WASHINGTON -- A major foreign policy goal of the Obama administration has been to "reset" U.S.-Russian relations, building ties between the two nations at all levels. Several Russian university presidents on Wednesday said that the closer relationship was helping them build much closer ties to American higher education, with a focus on expanding research collaboration and embracing something close to an American style of technology transfer -- a relatively new development for Russia.
Some 30 presidents and rectors of Russian universities -- all from institutions in the Association of Leading Russian Universities, roughly the equivalent of the Association of American Universities -- are here this week for talks with the AAU, the State Department and individual universities as part of "The Entrepreneurial University Forum," which is also being backed by the Russian Ministry of Education and Science, the American Councils for International Education and several foundations. Organizers said that this was the largest gathering in a long time of Russian and American university leaders.
“This is a historic moment," said Elena Kudryashova, rector and professor of philosophy of the Northern Arctic Federal University. "In the last 15 years, our two countries have lost opportunities, especially in areas of science and research." Kudryashova was among a group of rectors who visited Inside Higher Ed's offices after their meetings Wednesday to discuss what they saw as the significance of the collaborations.
Kudryashova said the ties between the Association of Leading Russian Universities (a new group open only to a few dozen of the thousand-plus universities in Russia) and the AAU are part of a broadening of ties between Russian universities and the rest of the world. Her university is located in Arkhangelsk, near the White Sea, and has already built ties to the University of the Arctic, an organization of universities in the northernmost countries -- and she came to Washington from Alaska, where she was meeting with university officials.
The AAU ties represent a chance to go beyond those institutions with the geographic link to the Arctic -- Kudryashova said she spent time Wednesday discussing research collaborations that might start with the University of Kansas.
Ann Domorad, managing director of field operations for the American Councils, said that part of what American universities can bring to these discussions is technology transfer. Only in 2009, she noted, did Russian laws make it legal for the universities there to commercialize intellectual property.
Maksim Khomyakov, vice rector for international affairs at Urals Federal University, said "we are just creating the infrastructure" to promote technology transfer. Russian universities are founding start-up companies and don't yet have the full system for divvying up rights among various parties, but hope that this first round of businesses paves the way for American-style technology transfer, he said.
German Dyakonov, rector and professor of chemistry at Kazan State Technological University, said he viewed technology transfer as being among a number of ways Russian universities are getting closer to those in the United States. He noted that, even prior to the 2009 law, Russian universities were doing sponsored research for companies. "We have big companies like Mitsubishi from Japan spending a lot of money at Russian universities," he said, but until recently not as much collaboration with foreign universities or finding ways to advance research that wasn't sponsored by a company.
Last year, Kazan State sent dozens of faculty members and administrators to Arizona State University to learn about university management. He said that the university wanted them to get ideas, but also to realize that "we have very different conditions." For example, he noted that Russian universities do not have any tradition of receiving philanthropic dollars.
Already, he said, his institution has started more than 20 companies under the provisions of the 2009 law -- in fields such as food production and fire-resistant paint, among others.
Asked if any faculty members in Russia, like some of their counterparts in the United States, object to technology transfer and to closer industry ties, Dyakonov sounded like an American university president. "Right now we get only one-third of our money from the federal government, so we have to find ways to get the money from other possible sources," he said.