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On Deciding to Conduct Research

I started wanting to work in research when I was still an undergraduate student. So after getting my degree, I went to graduate school at the Institute of Economics (Russian Academy of Sciences), and after that my life was in one way or another connected to research – initially within the Institute of Economics, then at the Institute of System Analysis, and back to the Institute of Economics after that. Only at the end of the 1980s did I start holding seminars in the economics faculty of Lomonosov Moscow State University. Despite the crisis in the 1990s, I didn’t want to leave research and academia for a more applied field. That’s why the only hope lied at the universities. I made some extra money by teaching, but I lived paycheck to paycheck.

We initially wanted to create a research institution, not a teaching university

In the early 1990s, I happened to work very closely with Yaroslav Kuzminov. Under his initiative, we started thinking about what to do next. The Academy of Sciences started decaying in the 1990s and had largely lost its former status. In addition, economists with the Russian Academy of Sciences criticised the government’s economic policy, which as a consequence negatively affected the funding our establishment received. Staff at the Academy of Sciences lived poorly, though it was easier for economists than for everyone else thanks to side jobs. A lot of people stopped working in research at the time.

On the Creation of HSE

A lot of academics viewed the decision to create the Higher School of Economics positively. By the way, we initially wanted to create a research institution, not a teaching university. We wanted a sort of compact economics research centre that would focus on – aside from economics – sociology, law, and generally everything that an economist needs to gain a complete view of a situation. I don’t know why the project fell by the wayside, but another project emerged in its place – HSE, which as you see was carried out. In the early 1990s, it was a teaching establishment, and no attention was paid to research the first few years. But research institutions arose, and we created a certain research plan, but it was more applied in nature and broke off from the teaching component.

The problem had been exacerbated by 2000, when it became clear that education needed to be merged with research in some way. Active effort was made. Evgeny Yasin began giving lectures, the April Conference was started, and more. Over the 2000s, HSE turned into a true intellectual centre with a network of research establishments in it. But the problem of linking research to education remained. For example, until the mid-2000s I would conduct research at the Academy of Sciences and teach at HSE. In other words, the Higher School of Economics did not become a research centre overnight.

HSE was able to become a success in a short period of time

But still, the first and main objective of HSE was to train new young professionals. When we still only had the master’s programme, we got students from technical universities – students who over a short period of time were retrained to go work at companies and banks. Since the students were good a math, it was easy for them to study here. Our first few classes of graduates are really strong individuals.

On HSE’s Development and the Emergence of New Faculties

I won’t speak for all economists, but some of us were always open to the humanities, so it was not surprising that we expanded in that area. We initially had just economics and management, which were established immediately. Then came sociology and law. We really wanted to open a law faculty so that our economics students could get a good education in the field. The community of lawyers is closed off, which is why it was difficult to bridge the gap between economics and jurisprudence. Not all lawyers were ready for this. Leadership within the faculty of law even changed several times. There were fewer problems with sociology, psychology, and other disciplines, and we were generally able to create a sort of interdisciplinary field.

Things happened differently for the HSE Moscow Institute of Electronics and Mathematics (MIEM). It merged with HSE as part of a ministerial policy to strengthen universities, and after the merge we had to think about how to bring together the engineering and economics specialisations. In the first stages of expansion, we expected to create a broader university that offered an education in the humanities and social sciences. The emergence of MIEM, and now the physics department, went against this logic. In addition, another external factor played a role. After all, HSE was not called a university at first. We eventually got this title, but at the same time the ministry remembered that ‘university’ couldn’t be a narrow term; it’s something universal. That’s why the universities were required to bring together a large number of different academic fields.

The country’s academic elite go to HSE. Not just anywhere – to HSE

There is another aspect. HSE has acquired a reputation for being a strong university where corruption does not exist. Thanks to this reputation, we get specialists who want to work only here. These kinds of people cannot be drawn away, and they include a lot of respected professionals. For example, we have a wonderful mathematics faculty, in which a group of people work who are truly experts in their fields. They are our pride. We hope that the same is true with physicists. The country’s economic elite go to HSE. Not just anywhere – to HSE. What should they do, refuse to because we are an economics university? Should we tell them to find somewhere else? Absolutely not. Our very reputation is what partially helps with our expansion, which is of course wonderful!

HSE was able to become a success in a short amount of time. This largely took place thanks to the strict standards to which we hold our specialists. People are fired immediately if they are caught plagiarising or engaging in any other fraudulent activities. We sometimes have to get rid of capable instructors because of this, but what can you do… Our reputation and the general academic atmosphere here rest on this. This is very important for our development. We cannot lose this, or else we’ll turn into just any other ordinary university. But we have wanted to be an elite university since the very beginning – maybe not in all fields, but elite nonetheless.

On Academic Interests

Since my student years, I have been interested not so much in economics itself, but in its methodology. What makes economic knowledge unique? Its nature? How close is this knowledge to reality? The last question came about back in Soviet times. Perhaps this is why I started teaching economic history at HSE – it’s closest to my interests. I have worked a lot with questions on the adequacy of economic theories for the processes that happened in our country during the transition period. By the way, in the global academic world, economic methodology is a relatively young field as well. It only started developing in the 1980s. There wasn’t a community of specialists before that.

