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The Pandemic Requires Breakthrough Solutions from Us

Lev Jakobson, Vice President HSE University

Lev Jakobson, Vice President HSE University
©HSE University

From April 13th to 30t, HSE University is hosting the XXII April International Academic Conference on Economic and Social Development, one of the most important annual events in Russian humanities. Profile journal has talked to Lev Jakobson, co-chair of the conference organising committee and vice president of HSE University, about the challenges that researchers face today.

What sets the April conference apart from other academic conferences?

We try to take the best of two formats — the academic conference and the public forum. The first format involves the kind of careful preparation used in the international scholarly sphere. At least six months before the event, we collect applications for presentations based on research findings. Experts review the applications and select the best papers, which are drafts of articles in internationally recognised journals. This year, for example, we received almost 1,200 applications and selected 634 for presentations.

And from the forum format, we take a topical agenda and invite prominent figures — government officials, leaders in business and civil society— to discuss this agenda. Moreover, the discussions are based on scholarly and analytical reports lodged in advance. HSE University prepares them for several months before the conference; they contain a large number of figures and specifics. Members of the government acquaint themselves with these materials, and this seems to us to lead to a deeper engagement with the topics under consideration.

The result is a pyramid, with basic research at its base, applied research built on that, and concrete recommendations developed in discussions between politicians and businesspeople at the top. This is a peculiarity of the HSE April Conference compared to purely academic events.

What topics will be discussed this time?

The conference is multidisciplinary. We try to choose topics that are at the forefront of research. There are 24 thematic sections in different fields of the social sciences, all related to each other.

These sections, which are listed on the conference website conf.hse.ru, constitute tracks of sorts, within which a number of thematic events take place. There are monodisciplinary economic sections, such as theoretical economics or the methodology of economic thought. There are also sections on sociology, which is important for us because HSE University is highly ranked in the ratings of universities that are strong in sociology.

But there are also interdisciplinary, practical sections, where papers are structured not by their field, but by issues of concern to society. For example, social policy: sociologists, economists, and legal experts participate here. What will happen to the Russian pension system, how will the healthcare system change, how should human capital be implemented, and so on: many such discussions are planned, where representatives of different disciplines will have their say.

This is also our strength, as most academic conferences are known for their monodisciplinary approach. It is clear why this is the case: it makes it easier for the people who gather at them to understand each other. But often breakthroughs are made at the intersection of fields.

Many of the paper titles in the programme include the words 'crisis' and 'pandemic'. Can we say that overcoming the corona crisis will be the theme of the conference?

To a certain extent, yes. The world is now reflecting on what has happened since the beginning of 2020 and continues to happen. These fundamental changes are mirrored in the content of academic reports in various fields, as the pandemic has impacted all aspects of life. There is a process of developing new approaches and raising old questions differently.

As history shows, such adverse events serve as challenges, in response to which breakthrough solutions in the economy and public life are developed. This is exactly what is happening now. Of course, there are no ready-made recipes yet, but the scientific discussions that are now taking place around the world are gradually shaping them. We hope that our conference will play its part.

Burgeoning digital technology also occupies a significant place in the programme...

Yes, it does. It is important to analyse what digitalisation is and what its consequences will be in a wide range of areas, from the impact on economic processes to the impact on privacy in the world of social media. What to do about online privacy, how to curb cybercrime and so on are all lively topics that are of interest, not only to researchers but also to the general public. Of course, we could not avoid them. In particular, the HSE and Sberbank discussion club integrated into the conference is devoted to digitalisation issues. Its sessions were jointly prepared by our experts and the bank's top managers.

In addition to HSE’s cooperation with Sberbank, a large number of speakers from the US and Europe have been announced. Do current sanctions interfere with global cooperation?

I’ll be honest — we are keen to strengthen the international position of the conference. We traditionally hold it together with the World Bank. This is quite a working partnership: foreign professors teach at HSE University, and not only part-time, but also full-time. When the conference was created in 2000, its initiator Evgeny Yasin set the task, very difficult at the time, to integrate HSE University into the international academic world. It is safe to say that we have achieved this.

Of course, it has now become more difficult to maintain contact with the West because of the current state of international relations. But we and our partners are not giving up on communication either. The fruitfulness of research is at the top of the agenda.

At the same time, over the years we have amassed more muscle, if one can say this about research work. And now we ourselves have become a point of attraction for researchers from the former Soviet Union. Of course, we are by no means positioning ourselves as a ‘big brother’; we interact as equals. But, as experience shows, we can teach our colleagues something, we can learn something, and most importantly, we are able to unite.

For example, one of the roundtables at the conference will focus on the development processes of the Eurasian Economic Community. It will be attended by experts from EAEU countries, working closely with their governments. This lends a special weight to the academic work. By listening to and discussing reports, we are helping to bring real convergence on issues that are of mutual interest but often remain contentious.

© Russian text by Andrey Sokolov, Profile

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