Sergey Nedelko: “This story is not about organization, but about science”

Interview, 26 August 2022

Work on the Seven-Year Development Plan for 2024-2030 is in progress at the Joint Institute. Sergey Nedelko, JINR Chief Scientific Secretary, commented on the main points of the new plan.

– The first question, since all the threads of the work on the draft of the Seven-Year Plan for the Development of JINR for 2024–2030 converge on your hands, how is this campaign organized?

– I do not think that in such a complex and multidisciplinary scientific organization as our Institute, there are “threads” that could or should converge on one hand. Except in a purely technical sense. And in essence, of course, the laboratories of the Institute determine the long-term scientific strategy and the corresponding work plans. As a result of the process of general discussion, with the active participation of international experts, a single vector of development is being formed for the entire Institute as a whole, in all the complex interconnection of laboratories, scientific topics and projects.

As a small digression, I note that in the scientific community there is a doubt about the advisability of strict planning of scientific research, in contrast to manufacturing and other fields where there are strict algorithms for the sequence of actions to achieve a well-measurable result. Fundamental science is a kind of “risk farming zone” and the organization of work, planning and monitoring of the results achieved should take this circumstance into full account. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to take part in a systematic study of the laws on science of countries that are scientific and technological leaders, analogues of the Federal Law on Science that is in force in Russia. There is a special article in the relevant law of China that clearly declares a very important norm: the Chinese state supports high-risk scientific research and in cases where the expected result has not been achieved or it has been found that it cannot be achieved at all, despite the fact that all the required and possible work has been carried out, directors and performers are released from any liability. And this is the correct position of the state, both in terms of understanding the essence of scientific activity and based on the results of the successful development of fundamental and applied sciences, the innovative sector of the economy in China. There is no need to be afraid of planning as such, but the entire system of planning and work must be adjusted so that plans and the corresponding reallocation of resources are corrected in a timely manner. The planning system should be flexible and should correspond to the nature of scientific activity.

At JINR, as an international intergovernmental scientific organization with a well-adapted system of expertise and management, the research planning system has changed in different periods of the Institute’s history, but has always followed reasonable principles and guidelines. This is not the first Seven-Year Plan in our Institute. At one time, we had ten-year roadmaps and then the Seven-Year Plan came into being. In those years, I was the Scientific Secretary of the Laboratory of Theoretical Physics. Theorists, like everyone else, were encouraged to participate in the development of the plan. The people came to a state of some stupor – this is the issue of how to organize the process. But since they asked, we “composed” a plan, on many pages, with tables, but then gradually all this subsided into three meaningful pages thanks to Nikolay Artemievich Rusakovich, JINR Chief Scientific Secretary at that time. And since then there has been this genre of the Seven-Year Plan in JINR and theorists have learned to feel the measure in planning their work.

Today, fortunately, there is no need to reinvent the wheel – there is a current Seven-Year Plan that is quite well structured. But how does the current situation differ from all the previous ones, when the Institute was building an understanding of what and how intellectual and financial resources would be spent on, how everything would be organized? The current Seven-Year Plan is a combination of strategy and plan. But these are generally different things. The strategy is the principles, areas of development, the general design that must be harmonious and convincing. A plan is a sequence of well-defined actions provided with resources. If you miscalculated with resources, you need to correct them. In science, the topic of adjustments should be written in bold.

Today, for the first time, we have the Institute’s Development Strategy as a specialized document. Moreover, it exists in two guises – there is a detailed version, mainly about scientific areas and there is a compact version – about the development strategy in all areas, including both scientific areas and the development of the Institute as an international organization, its human resources and much more. And despite all the complex global processes that have been taking place lately, these documents turn out to be verified quite carefully, so that the attitudes and principles laid down in them do not require any significant revision under the influence of attendant circumstances. Well, then it is necessary to turn this strategy, so to speak, into a long-term plan, into specific projects and actions. This is exactly what the Institute performs currently – laboratories, UC, management departments. Since this story is not primarily about the organization, but about science, the main actors are the laboratories. The process of working on the plan was initiated. Laboratories have submitted their proposals and evaluations of resource requirements and work is underway in departments to analyse resource opportunities and evaluate risks.

The next Seven-Year Plan, as a document, will include the same sections as the current one. The introductory part should briefly outline our understanding of the trends in the development of world science and the areas in which the Institute is a leader or has the potential to lead in forming the global scientific agenda. Next comes the section that deals with large research infrastructure. The third part consists of scientific projects in areas, without excessive detail, but with an evaluation of the resources required for infrastructure development and scientific research. And all this has already been collected in a first approximation into a single document.

The next section contains plans for the development of JINR as an international organization, the staff potential of the Institute, the general infrastructure, the social sphere, scientific and educational activities, scientific information work and external communications – proposals have already been received from some departments, others are expected.

And finally, the structure of the plan includes a section dedicated to monitoring of the state of the scientific and infrastructural potential of the Institute, its current scientific results, the social sphere. A special portal for monitoring the implementation of the Institute’s development strategy consisting of about fifty different indicators that characterise the dynamics of the development of our centre was put into operation at JINR.

– What’s next, Sergey Nikolaevich?

– Until the end of August, a revision of the plan will be created that already includes all sections of the plan and in early September we should have a version that can be submitted for expert discussion – at the Scientific Council at the end of September. And at the beginning of 2023 – again the Scientific Council and the meeting of the Committee of Plenipotentiaries.

– And yet, what new elements appear in the 2024–2030 plan? For instance, is the point of the plan related to digitalization an innovation or a continuation of the process already started at the Institute?

– This is what we have wished about for a long time and we have been doing it. In the previous seven-year period, this work was not singled out as a separate article. Today, the plan will contain a paragraph with the working title “Digital Transformation”. I mean not just a set of digital services that are still available and help a lot in work. But digital transformation is different. It is all occurring services linked together into a single platform. The process of developing such a platform is very difficult; there are no ready-made solutions for a scientific organization of such a level as JINR. As I see it, this work is currently very active. In particular, the Laboratory of Information Technologies joined it in full, along with the Department for the Development of Digital Services.

– What results of our conversation can be summed up “for the edification of posterity”?

– Over the past fifteen years, we have developed or are at the final stage of developing new large basic facilities: the Superheavy Element Factory, the NICA complex, Baikal-GVD, the complex of spectrometers at the IBR-2 reactor, the MLIT multifunctional information and computer complex. The instrumental base of the Laboratory of Radiation Biology is in the process of development. Excellent working conditions have been created in the Laboratory of Theoretical Physics. The Institute has a very high human and infrastructural potential for the production of new knowledge, for interesting bright discoveries across the entire multidisciplinary thematic spectrum of its work – the Institute is located on a “plateau” that is comfortable for implementing advanced research. And the “posterity” is simply obliged to take advantage of this!

– How is the salary growth dynamics planned at JINR?

– It is planned approximately in the same scheme that has been operating for about a year and a half. During this time, personnel costs at the Institute have increased markedly. In general, it should be noted that in addition to the issue of wages, there is a block of interrelated social problems. Many long-planned but unrealized activities are currently included in the life of the Institute. In particular, the Committee of Plenipotentiary Representatives of the Governments of the JINR Member States permitted the use of budgetary funds for social programmes, including support for retiring JINR employees within the framework of a special programme that is already in effect. We all see with satisfaction how the Medical Unit No 9 is being transformed. The organization of this work will be improved.