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Leonid Gokhberg «HSE is Now Russia’s Largest Centre for Empirical Research»

Leonid Gokhberg, HSE First Vice Rector, Director of the Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge, spoke on his first steps in academia, working with foreign researchers, on foresight research as well as shared his thoughts on HSE research development.

Leonid Gokhberg

First Vice Rector, Director of the Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge, Head of the Laboratory for Economics of Innovation, Editor-in-chief of the journal Foresight and STI Governance, Chairman of the Expert Council for Scientific Research, and member of the HSE Academic Council. Gokhberg is also a member of the Russian Government Expert Council, as well as a participant and head of several working groups and commissions under the Russian parliament and other governmental bodies, expert groups, and international organisations. He is also a member of the editorial board and editorial councils at several academic journals, including Foresight, Technovation, Issues in Statistics, and others. Additionally, Gokhberg has co-authored and edited more than 100 collections and books, as well as publications in the journals Nature, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Science and Public Policy, Foresight, Journal of the Knowledge Economy, and more.

First Steps in Academia

For me there was no alternative to an academic career. It was always the natural path for me. I didn’t think about anything else; as a child I grew up in a community of academics. My father had a PhD and was a professor. I remember how in the summer he would usually sit on the terrace of our dacha covered in books writing something, and I, a schoolboy, would prepare tables for him and come up with lists of literature. So I was involved. On several occasions I was offered the opportunity to move into business or work for the government, but I didn’t even consider these proposals.

When I started graduate school, my academic supervisor signed me up for scientific forecasting. I was interested and surprised at the same time; practically no work had been done in this field during Soviet times. In my first couple of months I realised that I needed to study up on statistics, the quantitative foundation for research. The Soviet Union didn’t have a well-developed statistical science. As a result, it became my main professional focus, and now it’s not just me who works in this field, but part of my team as well.

I began by collecting materials. I’d visit academic research institutions and industrial enterprises to look at how the research process was organised there and what metrics were used when it came to managing the research. Then several publications came out with my observations. Six months after defending my dissertation, I was invited to work at the USSR Goskomstat Institute of Statistics Research, which was prestigious at the time and where I had worked with Yevgeny Yasin. Then Emil Ershov became the director of the institute, and I was offered the opportunity to open up a laboratory on the statistics of science.

On the Statistics of Science

Imagine a large sector of the economy where there is a concentration of people, resources, and different organisations, and where large-scale transactions are carried out and certain results achieved. This sector, like any other, needs a sequential, systematic description. A conceptual apparatus needs to be created, a system of indicators must be built, and algorithms should be developed to calculate these indicators. In addition, you have to think of methods for collecting information and interpreting it, among other things. What I am talking about is the field of research as a large type of economic activity, and not about something purely abstract. 

The statistics of science became the first branch of Russian statistics to begin having its data published in international reports and statistical collections by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development alongside data on member countries

In the Soviet Union, the statistics of science boiled down to just a few key indicators. An example of one was called ‘Expenditures on Science from the State Budget and Other Sources.’ No one knew what this number was — it wasn’t reserves, structures, nothing. Two employees of Gosplan and the Central Statistical Office of the USSR came up with the number. They sat down together and somehow calculated a figure that partially included things like military expenditures, for example. I’m not exaggerating. There were other numbers on scientific staff members or new equipment, but it’s all highly questionable.

We began our work with international statistical comparisons. Then, when the gaps and discrepancies were clear, we started constructing a new system. The main idea was simple, but very cumbersome — a full transformation of Russian statistics based on international standards and on principles of the market economy. We were moving towards this goal in several stages and only achieved results in 1994. You could say that this is when a statistics of science was born that is in line with international standards. Strictly speaking, the statistics of science became the first branch of Russian statistics to begin having its data published in international reports and statistical collections by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) alongside data on member countries, and this was before Russia started participating in OECS as a partner.

