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Ten Years On: Building A Global Research Hub

Today, on the 1st of February, the International Center for the Study of Institutions and Development (ICSID) celebrates its 10th Anniversary. We asked one of the founders and leading research fellow of the Center Timothy Frye, professor at Columbia University, to tell us more about the ICSID history and its future.

Ten Years On: Building A Global Research Hub

 

How did you first meet ICSID director Andrei Yakovlev? How did you come up with the idea to create the Center?

I first met AndreiYakovlev in 1991, almost 30 years ago. He was working at the Institute for the Study of Organized Markets (“Институт исследования организованных рынков”) that he and some of his colleagues had created. Andrei was writing about the commodity exchanges that had sprung up after the introduction of market reforms and I was studying them too. I had read his work and one day I decided to introduced myself. Andrei and I were in in frequent contact for years. We had never written anything together, but we knew each other's work very well because we both worked on similar topics: issues of corruption, the rule of law, and the creation of market institutions. Andrei is an economist, I studied Political Science, but we were both interested in the same research questions, and that really helped bring us together.

In 2010 the Russian government held a competition to create International Labs as a way to increase the profile of Russian institutions of higher education. Andrei asked me to put in a joint application with him, since we are both interested in Political Economy. There was stiff competition, but we won one of the large HSE University grants funded by the Russian Government.

Our Institute is a somewhat different than other International Labs. Most are centered around a senior Russian scholar and a senior foreign scholar. We have a similar arrangement, but we also have a large number of senior foreign scholars. We thought that it would be better to create a whole team of foreign and Russian experts who would work together on joint research projects and prepare their articles for international peer-reviewed journals. That format has really worked out!

How did the Center change over the decade?

One of the goals of the Center was to become a real hub for all scholars interested in the Political Economy of Russia. I think we’ve  been able to come very close to achieving that goal. Many scholars from the US or Europe, or from Russia who are interested in the topic have some relationship to the Center, either they read our works or they've come to our conferences.

When we can we try to give support  to foreign researchers who are working on related topics so that they could visit us in Russia, and we have really tried to make the Center a place for anybody interested in these topics to come, share their ideas, to get feedback and to bring their own ideas so that we can learn from them. That's one way this Centre has changed.

We also have expanded our contacts. We've held workshops and conferences with Hong Kong University, University of Munich, University of Bremen, University of Gothenburg (Sweden). We had a joint conference in Abu-Dhabi and the UAE which was quite exotic for everyone. We've had long-standing relations with the Harriman Institute at Columbia. The international ties have grown quite a bit.

We've been around long enough that some young Russian scholars who started it the Center have received PhDs in the US, then they've come back and have some relationship with the ICSID. It's really gratifying to see their professional development and their growth.

The distinction between a foreign scholar and a Russian scholar is becoming less clear. We're all just scholars now, interested in these topics and there's much more of a common language for doing research than there was when we started in 2011, and that's exciting.

The ICSID now has a certain reputation among foreign scholars, is it right?

Yes, I think so. Each summer we have a big annual conference where we invite scholars who are very well known to give key-note addresses. These scholars typically are not experts on Russia, but they work on topics that are of interest to the Center such as bureaucracy or economic development, maybe they work on China or Turkey, or the US, or Vietnam. They get to see the Center, learn about it and become good ambassadors for the ICSID to people who normally wouldn't know about the Center.

So that's been exciting and it's also been good for us, because we don't just want to be a Center that only speaks to scholars interested in Russia. We also want to take what we can learn from the Russian experience and see how well that helps us understand other countries. We need to have conversations with scholars studying China, Asia and Europe as well to figure out how we can learn from each other.

Since the ICSID is an international center, how would you describe a typical workflow between researches located in different countries?

When we started, we tried to organize the research in clear directions, we wanted to have clearly defined teams working on specific issues. We soon realized that it was just too difficult to coordinate the research because new ideas would come up. So we give the researchers a lot of freedom to choose what topics are of most interest to them. ICSID is a much less hierarchical structure now, than we were before. I do think that works better.

Scholars working in their field know each other very well, so we let them organize what papers they're going to write and sometimes, they'll find somebody in another part of the Institute who has certain skills. There's of a lot of self-organization in order to take advantage of how the research develops organically. The Center often encourages people to present their work at our workshops so that we can give them feedback. But we really leave it to the them and their research teams to figure out which research questions are most beneficial for them.

What are the future plans and main vectors of the ICSID development?

We really wanted to celebrate our 10th Anniversary with a big conference in person this summer, but the COVID-19 won’t allow that to happen.

We are conducting a review of the Center internally. For example, we have a committee on staff development: who should be part of the ICSID and what kind of relationship between the Center and its employees should be. We also have a committee on how we can improve our teaching and research. We're in the middle of that process and we're also hoping to invite some foreign scholars to evaluate the Center and give us recommendations for how we can improve. It's a good moment for us to look at ourselves and try to be better.

We also have a project right now on COVID-19 in Russia. We’ve just completed a large survey involving 8 or 10 scholars at ICSID. It's one of our biggest projects. Scholars are interested in a range of questions about people's demand for regulations around COVID, how willing they are to comply with state regulations about wearing a mask, about not going out on the street, about how people's use of the media influences their attitudes towards COVID etc.

Since we have so many people working on the project, it has required a lot more hierarchy and a lot more coordination. But I'm very excited to see the results. Russia is a great case for studying COVID, it has so many sub-national units. Our survey was in 60 out of 85 regions, so we should be able to compare across all of these very different regions that adopted different strategies, and see how that influenced behavior.