‘It is great to have publications, but is a scientific contribution limited only to them?’

‘It is great to have publications, but is a scientific contribution limited only to them?’ 13.12.2019

‘It is great to have publications, but is a scientific contribution limited only to them?’

Konstantin Fursov on breakthroughs in science and measuring the effectiveness of scientists

“Something important happens in science every week, but, first of all, this is very important for the scientific community”

Mr Fursov, could you give us a few prime examples of scientific breakthroughs that Russian scientists have made in the last years?

Here the question is what is considered as breakthrough areas. We all know about Russian Nobel prize laureates such as Zhores Alfyorov, Andrey Geim and Konstantin Novosyolov, or about Grigory Perelman, who refused his award (Fields Medal). Something important happens in science every week. But, first of all, this is very important for the scientific community. For instance, Russia as well as other countries actively researches new materials, looks for treatment for cancer or Alzheimer’s, but to a certain extent, this is a routine that gives some new clues and allows moving forward. A discovery becomes a scientific breakthrough when it is recognised in the scientific community.

For instance, the Russian president’s award is given to young scientists every year in Russia. If we carefully have a look at the list of laureates, it is always mentioned what for the award is given. And one can understand what achievements laymen can see. There are several examples that are close to me. In 2014, Aleksandra Kalashnikova received an award for developing superfast magnetic phenomena. Maksim Nikitin who develops smart nanomaterials for biomedical applications received it in 2017. Here, first of all, we are talking about targeted delivery of medication to certain organs. Magnetic components are introduced to the molecules of medications that are delivered to the part of the body that needs to be treated through inductance coil.

At last year’s presidential award ceremony that I had a chance go to, one of the laureates presented results of the development of methods of detecting explosive materials. It is already on the edge with military science. Interestingly, it was a real issue of secrecy. Should one tell the public about this discovery? Because every laureate has to make a public statement, say something about his discovery. It is hard to say what a particular discovery gives us today. One thing is when you discover a material with new characteristics or the same method of detection of explosive substances. And the other thing is when this discovery is used in a solution, starts to be applied in practice. It can take years for new knowledge to be applied at least because technologically the economy hasn’t reached the necessary level.

So there is a lot of discoveries, and they happen every day. The question is which of them reach our ears and in what form.

“Americans are very proud of their military science as well as citizen science and try to popularise it by all means”

Does it turn out that military discoveries are hidden from us in general?

Of course, because it is an issue of global competition and national security. The secrecy of science is quite an interesting phenomenon in general. It contradicts the idea of the ethos of science to a certain extent. If we consider science as a social institution that moves and develops and is regulated by certain social norms, according to Robert King Merton’s idea of the ethos of science (that’s to say, a set of values and norms that are considered compulsory for a scientist), the scientist must openly share his knowledge and achievements. It is called the principle of communism. But science doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Society and the state give it some autonomy in decision-making in exchange for an independent professional appraisal.

In this respect, it is reasonable to ask if secrecy in science is possible. Merton replies by placing the scientist himself who demonstrates ambivalence, that’s to say, duality and contradiction of his motives and behaviour at the centre. On the one hand, the norms of the scientific community regulate and support his activity. On the other hand, there is an aspiration for success, competition for the right to be the first. Moreover, as it has already been said, science exists in the structure of other institutions (authorities, economy, religion) dictating their norms one should respect. As a result, the scientist can simultaneously go by different norms.

Science remaining a social institution also can be fully immersed in the system of secrecy when it is possible to freely exchange opinions and findings inside a group, but this can’t go outside. It is such a paradox.

And isn’t the fact that modern scientists are encouraged to publish all their research in magazines from the Scopus list a violation of secrecy?

I have a colleague who researches the future and long-term projections. He has several articles in which he analyses the disciplinary structure of military science based on open sources and even considers development trends of some of its areas. In other words, it isn’t completely closed, of course. Some solutions, which are already used in technologies, are quite visible. Moreover, some areas of their further development are clear as well. If you watch an American TV channel, you will see that Americans are very proud of their military science as well as citizen science and try to popularise it by all means. The Japanese love to save the world in mass culture by demonstrating technologies of the future. We show our accomplishments in a bit different way, mainly on parades. It deeply depends on culture.

Obviously, you will never be shown what is happening at the forefront of science on TV or in the cinema. But you can understand some vector of development. This includes to, for instance, the same unmanned vehicles, automation and robotisation of military machinery or soldiers’ new uniform — all this is quite open and understandable trends. Another thing is that nobody will tell you how to obtain that material the super armour is made of.рв2.png

“In Russia, this indicator is quite low and accounts for about a third of total costs on science, while two-third are public money. Everything is the other way round in most of the developed countries”

What are today’s parameters used to measure the effectiveness of the scientist and the organisation he works in?

This depends on what we consider the effectiveness and the scale of our actions. The case is that there is plenty of indicators that allow us to talk about the intensity of scientific development. And these yardsticks were born in smart people’s minds quite a long time ago. The first attempts at systematically measuring the total budget of science, for instance, date back to the first half of the 20th century. British physicist John Desmond Bernal became the founder of scientific statistics in some respect having evaluated its national budget in England.

Specialists gradually switched from measuring public costs to the category of internal costs on research and developments. The difference is that all money that was really spent by organisations on doing corresponding works regardless of their origin was taken into account. In other words, it is the money (one’s own money or money received from any client) that was really spent by the executor on salaries, equipment, trips, experiments, organisation of conferences or other things that are needed to do research. In English, it is often called performance.

New indicators appeared as accounting systems developed and became available. First of all, I mean the indicator of publication activities, which is very popular today, that’s to say, the number of scientific publications. This and related indicators were registered in a system approximately in the 60s of the 20th century when specialised scientific literature databases appeared. Firstly, they appeared as libraries so that it could be easier for scientists to look for necessary literature. Later, when a considerable pool of works accumulated, there was an interest in systematising them by authors, fields of science, demand. Hence the next yardstick — the number of citations. In other words, you were cited (no matter positively or negatively), it means your work is interesting, it got feedback in the system of scientific production. This system of measures remained neutral for quite a long while. It was rather a way of finding information about what was going on in different fields of science and a way of verifying specific hypotheses about its social order than an aspiration to evaluate somebody.

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