April Conference: A Multidisciplinary Forum for Research Discussion and Public Debate

The HSE Look is delighted to present its readers with the interview with Fuad T. Aleskerov, HSE Tenured Professor, Head of the Department of Mathematics at the Faculty of Economic Sciences, and a long-time member of the April Conference programme committee, about the evolution of the Conference and its major highlights of this year.

It’s been the XIX April Conference this year – how has it changed since the first years?

To give a little retrospective, when I became a part of the April Conference programme committee, a few years after I joined HSE back in 2003, the conference brought together around 250 participants. This year we had over 1800. The scale changed greatly, and while in the past Andrey Yakovlev and I still could read through all the submitted papers, these days it is simply impossible. Still, I do my best to indulge my scientific curiosity and get familiar with some of the papers outside the conference sessions which I supervise.

The conference maintains a balance of research and policy analysis, on the one hand, and of theoretical topics and to specific issues concerning development of Russia, its economy, education and political system, on the other hand, thus creating a space in which everybody can find something to suit their research interests. And indeed, the scope of topics discussed at the April Conference is astounding and has naturally expanded over the years.

I am exceedingly happy and proud to note that through all these years the quality of research presented at the April conference has always been very strong. It corresponds fully to my idea and experience of what a good scientific conference should be – it brings together people who do cutting-edge research. I would like to emphasise that the honourary speakers have delivered outstanding talks, and presented findings and approaches which are bound to define future research in their respective fields.

Was there any paper that impressed you most of all? One that everybody should get familiar with?

Listening to an honorary speaker presentation is always a treat. Several years ago we had Eric Maskin,then Kenneth Arrow, which were very special occasions for HSE. This year, for example, Claude d'Aspremont-Lynden presented an outstanding talk on Dixit-Stiglitz model, which is very fundamental and generates a whole new array of ideas for further exploration.  However, this talk was a very math-based economic theory of 21st century and would make little sense to the general audience.

To give another example, Maurice Salles, another speaker whom I had the pleasure to invite, did a very thorough historical analysis of how the concept of independence of irrelevant alternatives originated. He evoked the works of J.F. Nash, K. Arrow, and many other great names in the economic theory, and this puts one of the most influential concepts of the 20th century into context. There was a talk by Heinz-Dieter Kurz on Marx, which I was not able to attend unfortunately, and while it is not my area of expertise, I would be very interested to learn more in terms of adding to the general intellectual background.  It’s one of the perils of the conference growing - for me, between chairing two sessions and being a moderator at 4 honorary speaker talks, there is too much going on at once to attend everything that interests me.

This year new thematic sessions were added to the conference. Could you please tell more about them?

The session ‘The Arctic: Challenges of the 21st Century’ was added on my suggestion because it is a huge policy issue. Due to the growing interest in using the resources of the Arctic (hopefully responsibly and sustainably), there is a pressing need to learn more about this area and to study its resources and the natural, technological and political limitations regarding their use.

By the way, I got interested in the topic by chance: two years ago I was invited by a colleague whom I respect very much to participate in a workshop on the Arctic issues, and I could not  refuse. While I was listening to the colleagues, I did a draft mathematical model based on the presentations about the issues concerning the Arctic. After further refining and developing this model, I was able to present it at three prominent conferences focusing on the Arctic, including the Arctic Congress, and I got involved in several research and policy analysis projects on the Arctic since. 

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Arctic and the complexity of the issues involved in its further use. To provide but a few examples, first, given the oil extraction ambitions, the Artic is a looming environmental catastrophe, unless a well-maintained system of alarm and early prevention will be installed. The fragility of the ecosystem there would make the cost of spillage cleaning astronomical. I do hope that our research will help to advocate for investment in such a system. Second, there are several contested zones between the Arctic countries and understanding the resources and interest at stakes is vital for successful negotiations regarding the activity in the region.

Initially I thought that next year we will hold a separate conference focused only on the Arctic, but after this April Conference I am convinced that we will benefit more from staying a part of it for some time, as it allows to bring a wider array of researchers to the discussion of the topic and untangle the complex web of economic, political, environmental and other issues involved.

As HSE itself, April Conference began with a focus on a rather narrow set of research areas, while recently it likewise turned into the “Higher School of Everything".  How does the conference keep its cohesiveness despite the diversity of topics?

There are two sides of the conference to consider – the scientific discussion and the civic debate. As for the research, new sessions, including the ones on the Arctic and design theory, are closely tied to the development of the economy in contemporary society. For example, there are many interesting studies on the economics and art internationally, which are only starting to emerge in Russian universities. As a programme committee, we are open to the new ideas, and when there is a community of people who are doing research on a specific topic and which is related to the general premise of the conference, we are happy to welcome them.  It demonstrates very clearly that HSE is a fertile ground for new ideas as a university, and it does not hold on to a narrow focus.

If we speak about the April Conference as a forum for civic discussion, all these topics have an impact on the development of our society and on how we think about it. For instance, plenary talks, which have always been an integral part of the conference, are more heavily geared towards policy analysis, such as the proposals for higher education development, and at the same time, they are grounded in very good research. It’s been a pleasure for me to listen to both the presentations and the discussion which followed.

As a side-note, I have never put much stock into any civic initiatives or movements which were not founded on a deep understanding of the issue they try to address. One of the missions of the April Conference is to provide the knowledge that can support the public debate.

What is the April Conference to HSE at large? Part of the brand, a ‘flagship conference’?..

Calling it a flagship conference seems very official to me… personally, it is a large part of my life at the university, and not only because I devote a lot of time to its preparation, but because I am looking forward to the exchange of ideas which happens every year. I think also that holding such a conference contributes to the development of the research community – when all of us are able to listen first-hand prominent researchers, we get new ideas and new aspirations in terms of the quality and impact of the work we do. I encourage my students to attend the sessions, and I think it would benefit HSE’s best students if during the three days of the conference all classes were suspended and the students could grow both as researchers and global citizens by attending the April Conference.

Read more in The HSE Look May 2018 issue