Scientists Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Communicate. It’s Time to Speak Out
Aleksey Maslov, Professor at HSE University’s School of Asian Studies and one of its founders, has become a super-media persona this year. This is due to major interest in China amid the pandemic and Beijing’s strained relationship with Washington. In the column ‘HSE University Scientists’, Aleksey Maslov explains how to keep up with everything (spoiler: Shaolin Monastery!), why Russian science has become a ‘fossil’, what scientists should do for self-promotion and why it’s important to look good at the same time.
An Asian childhood
As it happened, I finished 9th and 10th grade in a Soviet school in Mongolia. Many years later, I went back there and was surprised to learn that the school still exists, and that Russian children are still studying there. It was in Mongolia that I became acquainted with Oriental culture and Buddhism, which I found interesting and even fascinating, so I quite naturally chose the Institute of Asian and African Countries (IAAC) at Lomonosov Moscow State University for further study. I entered in 1981, when China was of no interest to anyone at all. Applicants were choosing Japan instead, and I was readily accepted. Who could have thought that China would become a super-popular topic so soon.
At the institute, I chose an academic path, but when I graduated—at the fall of the Soviet Union—getting into a good academic institution became very difficult. After a difficult selection process, I was accepted by the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union (now the Russian Academy of Sciences) as a trainee researcher. I found myself literally on the cutting edge of science, although quite removed from society. A great deal of matters related to China at that time was considered ‘top secret’, and the very name ‘Institute of Far Eastern Studies’ at one time served as a replacement for the ‘Institute of Chinese Studies’ to conceal the true purpose of research. For many people, the Institute, for example, studied the ways in which shoals of fish travel through the waters of the Far East seas, etc. It was particularly valuable to me that, unlike other research institutions and institutes, they were engaged in absolutely practical things.
Discovery of China
As Soviet science was falling apart and life was getting harder, I decided to go to China and do research there. In 1989, I published a brochure about wushu, and the proceeds from that was enough for the trip. While I was a student, I got into martial arts, which was somewhat fashionable at that time. So I travelled around China, and I met a number of experts who were involved in wushu and meditation methods. I made an unsuccessful trip to the Shaolin monastery, and while things didn’t go smoothly, I did make some initial acquaintances. Without realizing it, I managed to take the right step - I started to study Chinese tradition from the inside. I travelled to villages and monasteries, collected materials, talked to different people, and eventually acquired expertise in items that were previously unknown. This was about both religious and social life, a living Chinese language rather than the one studied at universities. Now, I advise everyone who studies other people’s cultures to go to that country, to the countryside, and to explore what outsiders don’t usually see.
In my travels around China, I understood the most important thing: it’s a very charming country. People want to be as wise and original as the Chinese. After a trip to China, I often see people start pretending to be Taoist or Buddhist masters, dress up as Shaolin monks and drink Yunnan tea. In general, it is not customary in science to identify yourself with what you are exploring, although those who study the Far East often become Confucians, qigong specialists, or calligraphers in addition to their beloved work.
Thanks to my personal immersion in the culture, I have acquired a unique knowledge that has become very interesting in Europe. The thing is that traditional Oriental studies had a certain focus, the so-called ‘western point of view’. In other words, cultural research was based on Western values and assumptions. But the view from inside China at the outside world and at myself became completely innovative for me.
HSE University breaks with tradition
In 1997, I began leading the Department of General History at RUDN (Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia) and introduced a number of innovative ideas there. In 2009, Alexey Rutkevich, Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy at HSE University, invited me to meet and ‘discuss a philosophical question’. I knew he was a brilliant specialist and quite extraordinary, so I immediately agreed. The question was whether or not to open a department of Oriental Studies at HSE University. Why, in fact, only a department? Oriental Studies touches everything, from economics to philosophy to languages. Rutkevich and I met with ‘the big three’ —Yaroslav Kuzminov, Evgeny Yasin and Vadim Radaev — to convince them that a university-wide perspective on the topic of Oriental Studies was needed. Doubts were raised, since it would have to compete with other major centres of Oriental Studies like IAAC at Moscow State University and Saint Petersburg University. We therefore had to promote something that these universities did not offer.
