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Research and Development: What Centres of Excellence Should be Like

On 4 April, as part of the HSE’s XIV April International Academic Conference, HSE ISSEK hosted a seminar “Global Trends in Public R&D Investments: Designing, Setting Up and Running Centres of Excellence”

On 4 April, as part of the HSE’s XIV April International Academic Conference, HSE ISSEK hosted a seminar “Global Trends in Public R&D Investments: Designing, Setting Up and Running Centres of Excellence”

Leonid Gokhberg
Leonid Gokhberg

The seminar was opened by Leonid Gokhberg, first vice rector and director of the Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge (ISSEK) of the HSE. He stressed, quoting the Minister of Education Dmitri Livanov, that setting up centres of excellence is a key tool of the modern S&T and innovation policy, so issues related to switching the R&D sphere to so-called “efficient contracts” are given the highest priority. The seminar’s participants discussed theoretical aspects and various national practices, centres of excellence’s organisational models, and problems associated with running them.

Centres of excellence’s role in the post-crisis period

The first paper was presented by Jean Guinet, head of HSE ISSEK Laboratory for Science and Technology Studies. According to the expert, it’s important to analyse the consequences of the 2008 economic crisis for the R&D sphere generally, and for centres of excellence specifically. The questions raised by the speaker included the following: did the crisis open to innovators new opportunities to implement their ideas? What are the specific features of competition between developed and developing countries? Does such competition accelerates development of the innovation sector of the economy? Does the government provide support to this sector having long-term objectives in mind?

Jean Guinet
Jean Guinet

If we answer the above questions in the affirmative, we may have grounds for talking about an optimistic scenario for economic recovery. However, the consequences could be quite different: disappointment and the “hysteresis effect”, the financial system’s unwillingness to take risks and, as a result, suspension of investments in the innovation sector. Also, many countries are now pursuing inter-budgetary economy policy, cutting public spending. According to Jean Guinet, the consequences of the crisis vary in different countries. E.g. in certain European countries and in Japan the abovementioned “hysteresis effect” seems to be more pronounced than in some of the developing countries.

The speaker opined that the crisis didn’t have an especially significant effect over public funding provided for the innovation and education sphere (though gross R&D expenditures have been somewhat reduced). In the higher education sphere, despite everything, a reverse trend is noted: increase of public funding. “Generally, there’re grounds to believe that the compensatory model can’t support innovation activities for too long: in many countries compensatory policies have been introduced for a three-year period, but their consequences on the national level remain unclear, and their effect is not going to last forever,” noted Jean Guinet. “We must increase efficiency of the innovation sphere to ensure a more productive use of resources provided by the government, without resorting to any funding cuts”.

Government support for the R&D sphere during a post-crisis period can be both direct (loans, grants, etc.) and indirect (tax breaks). According to Jean Guinet, during the last twenty years the balance the world over is shifting towards indirect incentives. However, as a consequence of the crisis this structure of government support may change.

Another aspect of evolutionary development is moving from the general to the specific, i.e. when the government provides targeted funding to priority sectors and programmes. “In future public-private partnerships will play a more prominent role, while encouraging entrepreneurial initiative should increase companies’ efficiency”, stressed Jean Guinet. “Thus we may see that project-based approach becomes less popular, while programme-based one, on the contrary, would move to the foreground”. In his opinion, centres of excellence will become the principle tool for promoting development of high-priority R&D areas and distributing direct support; eventually this would increase efficiency of public investments in the R&D sphere, as well as the sphere’s productivity. “We need to abandon political lobbying because due to the crisis and its effects its impossible to provide grants to everybody. Centres of excellence may become platforms for interdisciplinary research, resource hubs charged with identification of high-priority research topics and areas”, concluded Jean Guinet.

Alexander Sokolov
Alexander Sokolov

Director of the HSE’s International Research and Educational Foresight Centre Alexander Sokolov spoke about identification and selection of priority areas for creating new centres of excellence. On the one hand we must keep in mind the challenges the country faces, while one the other, attention must be paid to areas which presently remain insufficiently developed, but in future could significantly affect progress achieved in the economy and in the social sphere. The set of priorities theoretically can be divided into three classes. Firstly, there’re thematic priorities (one or more S&T areas). Secondly, there are mission-oriented priorities (e.g. in Russia one such priority is technological modernisation). And finally, there may be functional priorities (related to changing the system).

One of the main tools for identification of priority development areas in science, technology and innovation is technological forecasting. Alexander Sokolov noted that development of long-term S&T development forecast for the RF is currently at its final stage. This strategic document pays particular attention to global challenges and to identification of spheres where Russia will have competitive advantages. The forecast is oriented towards implementing major innovation projects in various research areas, and further integration of scientific results into policy development.

“In my opinion, the system of priorities must on the one hand be based on results of Foresight studies, while on the other centres of excellence themselves should play a prominent role in such studies,” summarised Alexander Sokolov. According to the director of the HSE’s Foresight Centre, it’s extremely important for centres of excellence to play a major role in developing an expert-based technological forecasting network, with the accent on interdisciplinary research.

“Smart” regional specialisation

Dirk Meissner
Dirk Meissner

The paper by Mario Cervantes, senior economist with the OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry, was presented by Dirk Meissner, deputy head of HSE ISSEK’s Laboratory for Science and Technology Studies. (Unfortunately, Mario Cervantes himself for reasons outside of his control was unable to establish a Skype connection with the lecture hall to present his paper personally, as was originally planned).

