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Bruce Tidor - MIT Skoltech collaboration enters its third phase

Faculty and students at both universities will continue to pursue common research interests, collaborating to solve cutting-edge problems in science and engineering.

Deliana Ernst | MIT Skoltech Program
December 11, 2019

MIT has renewed its relationship with the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech). The collaboration, among MIT, Skoltech, and the Skolkovo Foundation, began in 2011 with the goal of launching and developing Skoltech as a leading graduate research university in Moscow, with opportunities for scientific and educational exchange between faculty and students at the two universities.

The third phase of the collaboration, governed by a five-year agreement, will build on the most successful aspects of its second phase, supporting joint activities between MIT and Skoltech in research, graduate education, and innovation. The focus will continue to be on strengthening research collaborations between individual faculty members at the two institutions.

"Skoltech has developed rapidly and has recruited excellent faculty and outstanding students," says MIT Professor Bruce Tidor, faculty lead of the MIT Skoltech Program. "The support, commitment, and engagement of more than 75 MIT faculty has led to the success of the MIT Skoltech collaboration. Faculty and students at both schools will benefit from continuing to work together."

An ecosystem built for innovation

During the second phase of the MIT Skoltech collaboration, almost 60 research projects were initiated at MIT on a wide range of topics, either as faculty-to-faculty research projects together with Skoltech, or through MIT Skoltech Seed Grants.

One of the collaborative research projects, headed by Yet-Ming Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, led to a new approach to eliminate carbon emissions from cement production, a major global source of greenhouse gases (GHGs).

"The most valuable aspect of our collaboration with Skoltech is that it gave my students and me the freedom to take on a risky topic in which we had no prior track record: low-GHG cement," Chiang says. "That eventually opened up an entirely new research area that we plan to develop with our colleagues in Russia."

As another example, a collaborative project led by Kamal Youcef-Toumi, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, laid the foundation for RecyBot, a low-cost robot under development to dismantle mobile phones and to remove and separate their component parts, which in turn could be used to create new phones or be otherwise processed.

Another valuable aspect of the collaboration is the support of the MISTI-Russia program, which has brought dozens of MIT students to Russia to study, conduct research, and immerse themselves in Russian culture.

"The MIT Skoltech collaboration has made the very existence of the MISTI-Russia program possible," says Elizabeth A. Wood, professor of history at MIT and co-director of the MISTI-Russia program. "It has supported the program since the beginning and sponsored the revival of Russian language teaching at MIT after a 16-year hiatus. Since its inception, it has sent many MIT students to Skoltech and other Russian institutions to work in a wide range of fields, from nuclear physics to cancer modeling, and from robotics to aerospace engineering and architecture."

Joint research projects will continue to be the focus of the collaboration's third phase. Other important features include new entrepreneurship and innovation programs, the continued collaboration with MISTI to connect MIT and Skoltech students, and a joint annual conference.

Guided by MIT's mission, values, and priorities

The decision to continue the MIT Skoltech Program drew on the input of several MIT sources, including the MIT Skoltech Faculty Coordinating Committee, the faculty-led International Advisory Committee, and the Senior Risk Group, a group of senior MIT administrators charged with evaluating proposed MIT engagements with entities in several countries, including Russia.

"We share many intellectual and practical interests with our Skoltech colleagues, yet collaborations like this also exist in the context of complicated and dynamic international relations. The broader U.S.-Russia relationship was necessarily a factor in our review and planning of the MIT Skoltech collaboration," says Richard Lester, associate provost for international activities at MIT. "In the rapidly changing global environment, MIT's international collaborations must remain aligned with our core mission and values. Learning about the world, helping to solve the world's greatest problems, and working with colleagues around the world who share our curiosity and commitment to rigorous scientific inquiry and to free and open exchange are core values for MIT."

As the next chapter of the MIT Skoltech collaboration begins, faculty members who have been involved over time are pleased to see the collaboration continue. As Institute Professor Phillip A. Sharp observes, "The MIT Skoltech relationship serves many positive societal purposes even though we may not agree with the policies of the Russian government. The scientific exchange helps citizens of the two countries to become better acquainted, making it more difficult for people to demonize one another. This includes exchange of students, collaboration between Russia and U.S./MIT scientists, and participation in meetings in both countries. Note that even during the darkest days of the Cold War, there was scientific exchange."