Jean Monnet Chairs for Squirrel Institutes?

Friday, 24. September 2010     0 comment(s)
Vadim Kononenko
Researcher - The EU's Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme

A few days ago, the Russian Academy of Sciences made the headlines, this time not because of a new breakthrough scientific discovery. Rather, the discovery was made by those who visited the English-language websites of the institutes of the Academy and found out numerous translation errors, which were quite amusing. The most laughable example was the Institute for Protein Research which in the English translation became the Squirrel Institute. Quickly, the “squirrel institute” became a metaphor for a place of learning which is isolated from the global (read: English-speaking) academic community, where knowledge is produced locally for the sake of prolonging the existence of this institution, and not for scientific exchange and international peer-review. A Russian professor at the New Economic School in Moscow, noted in his blog for Vedomosti that such “squirrel institutes” in Russia are mostly to be found in the field of social sciences and economics whereas the natural sciences tend to be more linked to the international community.

I had my own experience of such phenomenon when I attended a world congress for Russian and East-European studies this summer in Stockholm. Unsurprisingly, Russian was widely spoken but mostly by non-Russians who studied it for their research or Russian-speaking scholars who work at the universities outside Russia. It was quite strange to find very few Russianists who would actually come from Russia. Does a Russian student need to apply for a PhD school abroad, get a Western scholarship, spend a term or two as a visiting researcher at a Russian university, if he or she wants to study Russian history, foreign policy or culture? Is it because of the lack of interest or funding on the Russian side in these fields?

To be fair, the Russian government does recognize the problems of academic research and education and has indicated political will to improve the situation by means of competition-based grants, regulatory evaluations of teaching staff and scholarships for talented students. However, these improvements will not be sufficient if Russian centers of learning are not properly integrated with the international networks and structures. In this regard, the EU is one most logical counterpart. In July 2010, the University of Florida got the first Jean Monnet Chair of Excellence in the US. It might be a good idea to establish joint European-Russian chairs in Russian universities.

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