Working with Foreign Researchers

In 1991, I had the opportunity to participate in the creation of our country’s first specialised science research centre under the Russian Academy of Sciences and Ministry of Science. At that time, what was critical for my team and me were the international contacts that allowed us to seriously develop research competencies and gain new experience. In particular, this concerns joint research with Eurostat, as well as our productive projects with colleagues from America, Germany, South Korea, Japan, and South Africa. For example, we conducted interesting structural analysis by analysing the development of science in Russia after the fall of the USSR and in Germany after it was united in 1990. For this, statistics from the German Democratic Republic were collected in archives at a detailed level, right up to individual industrial sectors. The research was published in Russian and German at the same time, and it still remains close to the only publication in this field. In addition, we were able to conduct serious joint research with the Max Planck Institute and Bielefeld University. This research focused on transformative processes in the academy of sciences in post-socialist countries. We proposed a model for analysing the evolution of leading academic institutions in countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Each of them involved in-depth interviews, and in the end we prepared an entire series of publications, including several monographs.

Working in Austria ended up being a very important learning opportunity for me because it is there in particular that I met top economists in the field of innovation research

My work at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna was a particularly important milestone for me. There was a large international research project on science and technology, and I was the project’s part-time coordinator. The time I spent in Austria ended up being a very important learning opportunity for me because it is there in particular that I met top economists, such as Merton Peck, a famous researcher in the field of industrial organisation and the dean of the Department of Economics at Yale at the time. In addition, I worked with Chris Freeman, Richard Neilson, Bengt-Åke Lundvall, Luke Sute, and Giovanni Dosi, all researchers who set the foundation for the modern theory of innovation. I can also list over a dozen more famous names. One of such researchers asked me to work with them at HSE — Ian Miles, the Laboratory Head of the Laboratory for Economics of Innovation at the Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge. At the time he was the director of the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research. Ian has worked with us for more than six years now. Additionally, Luke Georghiou, the current Vice President of Manchester University, is the head of the Advisory Board at our institute.

On Mentors and Colleagues

Many of my colleagues helped me form professionally, but it was Merton Peck from above who had a strong influence on my ideas. I also sometimes remember my friendship with Keith Pavitt, an outstanding British economist who laid the classical foundations for research in science and technology. Pavitt’s taxonomies are used to this day. Overall, the world does not have a lot of specialists who focus on development indicators in science and technology, and the field itself is very narrow. But the value of meeting and interacting with these people only grows from this. The OECD Working Party of National Experts on Science and Technology Indicators (NESTI) had its meeting here not too long ago. This circle of friends is very important to me. 

On the first day we met Yaroslav Kuzminov invited me to HSE and offered me the opportunity to create a department

As for my Russian mentors, I would firstly name Yury Oleynik, the Deputy Director of the USSR AN Central Economic Mathematical Institute. He was one of the institute’s founders. He passed away quite a while ago, and now it seems few remember him. As a student, I took part in his seminar and was in his practicums on several occasions. You could say that he was one of my informal academic supervisors in the beginning. He focused on researching organised structures, and talking with him gave me my first impressions about how companies function.

Beginning Work at HSE

A lot of the friends and colleagues I knew from graduate school had already started working at HSE by the early 2000s. The circle was very narrow, which is why people were talking about whether it was necessary for me to move here as well. At the time I was the deputy director of the research centre I mentioned before, and by the end of the 1990s this centre had become very successful and fairly well known. My work with HSE developed rapidly. At first we talked about joint projects, then Yaroslav Kuzminov asked to meet one-on-one. On the first day we met Yaroslav Kuzminov invited me to HSE and offered me the opportunity to create a department. The strategic and rapid decision-making was Yaroslav’s style, which really impresses me. 

My colleagues and I brought ready-made projects to HSE, which allowed us to start working on external contracts right away practically

I of course initially wanted to create an academic research team, and then a department. I ultimately ended up here, and nearly 20 people came with me. We founded the Institute for Strategic Studies and Economics of Knowledge, which is now HSE’s largest institute and has more than 200 employees, many of whom are HSE graduates.

