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Larisa Tsvetkova: 'At a Research University, Science Always Comes First'

Over this year, scientists from HSE University-St Petersburg have managed to bring in more external grant funding from the Russian Science Foundation. The university launched new laboratories and projects, developed research in partnership with other universities, and some articles were published in international journals. How science at HSE University-St Petersburg lives and why involvement in the research process is important for the university education—explains Larisa Tsvetkova, Deputy Director for Research Activities at HSE University-St Petersburg.

Larisa Tsvetkova: 'At a Research University, Science Always Comes First'

HSE University—Saint Petersburg

How is a research university different from a usual one?

— There is a difference even in its name! At a research university, science always comes first. Science shapes what education looks like. If a research direction is prospective and topical, we will take it into account. The university launches courses and sometimes even whole laboratories where scientists carry out research in promising areas. The students can be immediately involved in innovative research projects.

What is the advantage of a research university for students?

— First of all, it is more interesting to study this way. The main need of a human is to learn something new. The same goes for studies: immersing yourself in science gives you a new experience, and sometimes a scientific result which is significant for individuals and sometimes for whole social groups.

Secondly, a research university gives many more opportunities. HSE University offers a very flexible system of opportunities to involve students in research—I have something to compare with. Here, you can become a research assistant at a laboratory and work in your degree field straight away. You can join a research and study group, win a grant, and participate in research scientific battles or conferences. Or you can organise a conference yourself—we have such an experience, and, by the way, it was quite successful. Last year, I opened the conference of young scientists at the faculty of Area Studies with a welcoming speech and witnessed how greatly they organised the plenary session which gathered leading researchers and the best professors. It was extremely interesting and fascinating though I do not have a degree in Area Studies. 

Is the presence of HSE University visible in international science?

— Yes, ever since 'Project 5-100'. The goal of this programme was to help leading Russian universities to rank in the top 100 in the world rankings. Unfortunately, we didn't manage to reach it but many project participants increased their competencies and made significant progress. HSE University in particular moved forward the quickest, and its brand awareness increased a lot. All this is thanks to a flexible system of grants, raises and internal competitions. 

International journals keep on publishing our scientists though it became much harder. Anyway, I did not get any rejections, and my PhD student was offered to take part in a conference for free. In general, it seems to me that in science, isolation is impossible. Researchers' work is built on other values: the development of society in general. That is why scientists always treat their colleagues' work with respect and take it into account.

How can one generally understand that science at a university is at a good level?

— Obviously, by publications in journals. At the same time, the journal must be well-known: that scientists from different countries refer to it, and it is actively quoted. HSE University has such a requirement for professors—to publish their articles in such journals in particular. The university encourages it: professors get an academic merit bonus. According to 2022 results, there were 86 merit bonuses awarded for publications in international peer-reviewed journals. Ten researchers received such merit bonuses because such publications were regular.

It is too early to talk about the publications of 2023. They are still being printed, the publication cycle is a little longer: up to a year and a half. However, in 2022, researchers from HSE University-St Petersburg published 64 articles in the first-tier journals and 58—in the second-tier journals.

In 2022, the most active researchers in terms of publication activities were the representatives of the St Petersburg School of Physics, Mathematics, and Computer Science. They published 83 articles. The most prominent were physicists from the International Laboratory of Quantum Optoelectronics. Among them is Natalia Kryzhanovskaya: she published four articles in first-tier journals. Why are physicists so active? It seems to me that such increased attention to this area has always existed—even in the Soviet times. Building knowledge in technical and natural sciences continued. But humanitarian sciences incurred a bit of damage: both before the restructuring and after it.

Whatever happened to humanitarian sciences, at HSE University-St Petersburg, they are on a good level. The second place by the number of publications in 2022 goes right to the St Petersburg School of Arts and Humanities. Extremely good results in the faculty were shown by the historian Kirill Chunikhin: he has three articles in high-tier journals.

Laboratories are also an important signal that science makes progress. How many of them are there now?

— Now, the campus comprises 22 laboratories and research centres. The largest ones are the International Laboratory of Quantum Optoelectronics, the Laboratory for Social and Cognitive Informatics and the International Laboratory of Game Theory and Decision-Making

I don't want to distinguish anyone; everyone does a great job. In terms of publications, as I've already said, the most active are physicists. Their team is quite young which matches the HSE-wide trend. While many universities try to increase the number of young researchers, at HSE University, every third scientist is young. This is a good example: a career in science looks attractive even to new generations.

In 2023, the campus opened several new scientific units, including the Strategic Entrepreneurship Centre at SEM and the Linguistic Convergence Laboratory for philologists. We are also planning to open a laboratory in partnership with two pharmaceutical companies—we hope that it will become a good start for master's students at the St Petersburg School of Physics, Mathematics, and Computer Science. 

Other laboratories may also appear. The most important thing is that they are interdisciplinary. For example, at one of our sociological laboratories, researchers study social networks with the use of artificial intelligence. We want such a symbiosis in other projects as well: so that one area supplements another. Of course, the biggest prospects are in the sphere of information technologies—they are developing the most actively.

What about mirror laboratories? What are their essence and unique features?

— Development of science in regions is an important direction of HSE activities. HSE University has enough knowledge and experience to share with someone else. This is how the competition of mirror laboratories appeared. Our scientists search for partners in regional universities and agree on joint research. At the moment, the campus has nine open mirror laboratories which are successfully operating.

Why is such an exchange of experience good? You can distribute tasks among the teams to reach new results. For instance, Laboratory for Social and Cognitive Informatics: the researchers decided to study how modern technologies influence the quality of emotional contact. Developing a methodology and making calculations is easy for them but it is harder to look at the level of oxytocin. For this, they signed a partner agreement with a medical university in Krasnoyarsk. Or let's look at physicists: they have a very cool and expensive scientific installation. They were approached by researchers from the Southern Federal University who could benefit from it, and now, they are working together.

What else, in your opinion, shows that the research of the laboratories is in demand?

— Additional funding. Sure, getting money from the university budget is already nice. But if someone else supports the research, it means that there is a real interest in it. That is why it is important to look at the won grants and competitions.

This year, we increased the attracted resources by five million roubles—in comparison with the previous one. In the first place, this happened due to the grants of the Russian Science Foundation. Earlier, our researchers got involved in internal competitions more often. Now, we started helping them to apply for grants, and the number of applications increased.

We also plan to enhance the number of awarded grants. This trend is already visible. In 2022, 16 projects were awarded by the grants of the Russian Science Foundation. They received two million more than last year. But it is not the only competition. There are also grants of the President and the Committee on Science and Higher Education—they were awarded to, for instance, Ivan Makhov. The more applications there are, the higher the chance of success is, and we are ready to help with applications. Any researcher can contact the Research Office where they will get assistance and support in applying for grants.

What is your idea of further development of research projects at HSE University?

— It would be great to arrive at full-cycle research: which means from a research hypothesis and its test to turning the results into a final product. A regular report is not bad. But it will be great to offer something specific. For example, you study the factors of youth risk behaviour. This means that in the end, you can suggest a social programme to avoid these risks and motivate the youth to engage in practices related to healthcare. If we talk about technologists, it can be a ready-made device or a new technology.

And the last question: what can you wish our researchers?

— Believe in yourself and never stop at the achieved! Formulate new bold ideas and bring them to life! I am sure that we will see their results in real products and social programmes.