Should you find yourself in Moscow during an unseasonably cold February, I recommend braving the -20 temperatures with several layers. Or if you work for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS),  just remember your work gloves.

BAS, a number of the UK’s space scientists, and other UK teams with interests in Russia, joined David Willetts in Moscow last week to take part in the 10th UK-Russia Joint Commission on Science and Innovation (JC). Joint Commissions are opportunities for the UK science minister and his team to meet with counterparts in the ministries of key strategic partners, to review existing collaborations between the two countries, and to discuss future activities. Last Monday Mr Willetts met with Russian science minister, Andrei Fursenko, to celebrate the strong collaboration between UK and Russian scientists, and to launch the UK-Russia Year of Space, which coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space flight.

As a long-standing supporter of UK-Russian collaboration, the Royal Society was invited to join the Joint Commission. The Society’s archives show that the Fellows have been interacting with Russian scientists since the seventeenth century, when Edmond Halley advised Peter the Great on the Russian navy, and on support for the sciences. Today, the Royal Society funds mobility grants for researchers from the two countries to work together, and also works closely with the Russian Academy of Sciences through the InterAcademy Panel, the European Federation of National Academies of Sciences and Humanities (ALLEA), and the science academies of the G8, to jointly provide scientific advice to global policymakers.

At the JC, a number of successful collaborations were highlighted, and opportunities for future activity considered. The Royal Society-Russian Foundation for Basic Research Joint Project scheme was hailed a success, providing seed funding for joint research between the two countries. European Framework Programme funding was identified as a valuable tool in supporting larger scale research, which both countries could access. National schemes, such as the Russian government’s scheme to attract senior overseas researchers to Russia (which to date has funded 2 successful UK applicants to work in Russia, to the tune of 240million Rubles (£5million)), were also increasing the linkages between Russia and the UK. Examples of collaboration spanned the sciences – from nanotechnology, to pharmaceuticals to accelerators. It is clear that collaboration is alive and well.

But at the Commission it was clear that there was room for improvement and expansion. The suitably attired representative from the British Antarctic Survey, Professor Alan Rodger, was keen to develop more formal links with Russian agencies to increase collaborative research in the Arctic, to share resources, expertise, and access with Russian counterparts. Ministers Fursenko and Willetts oversaw a new agreement between the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, and the UK Space Agency (which could perhaps learn from its Russian partner, and come up with a catchier acronym or title!). Astra Zeneca announced a new Memorandum of Understanding with Skolkovo Innovation Centre – Russia’s answer to Silicon Valley which is being developed on the outskirts of Moscow – signed shortly before the Commission met.

The Royal Society is going to explore opportunities with the Russian Academy and other partners for joint activities on global challenges, including some work on nuclear non-proliferation policy, continue to observe trends in science and innovation in the two countries (following on from work in the forthcoming Knowledge, Networks and Nations), and also organise a meeting for young scientists, similar to the Frontiers of Science meetings held recently with Brazil and Australia.

This Joint Commission (closed, perhaps stereotypically, with vodka over lunch) was an example of the ‘science diplomacy’ that the Society and others such as the AAAS have been discussing over recent years. One element of this diplomacy was clear – diplomacy for science, or the facilitation of collaboration, was at the heart of this meeting, but other aspects were also there beneath the surface. Agreements on space science, and discussions of collaboration in the Arctic, contribute to strengthened international relations between countries as well as broadening scientific knowledge and resources; in these instances the facilitation of the science is not just an end in itself, but is an example of science being employed, in part, for diplomatic means. The joint activities of the Russian Academy of Science and the Royal Society, offer scientific advice to inform international policy, or science in diplomacy.

Each of these dimensions was at play in Moscow last week. Both the UK and Russian governments have declared a commitment to science and innovation, and both view each other as key strategic partners globally. Science is one area where the two countries have a rich history, and existing collaborations to build upon. Science is clearly a successful component of UK-Russian diplomacy. UK researchers should take advantage of the other side of ‘science diplomacy’ and make the most of the opportunities now available to engage with Russia as Medvedev’s government places greater emphasis on the role of innovation in Russia’s strategy for growth. Just don’t forget the gloves.

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