On the Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge

For the first six months I only worked part-time at HSE — I had to help close out several old projects at the Academy of Sciences. In order to avoid competition with my previous workplace, we decided to call our new institute at HSE the Institute of Information Economics. At the time, this subject was on everyone’s mind, and everyone was talking about the information society. After about eight months I was at HSE full-time, and we gave our institute its current name. Yaroslav came up with the wording. We ourselves couldn’t think of how to combine the research of science, education, innovation, technology, and information — and statistics as well — into a single name.

The line between theory and practice in these fields is very blurred. My colleagues and I brought ready-made projects to HSE, which allowed us to start working on external contracts right away practically. This work was always natural and really important for us, for it’s thanks to it that we stay in touch with the world around us and understand the current agenda. In addition, external research clients were a source of financing. You mustn’t think that HSE can provide you with resources forever. I consider this a consumer-based approach that inhibits the development of the university. The teams that rely only on the university will never receive enough resources and will never be able to position themselves adequately on the external market. Plus project work can become a meaningful way to develop your professional competencies, which was the case in our situation. You can’t study the statistics of science and innovation in theory alone because it concerns not just abstract concepts, but instrumental decisions on organising the collection and analysis of data. This sort of work can’t be done in a small circle using money from small grants. I think that in practice this really backs up the foresight research our institute is conducting.

On Foresight Research

Foresight is not forecasting if this means trying to predict the future. Foresight initially stems from the view that the future is uncertain. There might be many scenarios for the future, and traditional quantitative methods cannot be used to describe all of the world’s complexities, even if it is static. What is to be said about dynamics? Foresight is about defining the desired view of the future and building a strategy for achieving it. For this it is important that there be a consensus among all players — business, the government, and the academic community.

The last two years we have been strongly advancing in terms of big data analysis. We’ve been moving in this direction for a long time without even assuming that everything would lead to this. Everything ultimately drove us towards a powerful analytical system that we named Intellectual Foresight Analytics (iFORA)

Foresight research is often passed off as ordinary expert surveys, focus groups, and strategy sessions that are currently being conducted at every turn. If everything were that simple, then foresight would have turned into an ordinary consulting tool that marketing specialists use a long time ago. Actually, ‘in the best of homes,’ foresight indicates an entire array of different methods built on an evidential basis. We integrate quantitative methods into foresight, which is an entirely natural trend, considering our team’s profile. The last two years we have been strongly advancing in terms of big data analysis. We’ve been moving in this direction for a long time without even assuming that everything would lead to this. Everything ultimately drove us towards a powerful analytical system that we named Intellectual Foresight Analytics (iFORA).

This concerns the infrastructure into which tens of millions of documents have been integrated: academic publications, patents, grants, scientific reports, educational programmes, international reports, reviews from analytics agencies, etc. Plus this system ensures that open data is collected from the internet, professional blogs, and social networks. What breakthroughs has iFORA made? The answer lies in its breadth. It allows you to compile semantic maps of different academic fields, integrate market analytics, map markets, identify trends and prospective areas for development, build consensus forecasts, assess risk, determine network communications, and gain reputational reliability metrics.

Foresight research clients primarily include government agencies, such as the Ministry of Education and Science. God himself commanded that they forecast the development of science and technology. Only recently did we finish preparing a forecast on Russia’s scientific and technological development, which will soon be a topic for the government’s discussion. Additionally, large companies have recently become interested in foresight. This practice has been developing in the West for some time now. Say the company Motorola was one of the first to begin developing technological roadmaps. Large Russian companies would also arrive at this idea, but a little late. This is why our institute has a very diverse foresight research pipeline. We develop strategic forecasts and technological roadmaps, including those for large innovation projects. Those who turn to foresight first also want to understand which additional results can be achieved using this method, and they usually start with smaller pilots. We take on a diverse range of products, sometimes even unprofitable ones, as they are examples that also help show how strategic planning and forecasting tools should work at a company.

Research at HSE: Historical Milestones

By the early 2000s, HSE was no longer just an economics school. Other fields were already developing within its walls, such as sociology, political science, law, business informatics, and more. The early 2000s were a time when several large institutes came about — the Institute for Public Administration and Governance, which is led by Andrey Klimenko; the Institute of Education; and mine. Time will show how all three organisations set the vector of development in our university and by expanding became recognised research and expert analytical centres. HSE’s current expert-level consulting activities are largely thanks to the staff of these institutes.

