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Bringing in Siberian research from the cold

Some 250 Siberian research institutes were out of bounds to foreigners until recently. Now scientists from the EU and Russia can collaborate freely in ICT research, thanks to a unique project establishing strong working links between the world’s largest trading bloc and its largest country.

During or after World War Two, Russian factories and research centres moved en masse to Siberia. Many were involved in secret military research, and it was not until the early 1990s that outsiders could visit these regions.

“The federal district of Sibirsky – part of Siberia – is home to some 66,400 researchers. Yet when our project began in July 2004, there was little contact between them and the EU,” says Petra Reiter of the IST project SITE. “Our goal was to make the work of these researchers more visible for Europeans and to support them in the IST programme.”

The Russian partner, the Association for Engineering Education of Russia (AEER), set up an online database of Siberian IT research teams with strong potential in IST. European users of the database can look up researchers in categories from embedded systems to e-health. Reiter notes that the Sibirsky region is particularly strong in e-health research and provision, no doubt because of its huge size (over five million square kilometres) and the physical difficulty of linking patients with doctors.

In the Sibirsky region, the SITE project developed a multilevel support network of 64 local and regional contact points for IST. Top of the pyramid is the Tomsk Polytechnic University, representing the AEER. Then come the eight Sibirsky regional contact points for IST, where the staff received training on the EU’s Framework research and IST programmes from lead project partner Singleimage. They also learned where and how to find research partners in Europe, and how to write a European project proposal.

Lastly, so-called European offices were set up in 56 different research organisations in Siberia. Selection criteria for these offices included English-language skills and the quality of internet connections. Personnel in these offices were trained on IST by the Austrian Research Promotion Agency using eTraining methods. Guided by the regional centres, these offices now collect research papers and maintain IST-related websites and newsletters.

The European offices also encourage Sibirsky researchers to submit papers to IST conferences and establish contacts with European research centres. Aided by SITE, some 22 Siberian researchers have already attended IST events and submitted research papers. These events also included ‘brokerage’ assistance, developing contacts between European and Siberian research teams.

Recent contacts have resulted in the setting up of eleven research teams, and the submission of proposals for IST research under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) for European research. Although none passed the European Commission’s review stage, Reiter notes that the work of the project has generated a level of scientific collaboration that no one imagined possible just a few years ago. She believes that this collaboration is sustainable (certain regional contact points will continue after the project ends in December 2006), and that some of the latest proposals for IST research under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) will be accepted.

“Setting up contacts between Europe and Russia is a long process,” explains Reiter. “Siberian researchers are hesitant – for historical, economic and cultural reasons – about engaging in the targeted research typical of the IST programme. Our project extends a helping hand to a region with tremendous research potential, which is as yet untapped.”

At IST 2006 in Helsinki, the project team will host a workshop on 23 November to enable European researchers to discover the innovative research potential of their Russian colleagues, including those from the Sibirsky region. ‘Spotlight on Russia in IST’ will feature a new map of ICT expertise in Russia. Four Siberian researchers will also highlight their work in the field, including a cybernetics expert from Tomsk and the manager of a European office in Krasnoyarsk.

Jernett Karensen | alfa
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