“Smart specialisation” implies identification of regions’ strengths and maximising their competitive advantages in the context of the existing regional economic structure. To develop economy and technology through innovation in the situation of global competition, one must avoid duplicating different divisions’ functions. “Smart” specialisation is also based on the principle “don’t develop every technology from ground zero; rather, choose a research area and identify as many applications as possible for it”. While shaping the strategy, it’s important to keep in mind that each S&T area is closely linked to others, and this factor must be taken into account, for example, when setting up technology platforms.

So what role should centres of excellence play in achieving “smart” specialisation? According to Mario Cervantes, they should be the core elements and the main beneficiaries of this process, because these open, global challenges oriented organisations at the same time act as key links of regional ecosystems, gathering around themselves all stakeholders to achieve common objectives of innovation-based development.

However, one shouldn’t always expect that setting up centres of excellence brings immediate results; their effect may become apparent only in the long term.

Centres of excellence’s effect

The preliminary results of analysis of centres of excellence’s contribution to increasing countries’ competitiveness — both developed and developing — were presented by Åsa Olsson, coordinator of the OECD’s Innovation, Higher Education and Research for Development programme (IHERD). OECD conducts this research jointly with other international agencies.

Centres of excellence certainly is an efficient tool for increasing competitive advantages in specific research areas. Accordingly, given the growing global competition in the R&D sphere, studying the effects achieved by specific centres of excellence seems to be quite relevant — particularly from the point of view of preparing recommendations on policy making, and developing specific S&T policy mechanisms to match specific countries’ national priorities. However, the experts conducting this country-specific analysis faced a formidable problem.

Centres of excellence develop in different ways, depending on their original goals and objectives set when they’re established, their organisational type, operating environment, and expected and actual results. So it turns out that developing a standard approach to assessing their activities is not at all easy. E.g. if we view centres of excellence as research projects, their efficiency should obviously be measured mainly by publication activity of their research staff. But if we assess them as organisations, we should measure the results of their activities in a quite different way, noted Åsa Olsson. Still, the speaker described several development models for centres of excellence and identified a number of their most common effects in various countries.

Centres of excellence: the South Korean experience

Byoung Soo Kim
Byoung Soo Kim

The second session began with the paper by Byoung Soo Kim, head of Planning and Budgetary Policy section at the Korea Institute of S&T Evaluation and Planning (KISTEP). During the last 40 years the country became quite successful in shipbuilding, mobile communication, and other industries. The south Korea’s success is primarily due to correctly chosen strategies, timely Foresight studies, and thorough groundwork for technological breakthroughs..

Every five years, in accordance with the Korean legislation, the basic plan of priority S&T development areas is updated. Various government ministries and agencies check their own action plans against the basic plan, and amend them as appropriate after the latest five-year update. When the basic plan is approved, the budget coordination process begins: the Ministry of Finance allocates resources to fund specific high-tech projects. E.g. in 2011 652 promising technology development areas were identified, which potentially might come to fruition in the future (the planning horizon is on average 10 years, and for certain areas it’s 5 years). Currently about 700 programmes is being implemented in Korea, and 30,000 projects.

So far four Foresight studies have been conducted in South Korea; their results provided the foundation for planning innovation development. According to the fourth Foresight study, four future scenarios are possible. The first is ecological world (the primary option for South Korea). The second is abundant world. The third development scenario is healthy world (the Korean nation is growing old at an alarming rate; there’s even a new term emerged in the country, “smart ageing”). And finally, comfortable world. For each of these scenarios the experts selected several hundreds of technologies which may become widespread in future.

South Korea takes the “brain drain” problem very seriously, and designs strategies to attract researchers into the country; the nation aims at potentially becoming a “global brain centre”. The Korean experts call this process, along with the attempts to identify the most important R&D objectives and high-priority S&T development areas, the process of “gaining wisdom”.

As Byoung Soo Kim repeatedly noted, the national Foresight studies and centres of excellence are the core elements of the South Korean innovation system. “Conducting national-level Foresight studies is required by law”, stressed Mr Kim. According to him, Russia also could identify research areas particularly suitable for centres of excellence. “Of course they wouldn’t be able to achieve impressive results without adequate funding, so legal mechanisms should be introduced for providing support to centres of excellence, with the Ministry of Finance given the role of arbitrator”, summed up the Korean speaker.

Clusters of excellence: the German experience

Joern Achterberg
Joern Achterberg

Centres of excellence are called clusters of excellence in Germany, since their activities largely suggest conducting world-class interdisciplinary research. Head of the Russian office of the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft — DFG) Joern Achterberg spoke about setting up and managing such clusters.

Striving to become a world leader in the S&T and innovation sphere, noted Mr Achterberg, Germany takes various initiatives, including major ones. In particular, to improve international  competitiveness of German research centres, and to offer better training opportunities in promising R&D areas, the Exzellenzinitiative (“excellence initiative”) programme was launched in 2009. The programme’s total budget is close to 18 billion euros, 75% of which is provided by the federal government, and the rest by the lands. The programme is coordinated by the DFG.

The programme’s goal is to support promising R&D projects implemented at leading universities. At this stage, 85 R&D structures have been established at 40 universities, providing new jobs for thousands of German and foreign researchers. Many of these centres are based on the clusters of excellence principles: they conduct interdisciplinary research in close cooperation with innovative companies. International prospects of the  research projects are evaluated by consultative boards of independent experts, which always include experts from other countries.

According to Joern Achterberg Russia, which is clearly putting the stake on developing its leading universities, should make more effort to convince large companies — such as, e.g.. Gazprom - to support efficient and effective development of applied and basic research.

Coverage of the work of the third and fourth sessions of the “Global Trends in Public R&D Investments: Designing, Setting Up and Running Centres of Excellence” section will be published soon.

Anastasia Chumak, HSE News Service
Photos by Nikita Benzoruk