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Accent on Platform Solutions

Participants of the workshop 'The Future of Science and Technology in BRICS Countries: Challenges and Responses', the closing event of the 8th HSE Foresight Conference, shared the five countries’ experience of promoting research cooperation and the results of joint foresight studies.

Video (in Russian): 

The agenda of the HSE Foresight Conference was very much in line with the BRICS alliance’s relevant objectives, noted Mlungisi Cele, Acting Head of the National Advisory Council on Innovation of the Republic of South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology, in his opening remarks. At the last BRICS summit in July 2018 in South Africa, representatives of all five countries supported the idea to institutionalise foresight studies on the national level. Professor Cele also cited the 'BRICS Innovative Competitiveness Report' (Springer, 2017) which he believed could provide a foundation for cooperation in this field, while serving as a source of practical ideas and research techniques.

A Foresight Study for South Africa

Mlungisi Cele devoted his presentation to South Africa’s national foresight study of STI development for the period until 2030 (South African STI Decadal Plan). For several years now, the country was actively trying to find solutions, including technological ones, for extremely relevant problems such as unemployment, inequality and poverty. Notably, participants of the study (which involves the elaboration of STI development scenarios) include not just research organisations and public authorities but also members of the general public: using the specially designed online platform, any resident of the country can offer ideas and make suggestions. HSE ISSEK experts have provided methodological and consulting support for the South African National Foresight Study from its very start.

A Compass for STI Policy Developers

Another platform solution designed at the initiative of the European Commission and the OECD to identify trends and best practices of STI governance – the STIP Compass database (Science, Technology and Innovation Policy) – was presented by one of its developers Andrés Barreneche Garcia, the OECD Innovation Policy Analyst. Launched in April 2018, the STIP Compass is based on a next-generation semantic platform which allows to store, analyse, compare, and disseminate best STI tools and practices in convenient formats. Currently, the database includes information about thousands of political initiatives implemented in more than 50 countries (including BRICS), which amounts to 97% of global R&D expenditures.

Energy Platform

Olga Yudina, Deputy Director of the Project Management and Support Department at RF Ministry of Energy, spoke about the BRICS Energy Research Platform created at Russia’s initiative; its launch became yet another result of BRICS South African summit. This platform will allow BRICS countries to share information about the industry’s development, coordinate relevant research and policies, jointly build development scenarios for conventional and renewable energy industries, verify forecasts etc. The platform is open to all interested parties, and Russia already has a pool of experts comprising representatives of about 40 R&D organisations, institutes, and energy companies, said Olga Yudina, and invited the workshop participants to join it.

The energy topic was also central in the presentation by Arnab Chowdhury, Associate Professor at the HSE Faculty of Social Sciences. Using the Indian nuclear energy industry as an example, he described various stages of international cooperation in the area and noted the role of long-term planning in ensuring steady supply of domestic raw materials for nuclear power plants.

Integrated Solutions for the Agricultural Sector

Vladimir Avdeenko, Director of the S&T Policy and Education Department at the RF Ministry of Agriculture, spoke about planned development of the agricultural sector – another strategic industry from the national security perspective. The Federal S&T Programme for Development of the Agricultural Sector in 2017–2025 sets the objective to secure good positions in international agricultural markets, in particular increasing exports to $45 billion by 2025. Meanwhile, Russian agriculture remains critically dependent on imports, among other things wheat, potato, and corn seeds, forage additives, and vitamins. To reduce this dependency, integrated S&T projects are being implemented with participation of agricultural companies and R&D organisations who will be joining forces to breed new varieties. There’s also scope for international cooperation here, noted Vladimir Avdeenko: 'E.g. in veterinary, or poultry breeding, we’re in dialogue with global companies active in the Russian market, regarding localisation of certain technological components'. The Ministry of Agriculture is also actively studying BRICS colleagues’ experience in promoting development of organic agriculture.