At the USSR Academy of Sciences, my colleagues and I understood that there are a lot of flaws with a planned economy. As for me personally, I didn’t have any serious problems with the idea of a planned economy. I wasn’t a dissident. I wanted to improve the system and take action within this layer of Soviet society. This is why, by the way, I did not become an active reformer. At a certain phase of perestroika it became clear that the entire system was going to change. I didn’t want to take part in this. I don’t think that a planned economy is unviable – after all, modern economies are now somewhere between a planned and market economy. There aren’t any purely market economies, and problems that seem specific to the Soviet economy are now being seen around the world, for example at large corporations with planned systems and bureaucracy. Sorry, but HSE also has these problems.

It’s too bad that economics methodology is not very developed here. At HSE, my colleagues and I founded the department of economic methodology and history some time ago. We have literally a handful of people we work with in our country, and practically all of them work at HSE. Problems with preparing contemporary economists here at HSE require methodological analysis, and we don’t have that. Rarely do new people enter into this field. Young people still go into business, while the philosophers who study scientific methodology generally have no knowledge of economics. There are of course more specialists in the West.

Another example of our attempt to take a broader approach towards modern-day problems was the opening of the interdisciplinary master’s programme ‘Politics. Economics. Philosophy.’ Now, not only do Russian students enter into the programme, but international students do as well. In addition, professors come to Russia from abroad to give lectures. This is something in which professors, students, and our foreign colleagues are all interested.

On Research Schools in Russia

For a long time, only specialists in the science of science were interested in the idea of scientific schools. It became relevant 15 years ago, but was immediately blocked and as a result discredited. The government started giving out generous grants for the development of research schools, and these schools started popping up like mushrooms after rain. Each department wanted to call itself a school, if for no other reason than to get money from the state budget.

So we have to be careful when we talk about schools. Real research schools are difficult to develop and grow differently in the various sciences. The initial idea we have about a school comes from the Middle Ages and says that a teacher transfers knowledge to the student. But today, academia is organized differently, which is why for a school to exist you don’t necessarily have to have a direct transfer of the teacher’s experience like before.

Does the idea of a ‘scientific school’ correspond to the concept of a ‘scientific paradigm?’ Obviously not. The paradigm is something general. More than one school can exist in a paradigm. This is how things are in modern economics. And the real picture is even more complicated. Contrary to the originators of scientific paradigms, economics has both a diverse range of paradigms, as well as various scientific schools. There’s the mainstream with different schools, and alongside this are the heterodox schools of a varying degree of marginality.

On the Russian Economic Community

The Soviet Union also has several scientific schools, all of which were built on various interpretations of Marxism. During the collapse of the 1990s, higher education started being reformed. There were new textbooks translated from the original English, but who was to use them? The same Marxist instructors. One teacher might have been retrained and have discovered a new literature and entered into the economic mainstream, while another might have gotten stuck at a crossroads not teaching Marxism anymore, but also not entering the mainstream. This discordance is a very big problem in Russian education, particularly at regional universities. It’s hard to imagine how the poor students study in such a situation.

Economics is a science connected to surrounding reality. If a textbook is far from our reality, then it is useful solely for the study of “pure” theory

Today’s specialists use translated international textbooks, as well as Russian ones, which is not always a good thing in my opinion. Economics is a science connected to surrounding reality. If a textbook is far from our reality, then it is useful solely for the study of ‘pure’ theory. But how do you apply this theory to what’s outside your window? Neither the teacher nor the student can answer that. It’s an old problem in economics, as well as the most complex – faraway abstract theory and cold hard reality. In the Soviet Union we tried to solve this problem by informally communicating with colleagues – these questions weren’t asked at conferences. As strange as it may seem, we are currently seeing something similar happening in Russia.

A simple example is how reformers from the 1990s are still certain that they did everything right for the most part and only got a few details wrong. Public opinion has now, as I see it, done a 180. Everything was wrong in the 1990s. But what do the theories say? For the most part, they remain the same. In addition, there was no common opinion in the West on Yeltsin-era reforms. There was even a letter by a group of famous economists, including several Nobel laureates, harshly criticizing the reforms at the time.

So then how does one correlate standard economic theory with reforms in Russia and Eastern European countries? When you start to look closely, it becomes clear that the mainstream simply says nothing about reforms, assuming a stable economy. But yet a crisis started in the late 1980s. The economic model is an abstraction. It’s beneficial for some things, but not others. It can only be right for its own conditions. They don’t teach students that. It’s thought that if they master a textbook, that means they’re able to make recommendations for all events in life.

There was really a hunger for staff in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as everyone talked about. The type of economy changed. Reality changed. In this new situation, there was initially no one who could explain how a market economy worked, aside from some specialists in western economics. It’s true that science received little from the demand for such specialists; after all, more often than not they went to work for businesses or banks. They never had time to teach and they flourished without that. And global economics does not currently have good explanations for what is happening in former planned economies and for what needs to change in them. So we need new theories, but there is clearly not enough scientific potential for their development.

Research at HSE: For School and for Life

If you look forward to seeing HSE’s development through the eyes of its first ever professors, and finding out how it turned into a leading Russian university from a modest institution, we would be glad to share this information on this website. Read, watch and have fun!

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