The Institute for Information Transmission Problems: Cooperation Between Research Centers and Universities

In this paper the example of IITP will be used to talk about the ways of cooperation between research institutes and universities, how they manage to survive in the competition with IT companies for students, and why such centers and students themselves need this at all.

The aricle was written for NRU HSE’s journal Higher Education in Russia and Beyond. I acted as guest editor of the issue dedicated to contemporary computer science education in Russia and former Soviet republics.

My authorship was formally presented only in two articles but actually I worked on seven more. Mostly exactly as editor, nevertheless some articles consists of my text more than a half. I suppose, their appearance in my blog will be rather honest. 

This one was written by me and director of the Institute A. Sobolevski.

A new trend started in Russian higher education institutions (HEIs) and research centers in 2010: HEI graduates are losing interest for post-graduate studies and academic careers. According to the Federal State Statistics Service, in 2010–2015 gross enrolment to post-graduate programs in Russia decreased from 54,558 to 31,647 and the rate of post-graduate students who managed to defend their dissertations dropped from с 28.5% to 18%. In this context, research institutes’ outreach towards HEI students is becoming of greater importance. The Institute for Information Transmission Problems (IITP) of the Russian Academy of Sciences is one of the most active research centers in terms of cooperation with universities in the sphere of computer science. IITP has seven joint educational programs with partner universities.

In the early 1960s, IITP became the first Soviet center specializing in fundamental communications research. Alexander Kharkevich, famous scientist and engineer, masterminded the institute and was appointed as director.

The emergence of modern communications, large-scale logistics and computers in the middle of the 20th century made math, for the first time in its history, directly applicable in the sphere of technologies. Mathematicians with their theorems and concepts suddenly became engineers’ immediate partners. Before that engineers had to talk to mechanicians, chemists or physicists, who used math in their research. The area of engineering that we now call “computer science” developed at this crossroads of various sciences.

IITP’s main activities include fundamental and applied research in the sphere of data transmission and processing, information processes in technical and living systems, computational linguistics and bioinformatics. As it has already been mentioned, IITP has seven joint educational programs with partner universities: two at Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT, known in Russia as Phystech), one at the Faculty of Bioengineering and Bioinformatics at Moscow State University (MSU), one undergraduate and one master’s program at the Faculty of Mathematics at Higher School of Economics (HSE), and two master’s programs at HSE Faculty of Computer Science (Mathematical Methods of Optimization and Stochastics; Data Analysis for Biology and Medicine).

The question of bringing together scientists from various fields and forming a consolidated and functional team arose in the early years of IITP’s work already. It was particularly important when biologists first joined IITP: information transmission and processing are very efficient in living systems, so understanding the way they work would mean learning a lot in the technological sphere too. An answer to the question was found when MIPT graduates started coming to IITP. MIPT is a flagship technological university; education there is based on two main principles: a broad scope of disciplines (that is how MIPT began training biophysicists back in the 1950s) and the famous “Phystech System,” when MIPT “outsources” education and research beyond the first two or three years of study to various research and technical partner organizations (known locally as “bases”). When “at bases,” students not only do lab work but also take classes given by researchers of such organizations rather than MIPT professors.

The “Phystech System” includes an educational part and is therefore more intense than traditional internships. This kind of symbiosis between science and education can be compared with Unités mixtes de recherche — labs of the French Centre national de la recherche scientifique that are founded in partnership with universities. However, the “Phystech System” is based on educational units rather than research ones, i.e., departments rather than labs.

In the USSR the “Phystech System” was in use not only at MIPT but also at Novosibirsk State University, Novosibirsk being the country’s largest research cluster outside Moscow. In the post-soviet times the “Phystech System” was successfully implemented at other fast growing universities too. Such a system was formalized in the 2012 law on education, where “specialized departments” are described as a unique form of educational cooperation between HEIs and research centers. This system helps students better adapt to labor market demands by working and studying at leading research centers and commercial companies.

MIPT students come to IITP in their third year already; first — once a week, then more often. In the end they write bachelor’s and master’s theses. Top students “assimilate” fast and start working either at the institute itself or one of its spin-off tech companies. Some MIPT students want to do their master’s at IITP even if they haven’t finished their bachelor’s there but this is rather unusual.

IITP-HSE partnership is organized differently. HSE leadership aims at attracting prospective master’s students from all over the country, so master’s programs are in a way “disconnected” from undergraduate education. However, two years is not enough to train a good researcher. This is why our partnership with HSE is different: HSE students come to do their master’s at IITP and if they succeed, they move further to post-graduate programs, which gives them in total 5-6 years of training.

IITP partnership with Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) is expected to follow the same model. Skoltech is a new technological university aimed at training specialists in tech innovations. It was founded several years ago with MIT as a major developmental partner.

Speaking of MSU, its whole Faculty of Bioengineering and Bioinformatics is IITP’s partner. This fosters fruitful cooperation with future colleagues from their very first years of study.

In the context of collaboration with universities IITP has to respect their policy of sorting students. Some young people are given free choice to decide their own futures, others are advised to join research centers at their university’s choice.

IITP is a modern center for research, education and innovations. It has various spin-off companies that work in the sphere of data mining, mathematical modeling, professional communications, synthetic vision systems. For our researchers cooperation with HEIs is a chance to train future generations of academic staff. University staff and researchers in specialized centers often perform similar yet quite different roles. The former teach and do research as a means of professional development, while the latter do research and teach because they need to train their own successors.

Successors are difficult to find and even more difficult to retain: globalization stimulates competition for human resources with commercial companies and research centers from all over the world. Academic work requires individual selection; research or lab teams usually have few members. However, no one — neither students nor their supervisors — can ever predict whether their collaboration will be successful. So the flux of students going through IITP has to exceed the organization’s internal demand for new employees. But where do those who leave go?

IITP operates in the sphere of computer science and information & communication technologies, so the nature of its work means that research results have to be translated into the industry. Such transfer is possible when doing research commissioned by industrial companies or when creating spin-off companies (known in the Russian legislation as “small innovative enterprises”) aimed at further development and commercializaiton of technological prototypes that come as a result of fundamental research.

Thus, motivated students who use IITP educational opportunities available at their own universities have a rather comfortable career choice between fundamental research and work in the industry.

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