The Landscape of BRICS S&T Cooperation

Maxim Kotsemir, Researcher at ISSEK, spoke about thematic areas of BRICS countries’ S&T cooperation. He presented results of a bibliometric study conducted jointly with Sergey Shashnov, head of ISSEK Department for Strategic Foresight. Analysis of academic publications in Scopus-indexed journals revealed that on the whole, all BRICS members were keeping up with the global research agenda, while, e.g., China, the leader in terms of R&D expenditures and the number of R&D personnel, was largely setting it. The 'Celestial Empire' is rapidly closing the gap with the US by increasing the number of publications, so in 2–3 years’ time, it can become the world leader in terms of this indicator too, as well as in terms of the quality and citation of publications. Meanwhile, South Africa, while still lagging behind other BRICS countries in terms of R&D expenditures and personnel, made a breakthrough during the last 10 years – increased the number of academic publications 18-fold. This country is also more open to international cooperation than all other members of the alliance. The BRICS group’s main partners in the R&D sphere are the US, Germany, the UK, and France.

The topic of BRICS countries’ R&D cooperation was further elaborated by Marcio de Miranda Santos, President of Centre for Strategic Studies and Management (Brazil). He presented the results of the study, which included the analysis of 4 thousand jointly authored papers published in Web of Science-indexed journals. The study of the Brazilian colleagues also demonstrated that BRICS countries’ potential for cooperation was very high, though the actual cooperation remained less intensive. E.g., India and Brazil independently from each other published papers on decarbonisation, and Brazil, Russia and India – on energy. Artificial intelligence was a common topic for India, Russia, Brazil, and South Africa, while disparity in healthcare – for India and Brazil. Russia and Brazil studied metals and soils and their pollution. China (excluded from the analysis since its figures would have affected the whole visualisation) actively studied materials. There were rather few papers co-authored by representatives of all five BRICS countries, but a growing trend was revealed.

Yaroslav Sorokotyaga from the Russian Foundation for Basic Research spoke about existing possibilities of funding joint research. He provided a detailed description of the procedure used to evaluate proposals for basic research projects, which, since 2015, are supported under BRICS STI Framework Programme. He also commented on the two most recent calls for projects, which demonstrated a high demand for the programme on behalf of research teams. E.g., if during the first call (in 2016), 320 applications were received and 26 projects were approved for funding, during the second call in 2017, the number of applications increased by 45%, and the number of supported projects grew to 31. The most popular research areas proved to be material science (including nanotechnology) and biotechnology. In 2019, the third round of the programme will start, covering 13 priority STI areas.

The 'Brain Gain' Effect

It’s a well-known fact that Chinese go to study abroad in large numbers, but how does it benefit their country? How big is the contribution they make to the national economy when they return home? Nicholas Vonortas, Leading Researcher at the ISSEK Laboratory for Science and Technology Studies, spoke about 'brain drain' and 'brain gain' and related issues, using China as an example. Together with two Chinese colleagues, he measured the contribution that academic 'returnees' made in terms of setting up new research-driven businesses. Three hypotheses were checked in their study 'Returnee Academic Entrepreneurship in China':

  1. Researchers who had an experience of working abroad were more likely to start a business than their colleagues who have never left the country.
  2. Researchers who spent longer time abroad (5 years or more, studying for their PhD degree) were more likely to start a business than their colleagues who left the country only for a short period.
  3. The level of economic development of the country of temporary residence may also affect the likelihood of researchers’ starting a business.

A survey of 507 researchers specialising in computer sciences employed by 42 Chinese universities, a quarter of whom spent some time abroad, fully confirmed the first hypothesis, partially confirmed the second one, and did not confirm the third one. It also turned out that researchers aged 45 were more likely to become entrepreneurs than their younger colleagues. Researchers who have more patents to their credit also show higher willingness to start a business. Thus, econometric tools confirmed the efficiency of the open science model from the point of view of universities’ 'third mission' – cooperation with the real sector of the economy along with education and research.  

In his closing remarks, Leonid Gokhberg, HSE First Vice Rector and ISSEK Director, thanked the participants for an engaging and inspiring discussion which provided a logical conclusion for the whole foresight conference, and invited them to the anniversary 20th April Conference scheduled for 9–12 April, 2019.

See more photographs on Flickr