Germany and Russia strengthen research ties

Multinational research teams can now bid for money in any scientific area, although funders do not expect security-sensitive projects

September 26, 2017
Scientists working together
Source: Alamy

Germany and Russia are strengthening scientific ties despite tense political relations, agreeing that from 2019 researchers from the two countries will be able to bid for money for joint projects in any academic area.

Maintaining good academic links is seen as a good way to keep channels open, even if relations otherwise have become more frosty.

Jörn Achterberg, who coordinates relations for the German Research Foundation (DFG) with Eastern Europe and Russia, said that even after the 2014 diplomatic crisis over Ukraine, "science has always been a bridge between our countries".

Having previously trialled joint bids between Russian and German research groups in limited areas, such as mathematics, physics, life sciences, social sciences and humanities, from 2019 the DFG and the Russian Science Foundation will fund grants "in all areas of science", they announced earlier this month.

This could include sensitive areas of research such as cybersecurity, for example, despite tensions over alleged Russian cyberwarfare. German intelligence agencies have accusing Russia of hacking into state computer networks, including the country's parliament.

However, Karin Zach, head of the mathematics and physics division at the DFG, emphasised that the foundation did "not expect" joint applications in such areas. "Most of the applications we have are for basic research," rather than applied, she said. DFG grant committees also have guidance on how to handle security-relevant research, she added.

When Russia established its new Russian Science Foundation in 2013, the DFG was one of the first foreign organisation to put out joint calls with it, explained Dr Achterberg, and in 2003 opened an office in Moscow to bolster links. The DFG lists Russia as a "particularly significant" academic partner.

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The number of projects with a Russian partner funded by the DFG has grown from about 20-30 a year a decade ago to more than 50 annually in recent years. Some fund culture-bridging projects like the creation of a German-Russian theological dictionary. However, none so far have touched directly on security-related issues like cybersecurity.

Links with other countries remain more significant, however: in 2016 the DFG funded 213 projects with UK partners, 185 with France and 385 with the United States.

Scientific cooperation with Russia had a 300-year history stretching back to Peter the Great, Dr Achterberg said. "The door is always open," he continued. Even if scientists were "not happy with the politics" there was no need to "destroy" academic relations. In 2014, after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine, Nasa and Nato severed links, including scientific ties.

Germany is not the only country to stress continued scientific links with Russia even as other ties are strained. 2017 is the "UK-Russia Year of Science and Education", a calendar of events designed to promote dialogue.

But despite efforts to boost the number of international scholars working at Russian universities, concerns about scientific isolation remain. Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at University College London, who has raised the alarm about a declining science base in Russia, said that "Russian science needs much help in strengthening basic capacity, setting and implementing performance targets that mean something, and opening up internationally".

The German initiatives "are relatively generous and another sign of the importance German policy places on both collaboration and mutual benefit", he added.

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