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Founders of the discussion platform PaperLab: ‘Officials and experts should come out of their filter bubbles’

Two years ago, alumni of the ‘Public Policy’ Initiative of the Soros Foundation-Kazakhstan, Malika Tukmadiyeva and Serik Beisembayev launched a PaperLab discussion platform in Astana to support young researchers. Currently, the PaperLab platform is a successful instance of development of an expert milieu in Kazakhstan.

Young researchers get an opportunity to discuss results of their researches, and state authorities have a chance to critically look at their work. At the meeting, the PaperLab founders told about development of social sciences in Kazakhstan, peculiarities of communication with the government departments and formation of the expert milieu

Sociologist Serik Beisembayev: ‘The idea of the PaperLab project emerged when we were doing an internship in Washington: Malika and I as alumni of the ‘Public Policy’ Initiative of the SFK got an opportunity to visit the George Washington University and study research and public speaking techniques for 5 months. Being in that environment, I realized that we lack platforms where scientists and researchers may share their works, discuss common topics. I had a thought it would be nice to organize something like that here. The absence of the necessary environment is one of the major problems, because of which neither research nor science develop here. And the environment cannot emerge by itself. It has to be created. Who will provide it? Obviously, we have to do it ourselves. By that time, we have completed the studies. It was sad a bit that our team, which had become close-nit, had to separate and keep their way. We wanted to go on doing collaborative projects and studies. On returning to Kazakhstan, I and Malika came up with an idea to set up an expert platform, which was supported by guys. Then an exciting process of inventing a name began. After a few brainstorming sessions, the name PaperLab appeared, which originates from ‘Public Policy Research Lab’ or a laboratory for conducting political and management researches. Also, the word ‘paper’ in academic slang stands for ‘report, article’. So eventually, I assume that we have got a creative and meaningful name. It was 2 years ago; and last year, we registered the PaperLab Public Foundation.

The PaperLab unites young scientists and researchers from several countries, some sort of a network of researchers. We are united by mutual friends, we came across somehow, socialized or study somewhere. These guys are from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The core of the team is from Kazakhstan – alumni of the “Public Policy” Initiative of the Soros Foundation-Kazakhstan. This network exists informally, we discuss various topics, consider the possibility to apply fro grants on behalf of a small team of researchers. As yet, we haven’t had intercountry projects, but we have had guest participants from Kyrgyzstan in our discussion, which was fascinating.

Researcher Malika Tukmadiyeva:

‘In the beginning, we were afraid of working with the state bodies since there exists a belief that state bodies are very restricted, it is hard to get hold of them, they are unwilling to communicate. In my experience, we haven’t faced such a problem: nearly all state bodies, with some exceptions, are quite open, especially at top level. We are particularly proud of the fact that we can invite interesting individuals from the government, often of top level; the Parliament deputies quite regularly visit us. Since it’s an open platform, we also have common citizens who are interested in certain topics. I think, it was worthwhile to organize all this as PaperLab is one of few platforms where an exchange occurs among citizens, the authorities and researchers. At the same time, PaperLab is an independent, non-affiliated platform. Also, another surprising discovery was that in public administration, the higher a post is, the more open it is. It is often much easier to draw those who is in charge through private messages in social networks instead of writing to the office.’

Serik Beisembayev:

‘Once in six weeks, we hold discussions on various current issues. The main aim of the platform is to hold expert discussions on topics which concern the society. They are held based on researches. Our main objective is to elaborate recommendations which help take effective  decisions. The scope of topics is broad at that: from mass sport in Astana to involvement of citizens in the local self-government. That is quite a big range.

Generally speaking, selection of topics is a creative process. We observe what causes a stir. Afterwards, we try to shape it in the form of a socially significant matter, which is resolved by the state agencies. We try to find the areas where the government will need an expert study.  We also invite both sides, let them share their opinions, discuss them – so we do intensive work, attracting different parties. As a follow-up, a public policy brief is written.

In my opinion, pluralism of opinions is absolutely essential. In our situation now, unfortunately, most decisions are made without taking into account the interests of different parties. Discussion is useful because it allows to address the problem from the point of view of different groups: experts, state agencies and ordinary citizens. It resembles the clash of different worlds at times. But without it, it is hard to make effective decisions.’

Malika Tukmadiyeva:

‘I guess we rarely have problems with selection of experts and researchers themselves as there is qualitative expertise in the country. We try to focus precisely on young researchers; they exist, they are interesting, they are charismatic, they carry out good researches. In terms of quality of discussion, it is important for us to redirect researchers’ attention from theory, methodology and international experience to the critical part, recommendations; because we want our discussions to be more hands-on.

I assume one of the central problems in Kazakhstan is the lack of continuity between  generations of experts; the absence of the milieu, exchange of knowledge, its accumulation, which is vitally essential for research activities. In our country, expertise is often exclusive information; researches are conducted for closed communities, most often for customers. That is why research doesn’t go beyond the scope of the relationship ‘Customer-Contractor’.

The absence of researches in the public domain causes difficulties especially for young researchers: you attempt to do research; but in the public domain, you don’t see other researches into the whole field of expertise, which doesn’t mean they don’t exist – they do exist, they are not merely posted anywhere.’

Serik Beisembayev:

‘So, what’s it all add up to?’ – this is the key question posed by the public; which we frequently put to ourselves. Of course, it is difficult to trace a direct causal link. However, I suppose discussions help identify inconsistencies that few can notice, including people taking decisions. There was a rather interesting discussion about the religious politics. In this regard, there were many controversial decisions on the part of related departments. Some constructive criticism of the authorities was raised during the discussion. Although representatives of state bodies opposed many things, they got an opportunity to critically look at the decisions they had made. Here, even if we don’t influence decisions directly, we build a culture so that officials could come and speak to the expert community and citizens about burning issues. It’s very important for the country, where the public expert field is quite restricted, formal. They often write to us ‘It is great that there is such a platform where you can have an open exchange of views; where there are no formal boundaries, where the status of people from state bodies doesn’t put pressure on the people present. Certainly, there were such topics, after discussion of which – six-twelve months later – civil servants sought our counselling. Two years ago, for example, we held a discussion on mass sports; a year later, one of the institutions under the Department of Culture and Sport of Astana came into contact with us. They invited us to their place; they said they had plans and asked how to implement them. We had a good conversation. It occurred to me that the problem was not even in the closed nature of state bodies but in the lack of access to expert knowledge.

In the context of Astana, it is important that the role of researchers in making management decisions increased. Unfortunately, many things are assigned ‘top-down’ in our country, without expert analysis and discussion. Now quick reforms are not effective. Since gaining independence, our society has got very complicated. Under these circumstances, the more this or that decision is analyzed and discussed, the more qualitative it is.

Malika Tukmadiyeva:

‘We have designed the core concept for two years. Through trial and error, we have learnt a better way for the dialogue to work and how to build discussion. That is why I think there will be no drastic changes. All this time, we have been trying to involve experts from regions – this a direction we are also interested to work in, but which is a long-term target. At the present time, we are working on taking discussion out of the so-called liberal bubble: we hold meetings in Russian and Kazakh simultaneously so as to encourage people to ask questions in both languages. In the autumn, we will hold a discussion only in Kazakh. We would like to know the difference between discussions in Russian and Kazakh, and if any difference exists.

I look at our society more optimistically owing to our work, because lots of cool guys visit our events. We see how at every meeting, people get acquainted, exchange contacts, which leads to some new interesting projects beyond PaperLab. I am so pleased to observe development of this culture.’