International research collaboration

By Richard Black|January 22, 2015|Research|1 comments

Building new partnerships, access and equality for women in higher education, new forms of HE delivery and matching HE training to skills needs were all topics of discussion at a joint British Council – SOAS – British Academy workshop today that brought representatives from universities and government across South Asia to London.  In the context of a discussion between South Asian and British academics and policy-makers about key challenges and opportunities in HE, it was a pleasure to be asked to contribute to a discussion about international collaboration in research.

Although Britain produced more than 75,000 publications involving international research collaborations in 2013, and is more internationally-networked that the US and many European countries, it seems to me there is still far too little internationally-collaborative research in the UK, and depressingly little collaboration between UK academics and their counterparts in South Asia and other world regions outside Europe and North America. But why is international research collaboration important, and what is the best way to go about achieving it?

Investment in research

An initial observation to make, and one drawn out in the background paper for the workshop – A mighty web: how research collaborations can foster growth in South Asia – is that different countries have different levels of investment in research and development.  Across South Asia, this is still low – even India, which has greater investment than most countries in the region, less than 1% of GDP is spent on R&D, compared to 1.72% in the UK, 1.98% in China, 2.79% in the US and 3.93% in Israel (and that is excluding defence spending).

Clearly the level of spending on research infrastructure makes a difference to the nature and extent of possible research collaboration between countries – whether that might need to involve technology transfer or capacity-building for example; or how much universities and research organisations can contribute from their own resources to collaboration, or need to lever this from external sources.  The lower level of investment in core research in the UK compared to many other European countries is a constant source of difficulty and/or embarrassment for British universities in EU collaborative projects, as they are forced to seek core costs for collaborative activity in a way that those in, say,  a Max Planck Institute or CNRS centre simply do not need to do .

Of course, these differences are not fixed.  In Britain, we could (indeed, should!) raise R&D spending to match that of Germany (at 2.92% of GDP).  In India, lessons can be learned from the experience of China, which as recently as 1990 itself spent less than 1% of GDP on research, but has grown that to above the level of many OECD countries through sustained investment of around 18% real growth per year.  In making such investment, it is important that we bear in mind that core R&D spending needs to be on more than just science and technology – a mature R&D sector or HE research environment needs to include the social sciences and humanities too, a point recently reinforced by a series of research intensive universities worldwide.

So why collaborate?

A number of reasons were set out in the background paper for the workshop on why international collaboration is important – including the potential to reduce costs by sharing infrastructure; to fill skills gaps (and promote technology transfer); the bringing of different perspectives to shared problems; the opening up of data to larger communities of researchers; and the potential to improve diplomatic links between countries through cooperation at a technical level.

All of these reasons have some merit, and there is a now extensive literature on research collaboration – much of it emanating from the Science and Technology Policy Research unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex, going back to the 1990s and before.  But we should also be clear that research collaboration has downsides as well as ups. It may save money, but collaboration itself costs money, as I know only too well from the telephone bills for conference calls, the cost in time, money and energy levels of air travel, or the cost of simultaneous translation from my own 20 or more years of international collaboration.  Collaboration can also generate conflicts that are difficult or impossible to resolve, perhaps based on mutual misunderstanding or unrealistic expectations.

Yet surely there are some core intellectual reasons why collaboration must, on balance, enhance knowledge creation.  Most obviously, knowledge itself only really has and/or gains value through its sharing.  That also implies that there needs to be some difference in knowledge between those who are collaborating, and distinct national traditions of research (and distinct national contexts) provide one such point of difference around which interesting and unexpected conversations can take place.

That said, it is too often the case that in the search for international collaborators, academics look for people who as far as possible share their interests, approaches or backgrounds.  Yet whilst there clearly needs to be some issue of shared interest to discuss, the greatest amount of knowledge transfer – and hence enhancement of an individual’s knowledge value – will come when there is a significant gap in knowledge.  That is the whole principle on which education is based (the transfer of knowledge from lecturer to student) – but it is so much better, in the classroom as well as the laboratory, when knowledge and learning flows two-way (that is perhaps why so many academics prefer teaching mature students and at masters level).

Another point about collaboration – international or otherwise – is that it takes time.  Research by Elsevier on what makes international collaboration work shows for example that shared research interests are of less importance – what is most important is trust between collaborators, something that clearly needs to be built up over time.  Signing an MOU is one thing – it is what is still happening a decade after the MOU is signed (or first contact made) that really matters.

How do we do collaboration?

At today’s workshop, the importance of investment, tax incentives and legal changes were all identified as things that might be important to stimulate international research collaboration, and all of these are probably important.  But my own experience suggests a different way forward – and that is to start small.   All researchers need to have small grants before they have big ones – we all need to walk before we run (or we fall over).

In this context, the significance of PhD training cannot be underestimated.  We (academics) tend to assume PhDs are about teaching and training, but they are also about research, and through collaborative supervision there is a ready-made environment for two established academics to come together in addressing a common issue.

One of my own most productive lines of research, on climate change and migration, had its key boost from a collaborative PhD studentship that brought together myself as a social scientist with a climate modeller and a computer scientist as co-supervisors, and a brilliant student.  It has led – directly or indirectly – to academic papers, including in Nature Climate Change, funded external research, a major government project and a REF impact case study, and the ideas it generated are being picked up in both research and practice.  I do not believe any of us could have achieved any of this on our own.

If this is right, then a key starting point for South Asia-UK collaborations might be something like split-site PhD programmes, where students stay registered in their home universities (whether in UK or South Asia) but have an external supervisor from a partner institution and spend time – say one year out of three – in the other country.  Better still if this can create small cohorts of PhD students who share this experience, and bring different backgrounds – disciplinary and national – to their discussions.

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  1. Pingback: “Debating Higher Education in South Asia” by Michael Hutt | South Asia Notes

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