We decided that we would pay the teachers more, but the most important thing was to do something very modern and essential. Our main trump card was that we were not offering a programme about China in general or some abstraction of Oriental Studies but were instead focused on the complex side of this field, offering the opportunity to learn not only the language and culture, but almost all aspects from spiritual culture to economics to politics – and in a rather applied manner. In 2010, we saw our first intake for ‘Oriental Studies’, and all of us were terribly worried that the applicants would not need us. We thought, okay, let’s aim to recruit 40 people — that would have been good, but it didn’t work out like that. We exceeded that number on the first day of recruitment; in total, 180 people were accepted.
With the opening of the programme, we hit the bullseye because people are interested in three main aspects as it relates to the Far East: attractive and vivid traditions, the economy, and practices of interaction between Russia and Asia. We literally responded to the requests of audience; other universities are still trying to replicate the programme, because its main success is that we teach knowledge that can always be used. The secret to teaching Asian Studies is that most of the traditions in the countries studied are alive today; moreover, traditions organize not only thinking, religion and communication, but all socio-economic processes in general. China’s modern economy cannot be understood without knowledge of the country’s history and its cultural traditions.
Facts about Aleksey Maslov:
Master of Martial Arts and Vice-president of the International Shaolin Wushu Federation
Trained at the Academy of Wushu, Shaolin Monastery, received a full dedication and was named Shi Xingying
Published a book in 2020 dedicated to Chinese erotology as a system of gaining transcendental experience and healing, introducing the ‘art of the inner space’ treatises to Russian-speaking readers for the first time
Member of the Board of the Russian-Chinese Chamber of Commerce for Trade in Machinery, Technical and Innovative Equipment
Hosts ‘Eastern Box’, a weekly programme on the Vesti FM radio station
Became Acting Director of the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences in the spring of 2020
Another feature of our programme is the transcultural study of the East. We have broken down barriers between countries, and in this respect, HSE University has become a destroyer of the traditions of Soviet Oriental Studies. There is no separate China or Korea now, and the traditional division by departments and countries no longer works; the East needs to be considered in the overall dynamics of continuous interaction. In addition, we have transformed the tradition of studying the East through historical and philological practices. We study culture, linking language practices to ethnology, economics, business, and popular culture just as leading global universities do.
This year, I was asked to serve as interim head of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and I noticed one interesting thing. I left the Academy of Sciences in 1997, and I was surprised to find that in terms of research structure, approaches and topics, a lot remains unchanged from previous years, both in terms of the very worthy scientific developments and difficulties in responding to external changes. For me, the challenge is how to make the scientific framework effective and relevant without losing the best Russian traditions.
It’s okay for academia to be conservative, because it has to undergo constant verification, which takes time. But as far as Russia is concerned, there is a particular explanation associated with one negative moment: during the period of reform in the 1990s, scientists were dealt a significant blow. Not only did salaries and infrastructure collapse, the very positioning of science suffered — it suddenly became deeply and tragically unneeded.
The consequences are such that many academics have lost confidence in the state as a moderator of their scientific and administrative life, even as the authorities now seek to support science. Mistrust led to the only way of self-preservation — closing down. Everything was frozen, both good and bad – responsibilities, lifestyles, research styles, and sometimes a lack of interest in innovations, a local vacuum where nobody cares about international contacts. Not to mention, we have no bridge — no dialogue – between the economic market and scientific laboratories.
Another problem for Russian science is our belief that only the state should pay for research, as was the case in the Soviet Union. Scientists psychologically perceive their work as being necessary only at the top, not horizontally – in economic or social spheres. I recently studied science financing in China: over 70% of customers are private corporations. In second place are universities, with the state itself only in third place. In other words, the main goal of research and development is its efficiency, because business will not pay for what is not applied or applicable to industry. At the same time, 6% of allocated funds go to basic science - seemingly small, but in the context of a long horizon of financial planning it is more than enough, this part being taken over by the state. Of course, science should not focus only on market-driven demands but should consider the needs of society and simultaneously inform society and the state about what it does.
