Nikolay Kropachev, Rector of St Petersburg University, talks about cooperation with Germany.

kropachev rektor

The Russian–German Year of Scientific and Educational Partnerships 2018/2020 aims to give new impetus to cooperation between scholars and scientists of the two countries. It also makes cooperation between higher education institutions and scientific organisations more transparent. Tell us about the Russian–German Year initiatives in which St Petersburg University participate. What are the results and best practices associated with these initiatives?

For St Petersburg University, the Russian–German Year of Scientific and Educational Partnerships began much earlier than it was announced. It will continue after it has been officially closed. The fact is that our cooperation with Germany began 296 years ago with the establishment of the University – and it has been developing ever since. I would like to note that we maintain long-lasting partnerships not only with universities in Germany, but also with research centres and foundations funding research.

One of the important projects promoting the good relations between our countries has been the St Petersburg Dialogue Russian–German Public Forum. It was founded in 2001 on the initiative of Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, and Gerhard Schröder, the Chancellor of Germany, as an open forum for the two nations to develop German–Russian relations. It is a great honour for me to hold the post of Deputy Chairman of the Forum’s Russian Coordinating Committee.

At the St Petersburg Dialogue Forum, St Petersburg University traditionally provides a platform for expert discussions. The University experts in different fields take an active part in the events and projects of the St Petersburg Dialogue. These include: meetings in three working groups – Science and Education, Workshop of the Future, and Politics; meetings in two subgroups – Migration Taskforce, and Digital Taskforce; and the International School for Young Historians. Besides, scholars and researchers from St Petersburg University are always invited to attend the meetings of the Forum’s working groups.

Even the coronavirus pandemic failed to stop the St Petersburg Dialogue Forum. The working groups continue to work remotely. They have already discussed: the engagement of civil society in the global fight against the pandemic; COVID-19 impact on the media industry and its future; the state of the economy and politics in Russia and Germany in the current situation; the epidemiological situation in our countries; and other topical issues.

In 2004, on the initiative of the St Petersburg Dialogue Russian–German Public Forum, a Centre for German and European Studies (CGES) was opened on the basis of St Petersburg University and Bielefeld University. CGES is one of more than 15 similar centres supported worldwide by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). The mission of the Centre is to support the collaboration of researchers from Russia, Germany and Europe.

For the implementation of the multiple joint research programmes with German partners, St Petersburg University researchers received grants from the Russian Science Foundation (RSF) and the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (RFBR). Since 2015, St Petersburg University together with the German Research Foundation (DFG) have been holding a competition for research projects conducted by the University’s research teams in collaboration with colleagues from Germany. St Petersburg University became the first university in the East to sign a direct cooperation agreement with DFG.

The epidemiological situation forced universities to make significant adjustments concerning their activities, including academic mobility programmes. Did you manage to implement at least some of the academic mobility programmes in collaboration with German universities that were planned as part of the Russian–German Year of Scientific and Educational Partnerships 2018/2020? Tell us about your plans aimed in this direction.

This year is special because COVID-19 has thrown our world into turmoil. Indeed, in this situation we had to rearrange our international exchange programmes for students and lecturers. Some of them were forced to postpone their trip, while others extended their stay abroad. I’m certain that with the stabilisation of the situation and the full-fledged resumption of international flight operations, transnational academic mobility will be fully restored. The best we can do now is leverage digital communication platforms.

In fact, our academic mobility statistics has not been drastically impacted by the pandemic crisis. Thus, in academic year 2019/20, the incoming academic mobility from universities in Germany to St Petersburg University amounted to 103 people. 108 students from St Petersburg University went to Germany on student exchange programmes. For comparison, the previous year’s figures were 117 and 151, respectively. Evidently, there is a decrease in academic mobility, but nothing drastic. I am confident that after the end of the pandemic, these indicators will demonstrate rapid growth.

The majority of German exchange students come from the Free University of Berlin, Heidelberg University, and the European University Viadrina. For them, the most popular fields of study are: philology and linguistics; management; international relations; and economics. For St Petersburg University students, the list of most popular academic disciplines also includes sociology and earth sciences. The most popular German universities for student exchange programmes are: the University of Hamburg; Free University of Berlin; and European University Viadrina. In total, 34 German universities are collaborating with St Petersburg University in academic mobility programmes.

One of the most significant projects pursued by St Petersburg University in collaboration with German partners is the Dmitri Mendeleev–DAAD programme. It is a competitive scholarship programme administered jointly by St Petersburg University and DAAD. This programme finances research internships of St Petersburg University graduate students, young lecturers and research associates aged under 45 at universities and research institutions of Germany. Participants in the programme are selected through a competition. Since 2012, 148 such scholarships have been awarded.

I would like to note that cooperation between St Petersburg University and Germany is not limited to academic exchange between partner universities. The forms of cooperation are diverse and multidirectional. The University has established partnership relations not only with German universities, but also with research funding agencies (DAAD, DFG) and research centres (Helmholtz Zentrum).

Tell us about the German universities with which St Petersburg University collaborates. In what areas and projects is there cooperation? What results would you like to highlight?

Collaboration with universities and research organisations in Germany has always been of strategic significance for St Petersburg University. This is largely due to the time-honoured history of our cooperation. After all, St Petersburg University shares with some German universities a centuries-long history of partnership relations.

