Beginning in 1998, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) mounted a cooperative program with scientists in Russia, as well as with scientists in other independent states that emerged after the splintering of the USSR in 1991. The Department of State provided the funding. The International Center for Science and Technology (ISTC) in Moscow conducted onsite administration of projects. The objectives of the program were to (1) advance agricultural science by supporting the development and application of new expertise of Russian scientists, (2) enhance the effectiveness and productivity of ARS research programs that could benefit from extension of activities to Russia, (3) improve the economy of Russia through use of technological advances in Russian agriculture, and (4) reduce the global threat from biological weapons by focusing attention on civilian uses of technologies of concern while ensuring security of dangerous pathogens.
Implementation focused on scientist-to-scientist collaboration with active participation by both sides in jointly designed projects. Projects were funded through grants, usually at a level of about $300,000 over 3 years. Most of the funds were committed to Russian laboratories. ARS limited the funding of its own laboratories to no more than 17 percent of the total funds for any project (commonly, $40,000 over 3 years). This amount could support travel and incidental costs incurred by ARS participants. ARS scientists generally considered such projects to be a part of their personal research programs.
Project selection and approval was a two-step process, driven largely by the ARS collaborators. Brief preliminary proposals developed by either side, which had support by the ARS scientists and concurrence by the ARS national program
leader, were considered for support as a direct extension of the ARS program. External peer review was not utilized.
For successful preliminary proposals, the first step was funding of a visit by the cooperating Russian scientists for 1 to 3 weeks to the research facility of the ARS scientist. If the ARS or Russian scientists were not enthusiastic about cooperation after this visit (e.g., a mismatch of capabilities and interests), the process would stop. Otherwise, a full proposal was prepared in ISTC format and reviewed by the governments of the two countries and the ISTC according to ISTC’s established procedures.
The ARS review focused, among other things, on compliance with various guidelines, including animal care and use. A requirement for reciprocal yearly visits was included in the proposal. If a proposal was received from a Russian scientist and no U.S. collaborator was named, an effort would be made to locate ARS scientists with relevant skills. Once the proposal was approved, the ISTC then played a key role in providing oversight and resolving problems directly with Russian project participants.
Russian scientists who were struggling financially and who were outside the mainstream of international collaboration enthusiastically greeted the first official visits to their facilities by ARS personnel. It was immediately apparent to the American visitors that the Russian laboratories had well-trained scientists and resources, including pathogen collections that could provide a basis for productive cooperation. The first four projects were approved in 2000 at two Russian laboratories. From 2000 to 2011, about 50 projects were established at Russian laboratories. The program in Russia and other countries that emerged from the USSR has involved more than 30 ARS laboratories and 27 counterpart institutes, with more than 1,300 participating scientists.
Funds expended by ARS through 2011 totaled $48.2 million, with 45 percent of these funds directed to projects in Russia. Most of the funds were expended in a 7-year period, from 2000 through 2006, when funding available to the ARS for the program totaled $5–6 million annually. Then funding levels dramatically decreased as the priorities of the Department of State changed.
STRENGTHS AND CHALLENGES TO COOPERATION
Surveys of American scientists involved in the program indicated that the strength of the program was the high quality of scientist-to-scientist interactions that was achieved in almost every case. The principal investigators from both countries contributed to the design of the project, agreed on objectives and procedures, and supported the work throughout the project. Reciprocal visits were considered by most to be not just an adjunct to electronic communications but the true core of the collaboration. In addition, many scientists on both sides reported the building of personal relationships that went well beyond the content of the project.
Of course, there were significant challenges. Movement of biological materials was difficult and was not always sufficiently considered in the development of projects. Some laboratory facilities and vivariums in Russia needed to be upgraded to meet U.S. standards, an issue not always sufficiently considered at the outset. Some Russian laboratories were reluctant to consider cooperation, or such cooperation was discouraged by governing agencies in Russia. Publication of results in international journals was difficult (or a low priority) for some Russian laboratories. This topic deserved discussion at the outset of projects.
There were enthusiastic reviews by almost all participating scientists on both sides. Of the 50 Russian projects, 40 were extended beyond the initial 3-year period, thus providing good evidence of support by collaborators and the authorities from both countries. Many Russian institutes benefited from improved physical facilities and equipment provided through the cooperative projects. However, this statistic does not adequately reflect the strength of the personal relationships formed and the value of such relationships to future research and transparency in science.
Sustainability of projects remains an issue. Few mechanisms for funding of applied projects in agriculture exist in either Russia or the United States. Many promising collaborative projects ended. They could have been continued on a productive basis if financial support had been available. While limited support has been obtained for a few projects, the level of collaboration is unlikely to reach earlier levels.
The original program was considered successful in achieving its objectives, and some aspects of the program can serve as models for future collaborative efforts. At the same time, however, sustainability of research programs in this field is not likely in the absence of a continuing source of government funding.
SOURCE: Information provided by Agricultural Research Service, March 2012.
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