In modern scientometrics, the success of a scientist is most often measured by the number of published articles, which in no way indicates the effectiveness of the discovery, the depth of the research itself, or any positive implementation for society. In other countries, there are often metrics of implementation and expertise – as an Orientalist, for example, I cannot discover something completely new, but I can show how my research influenced changes in Russian foreign trade with China, allowed the power elites in Asia to be assessed correctly, or defended Russian priorities in interpreting history. Yes, in Russia, there is a huge problem with the distribution of responsibility for scientific development, and there are groups of scientists who essentially ignore scientific competitions, believing that they should automatically be paid a fixed salary and that they should deal only with what is interesting to them, without regard to global trends in science and requests from the state and society. It is true that scientific creativity cannot be measured by simple linear formulas, such as the number of publications per year. I know cases where a long-term study of an ancient text was expressed in a single article that gave rise to a whole scientific field of inquiry. I see examples where ‘scientific journals’ are specifically created and placed in various citation lists just to achieve the required number of publications, while their impact factor, that is, the degree of scientific significance, is practically non-existent. Their role for science and society is threadlike. A considerable amount of work needs to be done, both by officials and the academic community itself to overcome this paradox.
Lessons in academic PR
Previously, the main provider for scientists and teachers was the university, which exploited their knowledge and paid them a salary. This is very similar to the interaction between a pop star and a promoter. We now live in a different information space, and we see that scientific influencers are often not scientists at all, but bloggers, including those who lack scientific expertise. The problem with a classical Russian scientist, and many Western counterparts, is that they’re waiting for someone to come along with an interesting proposal, request or an assessment, just like a student with a course paper comes to the scientific supervisor. Or someone asks them to give a talk about their field of scientific knowledge. There is no need to wait. It’s time to take steps outside, and there are different ways to do this within the framework of such an intellectual level — events, bilateral collaboration, networked scientific platforms, social networks, and ultimately participation in the world of media, etc. In this respect, HSE University is an excellent platform for communication, although Russian universities generally lack specialists in science PR.
From my own experience, and that of other scientists whose work I regularly observe in the international arena, I can work out what is needed for the advancement of science, its development and private funding.
Scientists shouldn’t be afraid to interact; it’s time to reach out to people of all backgrounds. And if you don’t know how to interact, you need to learn. Interaction between scientists and the outside world is necessary, because no one but you will speak out about the essence of your work and the importance of discoveries.
You must always explain the essence of your work for society. The period of accumulation of knowledge in science ended with the era of enlightenment; now, it is necessary to use knowledge, including for advancement in fundamental disciplines.
It is essential to speak on the subject of research in a way that’s clear to everyone. Unfortunately, I listen to the popular lectures of some brilliant scientists, but they are absolutely impossible to endure for various reasons — ignoring explanations, excessive use of special terminology and references to purely scientific sources, inability to build an engaging presentation, isolation from the audience and much more.
One of the responsibilities of a scientist is to perform constantly
This is not only about promoting oneself and one’s field through different channels, but also a way to educate society. After all, the state of society depends on me personally. Speaking and shaping people’s thinking is one of the missions of a scientist.
I’m going to say a strange thing, but I think scientist should look good. Paradoxically, this is a very important point. They should be perceived as people who are pleasant to communicate with and as role models. If they have their own unique style, they in some sense become trendsetters in their fields and are able to draw significant attention to the subject being researched. Why can’t science be fashionable?