HSE is now Russia’s largest empirical research centre

Another important point is the addition of a special section on basic research within HSE’s government assignment, which dramatically changed the entire research landscape of the university. HSE is now Russia’s largest empirical research centre, and probably one of the biggest in Europe. When speaking with my foreign colleagues, I often find myself thinking that almost no one else has empirical research projects as large-scale as HSE’s; after all, they are costly and require big teams. Even large western universities oftentimes cannot afford this. In addition, the emergence of basic research here has created prospects for smaller teams as well — not just for economists, but also for representatives of the social and humanitarian sciences, where external grants are currently quite scant.

In 2007-2008, when the launch occurred of the governmental programme to support innovative research and educational programmes at Russian universities (which resulted in the 5-100 Programme, which many know about today), we began seriously thinking about our research priorities. Having a strong, well thought-out development strategy for the future, the university became one of the winners of the competition among research universities. Of course, we shouldn’t exaggerate the importance of our formal status — HSE was already a de facto research university. But it’s important to understand that at that time, Russia was seeing educational establishments begin to segment, and we were able to obtain an important position in this new system and strengthen HSE’s reputation.

Another fateful decision for us was our participation in the 5-100 Programme. I won’t say a lot about it, as everyone has long known the programme’s tasks and objectives. Many criticise this programme because of its bureaucracy, but it is thanks to the programme that we have additional drive for our future development. Moreover, many aspects of this programme are in line with our own view, and in this sense we are moving forward without external pressure.

Finally, HSE’s international laboratories are the most recent research milestone. They are the cherry on top, so to speak. Maria Yudkevich played a large role in developing the model for the international laboratories. She was able to create a very effective structure with flexible work conditions for foreign researchers. Our institute has two of such laboratories, and they are both led by foreign colleagues — Ian Miles, about whom I’ve already spoken, and Jonathan Linton, who is the head of the Research Laboratory for Science and Technology Studies. Jonathan is the editor-in-chief of Technovation. These laboratories have three junior researchers from Germany, Austria, and Great Britain who have already lived in Moscow for several years already with their families.

In conclusion, I would also mention several of our research centres, which extend beyond the social sciences and humanities, specifically the Centre for Cognition & Decision Making, Tikhonov Moscow Institute of Electronics and Mathematics (MIEM HSE), and the Faculty of Computer Sciences, which is also working intensively on outside research requests. I have the highest hopes for them all.

On Traditions and Innovations in Russia’s Research Policy

There’s a concept called the path dependence effect. The Academy of Sciences in Russia is a tradition that is soon turning 300 years old. Academic communities exist outside of our country as well, but in Russia this system developed differently from many European countries from the very beginning. Our Academy of Sciences came about before universities. Several years ago, my colleagues and I published an article in the journal Voprosy Ekonomiki (Issues in Economics) on the interconnection of science and education in Russia. In preparing the article, I looked in the archives at official documentation on the state of research activities at Russian universities at different points in history, as well as information on the positions of prominent scholars. It turns out that in Russia the state of science at universities has always been viewed negatively; universities don’t have researchers, research doesn’t take place, and the like. This is just the tradition.

I’ll give an example. Currently, research accounts for around 9% of overall university spending. In the Soviet Union this figure was lower, at 5% or 6%. Until 1991, the overall amount the country spent on research, in comparable prices, was around twice as high as it is currently. In other words, there was more financing for research at universities in the Soviet Union. We are seeing a strategic trend, however — the gradual merger of research at academies [of science] with university research, which has been happening for several years already. I think this trend will continue into the future as well, while integration will take place through people first and foremost. Really though, we need to be very careful here. If there’s no more research at the academies, what will replace it? Will university research be able to fill in the missing links? The academies of science have closed in several Eastern European countries, but this has not led to a strong increase in university research. I hope we don’t end up in the same situation. I’m worried that it is top universities alone that make up a significant percentage of university research in Russia.

This interview at HSE website