As I have already mentioned, our cooperation with Germany in the field of research and education has been ongoing since the creation of the Academy of Sciences and Petersburg University, which were founded by one decree of Peter I in 1724. If we look back in history, we will see that both the first professors and first students of our university came from Germany. Moreover, in the first years following the foundation of the University, the German language was the medium of instruction. The first leaders of the University were also Germans; the first scholar officially appointed Rector of the University was Gerhard Friedrich Müller. By the way, he was an alumnus of Leipzig University, our partner university and one the oldest universities in Germany. We may say that our strategic partnership with Germany in the field of research and education has been ongoing for 296 years.

At present, St Petersburg University has agreements of various types with 55 universities and research organisations in Germany. Among them: Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, University of Hamburg, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Universität Hannover, Heidelberg University, the Free University of Berlin, Leipzig University and many other German universities with a rich history. There is no need to enumerate all our joint projects, I just want to stress that they are all very successful.

St Petersburg University enjoys a long-standing successful cooperation with the Technische Universität Dresden. Experts from our universities jointly conduct research in mathematics, physics, economics and management, molecular and cellular bioengineering – translational biomedicine.

One of the important international research programmes in which we participate is the Russian–German laboratory at BESSY II synchrotron radiation source, installed in 2001. The work is organised and funded jointly by: the Free University of Berlin; the Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin; the Technische Universität Dresden; the Ioffe Physical-Technical Institute (RAS, St Petersburg); National Research Centre ‘Kurchatov Institute’(Moscow); the A. V. Shubnikov Institute of Crystallography (RAS, Moscow); and, of course, St Petersburg University. At present, the Laboratory houses a source of the so-called soft X-ray radiation and experimental facilities to study structural and electronic properties of liquids, solids, surfaces and thin layers.

One of the key partners of St Petersburg University in Germany is the Free University of Berlin. We are jointly implementing several large-scale research and academic projects. Moreover, we set up a few special trust funds to finance promising scientific research. Since 2015, we have been implementing a programme of financial support for joint projects. Importantly, the programme offers a funding opportunity to scientists from St Petersburg University and the Free University of Berlin for the initial stages of their joint projects, while the further financing is expected to be provided from other funding sources. Since 2015, the programme has supported 21 joint research and academic projects. A number of breakthroughs have already emerged from these projects. I would like to emphasise that as part of our partnership, we also hold research projects competitions to give financial support for projects not only at the initial stage.

Another extremely important project co-funded by St Petersburg University, the Free University of Berlin, and DAAD is German–Russian Interdisciplinary Science Center (G-RISC), which was launched in March 2010. G-RISC offers financial support to research projects conducted by students and young scientists from Russia and Germany, providing an opportunity for scientists from the two countries to share experiences during business trips abroad. Moreover, G-RISC also serves as a framework for collaborative work in education. It offers funding for short courses of lectures and joint international conferences, schools and workshops for students. G-RISC supports projects in physics, geophysics, astrophysics, physical chemistry, biophysics, mathematics and materials science.

Through joint efforts and cooperation, embodied in the numerous joint programmes and projects implemented over the last decade, we have made real progress. Thus, the number of joint scientific publications has increased several times. In 2010, about 150 articles were published by St Petersburg University scientists in collaboration with colleagues from Germany. By contrast, in 2019, this number exceeded 400. We have recorded a steady average annual rise in the number of joint research projects. In total, the number of publications has exceeded 2,800 over the last decade, while the number of citations of these research works has reached 57,000! And you should keep in mind that these are research studies of the highest level: 68% of the publications appeared in first quartile journals.

One of the recent examples of successful cooperation between Russian and German scientists is the development of a photoactive nanocoating for controlling microbial proliferation on the surface of solar cells. A group of researchers from St Petersburg University and the Free University of Berlin developed a photoactive nanocoating that wipes out microorganisms on the surface of solar panels. This will enable the service life to be extended and increase the efficiency of these devices.

Another example is the discovery of a previously unknown genus and species of prehistoric salamanders that lived on the Earth in the Middle Jurassic. The fieldwork and laboratory research were supported by the RFBR and DFG. The new amphibian is named Egoria malashichevi – in honour of Yegor Malashichev, a talented scientist and associate professor of the Department of Vertebrate Zoology at St Petersburg University, who passed away at the end of 2018.

We have established the closest cooperation in physics, mathematics and natural sciences. The highest numbers of over 30% of scientific publications are in the field of physics and astronomy. Joint research in chemistry, mathematics, materials science, engineering, and earth sciences accounted for a significant proportion of highly cited publications. Of course, humanities are trying to keep up. For instance, our jurists have been collaborating with the Faculty of Law of the University of Passau for many years. They regularly hold joint seminars and academic conferences. As part of the Russian–German Year, we are holding a joint international seminar on European and international criminal law and human rights in criminal proceedings.

By the way, several of our research teams (in humanities, natural sciences, and interdisciplinary research groups) entered the open competition ‘Russia and Germany: Scientific and Educational Bridges’. We are looking forward to the results. The winners of the competition, as far as I know, will be announced during the closing ceremony of the Russian–German Year very soon.

Which of the events held as part of the Russian–German Year of Scientific and Educational Partnerships 2018/2020 do you regard as most interesting and significant?

As I said, St Petersburg University has numerous collaborative projects with German colleagues. Many of our projects bear testimony to our long-standing history of cooperation. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to single out a few as the most successful ones.

As already mentioned, several Russian–German research and academic centres work on this basis and with the participation of St Petersburg University. However, alongside science and education, the administrative support and management are also of great importance. We have established a convenient and flexible framework for international development. It provides not only for the needs of our German partners, but also of many others. Still, it was our strategic partnership with Germany that served as the basis for this system.