In July, the Russian Science Foundation summed up the results of the next wave of youth competitions for the Presidential Programme of Research Projects. Early-career scientists at St Petersburg University yielded good results. During three competitions, 35 applications were supported. They rank second across Russia in terms of the number of supported projects. Alexander Khlunov, Director General at the Russian Science Foundation, commented on what success St Petersburg scientists achieved and briefly spoke about the history of how St Petersburg University took part in the programmes of the Russian Science Foundation.

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Mr Khlunov, as far as we know, St Petersburg University ranks first in the number of applications supported by the Foundation among research organisations at St Petersburg. What is the position of our University in the Northwestern Federal District and in Russia? Could you share interesting facts with us?

Absolutely. We are very proud of what results St Petersburg University scientists have achieved. When it comes to how it started, I would start from 2014.The Russian Science Foundation launched a line of grants and scholarships. They aimed at complex scientific programmes developed by organisations for a five-year period. St Petersburg University was among 16 winners. This large-scale grant equalled about a billion roubles and focused on initiating a new interdisciplinary direction at the University, i.e. the Institute of Translational Biomedicine. Today, if I am not mistaken, it includes 10 laboratories. Scientists achieved solid results and contributed significantly to the study of neurodegenerative diseases, in particular Alzheimer's disease, and developed compounds to treat infectious diseases. Among interesting developments by the institute's scientists in recent years is the technology of 3D printing of soft neuroprostheses. It has a potential to contribute to rehabilitation after spinal cord injuries. This bridges chemistry, information technology, and medicine. We have launched a popular science project that focuses on the results of the programme and scientists share what success they have achieved. Today, we are financing 201 projects of the University for a total amount of about one billion roubles.

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In Russia, St Petersburg University ranks second after Lomonosov Moscow State University in the number of projects supported by the Russian Science Foundation. In our annual reports, we traditionally present the rankings of organisations. You can find them on the foundation’s website. In the Northwestern Federal District, St Petersburg University is again in the lead (455 supported projects), followed by ITMO University (195) and the Ioffe Physical-Technical Institute (111).

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We have tracked how the University's research teams have been changing their preferences in terms of what themes they have been focusing on. Interestingly, the maximum ratio of submitted and supported projects is in such areas of science as mathematics and chemistry, with 26% of supported applications in each area, while the minimum number is in the humanities (15%). Obviously, how the projects are distributed is due to a complex research programme, which I have already told you about.

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The Russian Science Foundation offers general contests (there is no age limit) and youth contests. What is the ratio of supported youth / general projects at St Petersburg University in comparison with other organisations in Russia?

Out of 455 winning projects, 182 projects are youth competitions. It is approximately 40%. Yet the data are difficult to compare as you need to take into account many factors, for example, the number of teaching staff. In Lomonosov Moscow State University, for example, this ratio is 33%, and in Ural Federal University it is 50%.

Yet some more words about early-career researchers. Those who receive grants for individual projects under the President's programme and successfully implement them have the opportunity to apply for a youth group grant. Are there many scientists from St Petersburg University? What are the most popular areas?

Out of 84 who successfully took part in the individual grants competition, 46 persons applied again, 10 persons received grants for individual projects, and 16 persons moved to the next stage to lead a group. The most active were chemists, again.

What makes the expert evaluation by the Russian Science Foundation different? How is this process organised? Are there any experts from the University?

Expert evaluation of the research projects by the foundation is strictly regulated. You can visit our website to find the relevant documents. The procedure includes several stages. Among them are: the individual work of experts; discussions at meetings of sections of the expert council; and discussions at meetings of expert councils. Today, there are two councils, yet we are planning to open the third one to evaluate applications for new regional competitions of the foundation.

The first stage of the expert evaluation is the individual assessment of applications by the experts of the foundation and their preparation of expert evaluation reports on each project. Our pool is now over 6,500 Russian and international scientists. Over 200 researchers represent St Petersburg University. Three expert opinions are usually prepared for each application. During the first stage of the evaluation that comprises two rounds, apart from the Russian experts we engage international experts for individual competitions. The second stage of the examination is evaluating the application materials by the specialised sections of the corresponding expert council of the foundation. It takes into account the results of the first stage based on the consideration of application materials and expert opinions. The results of the second stage are formalised as the ranking lists of applications and are considered at a meeting of the corresponding expert council of the foundation to make a decision on recommendations for supporting projects and the amount of funding.

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Has the pandemic changed the number of the applications submitted to the Russian Science Foundation? How?

The pandemic did not have a strong impact on how the foundation had been working. Most of our competitive procedures are carried out remotely. Those who apply for the grants can sign applications using a simple digital signature. If we talk about reporting campaigns, we broke all records in terms of how fast we made expert evaluations as our experts had more time.

If we talk about the ongoing projects, the foundation provided maximum support to the grantees. All reports were considered very carefully. Additionally, we decided not to impose sanctions in some cases. According to our rules, if a head of the team refuses to carry out a project, they get into the so-called black list and they cannot participate in our competitions for the next three years. In 2020, the foundation agreed that if the head refuses to complete the project due to objective reasons related to the pandemic, we do not impose this sanction. It was not also applied to foreigners and project managers from other cities who refused to complete projects.

We decided not to take applications in paper for new competitions. All applications in autumn must be submitted online only. I hope the pandemic will end soon and we will all learn only positive lessons.