Sinologists are in fashion
During my time in academia, China has gone through several phases of development. In the late 1970s and 1980s, only a few specialists believed in this backward economy and thought that it could grow. Then, in the 1990-2000s, the whole world was agog at how China rushed forward, and China observers started to build new interesting theories. Now we are in the third phase — China has grown so much that it’s pushing everyone else out of the market. Knowing Chinese history and traditions, I can say that this scenario was predictable. China’s norm is a powerful, developing, and expanding nation. As it became richer, it reverted to this pattern of behaviour. But even more than China itself, our approach to its perception has changed. And, of course, there is now a plethora of interesting publications in global sinology whose authors are trying to understand the correlation of the country’s socio-historical patterns of development at different times.
As a researcher, I see that there is nothing unnecessary or ‘superfluous’ about China. If you want to work with China, it’s wrong to study, say, economics without studying traditional culture. Everything is useful for understanding how China grows and develops, so at HSE University we have radically changed the way students learn so that they can anticipate future trends and are really in demand. China has now become a challenge for everyone, not just in terms of economics but also culturally. A country where everything does not evolve along Western lines in the economy, politics, and society is proving more successful than many other countries that once tried to imitate the West. Once exotic, China has become a trend and is now shaping the positioning and thinking of the West. In turn, the world needs to rethink its standards of development, including with regard to science, academic life, as well as the role of the state and education.
Everything that is happening with China now concerns me and other specialists in their field, be it business, politics, socio-economic issues, international communication, etc. Therefore, the number of requests at the state or business level for sinologists is very high. I don’t consider myself the most experienced or the best specialist, but the work on China clearly stretches available expert capacity, and the media tends to look to the same sources of opinion, because important news from China comes every day, and even every hour.
In general, the Chinese media are interested in me as a provider of what Russia thinks about China. I very much like, for example, how the Xinhua news agency asks questions: Xi Jinping has made a declaration about a new economic programme — what advice would you give China in this respect? For the Far East, of course, it is important to have such communicators, as they can objectively represent the positions of both parties to the negotiations. This is one of the major challenges of politics with all Eastern countries — we don’t always fully understand each other, and I try to be a bridge between the East and Russia to help interpret motives, whether that’s for politics or business.
The West and the East have become much closer in how people dress, what movies they watch and what they eat, so it seems that it is enough to learn Mandarin or Russian, and we will be able to agree. No, there are some profound differences in perception, self-positioning, and cultural values, and that has to be understood in all types of communication. In Mandarin, there are about 20 ways to say ‘yes’, but none of these expressions means that a Chinese person agrees with your proposal. This leads to many misunderstandings, some of them very dramatic.
Oriental studies as a lifestyle
Whether I became a Buddhist or a Confucian through my activities is something I don’t know myself, but the knowledge gained from my relationship with China has certainly entered my life. The Eastern tradition offers a lot of life hacks on how to lead a healthy lifestyle in terms of thinking and caring for health. The Chinese themselves do not take much advantage of this, as it is difficult to practise qigong and meditate every day; it’s better to work or have fun. Back in the day, I obtained a systematic Buddhist-Taoist education with all the methods that I consciously adhere to and that make my life easier. I can sleep less and work more without undermining my mental state.
When Buddhism explains to you that life is an illusion and you don’t have to pay attention to the stress all around, it gives you a sober global outlook, and keeps you healthy
I lived in Chinese communities for about two years; in the temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas opposite the Shaolin monastery there is even a small stele dedicated to my ‘exploits’. But this, as usual, is a favourite Chinese exaggeration, made out of respect. The Chinese try to do something nice and give you a status greater than your true one, which is essentially a test of your vanity.
Eastern wisdom cannot be explained, it must be learned from its bearers. My familiarity with China has also cultivated a kind of tolerance of opinions and cultures. Even life itself has a different meaning and weight for different peoples, so somewhere comfort is treated with strange neglect, and Western values mean nothing at all. That’s all right. An impartial, slightly detached ‘Buddhist’ approach to analysing cultural phenomena expands the focus of one’s consciousness and greatly helps researchers in their work, because there is a place in the world for any manifestations of life for you.
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