessed, but we can say we are in the top 10. As for publications, it is a bit more complicated, here everything depends on what documents we go by during the evaluation, what fields of science we consider.

There are fields in science in which we are stably in the top 5 (natural sciences, physics, mathematics). There are areas we notably fall behind (medicine, biotechnologies). It is a matter of priorities to a greater extent. Traditionally, natural and technical sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, space research, materials science) have developed and been supported very much, while there has been less investment in other spheres such as sciences about life. This is why the positions here aren’t high.

Science isn’t created in a day. It is impossible to fill a ten-year gap in a year or two. It is necessary to accumulate capacities, while it is again money, people, infrastructure (first of all, social), equipment, and it often must be unique to be able to do some advanced research.

And, of course, it is a connection with the economy — who needs a discovery if it isn’t applied in practice later. Even fundamental research has its practical applications.

But does the data you have provided suggest that Russian science is alive?

Russian science is very much alive. We aren’t the first but are very far from the bottom. If we look at measures supporting science that are in key strategic documents, our attention is mainly paid to making science attractive, accumulating the most promising researchers, attracting and keeping the youth.

By Matvey Antropov