Thoughts on International Research Collaboration
International collaboration, increasingly pursued to improve productivity as well as impact and relevance, outstrips results from individual work or local partnerships alone.
Recently, I had the opportunity to organize and attend two very interesting meetings at the University of Michigan and Ohio State University. The meetings were in conjunction with a program of FAPESP (Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo), a research foundation in the State of São Paulo, to strengthen the links between scientists in Brazil and the United States, and promote research partnerships. FAPESP is a taxpayer-funded foundation with the mission of supporting research in all fields of knowledge within the State of São Paulo.
As part of its internationalization strategy, FAPESP has established partnerships with funding agencies, companies, higher education and research organizations in other countries, based on the quality of their research, and has been encouraging scientists funded by its grants to further develop international collaborations. FAPESP has organized symposiums and exhibitions in several international cities such as Washington, Morgantown, Cambridge, Charlotte, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Berkeley and Davis, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Toronto, Salamanca, Madrid, Tokyo, London, Beijing and Munich.
The State of São Paulo has a population of 44 million and generates 32% of Brazil’s GDP. Under the state constitution, 1% of all state taxes are allocated to FAPESP. The stability of the funding and the autonomy of the foundation has facilitated the efficient management of resources with significant results—while São Paulo has 22% of the Brazilian population and 30% of the country’s scientists with a PhD, the state accounts for 45% of the country’s scientific articles published in international journals. The effectiveness of research carried out in São Paulo is the combined result of several factors that include the quality of the state’s universities and institutes, the extraordinary productivity of its researchers, high rates of participation by private companies based in Sao Paulo that function within the state’s R&D outlays, São Paulo’s outstanding infrastructure, and the existence of FAPESP, a well-designed state sponsoring agency governed with excellence and autonomy for the past half century.
In 2015 FAPESP distributed $629 million (in PPP dollars) in scholarships and grants. FAPESP and the University of Michigan (UM) jointly published two requests for proposals that resulted in the selection of nine research projects. UM has also collaborated with the FAPESP São Paulo Researchers in International Collaboration (SPRINT) program; the results of which are yet to be announced. In 2013, FAPESP and Ohio State University (OSU) signed a cooperation agreement for two calls for proposals resulting in 43 projects, bringing OSU researchers together with those from the state of São Paulo. The initial results of this collaboration is already evident in the large number of articles produced collaboratively in recent years by researchers from the state of São Paulo with their colleagues from OSU. The output, in terms of published works, has jumped from 40 in 2009 to nearly 300 in 2015.
A common question during the meetings was what could we do to further strengthen the collaboration between Brazilian and American scientists. Evidently, this question does not have a simple answer. As a matter of fact, a more general question that one could ask is: What are the most effective ways of sowing fruitful partnerships with research groups and colleagues in other countries in order to harvest benefits for the scientific development of emerging regions? International collaboration, increasingly pursued to improve productivity (but also impact and relevance) outstrips results from individual work or local partnerships alone. It is occurring more naturally as a result of encounters in international workshops, conferences and symposia. In addition, influential in facilitating collaboration are the cultural affinity of researchers, the existence of resources directed towards cooperative study and comparable levels of academic excellence and technological development, that all contribute to high-level joint research. In recent years, the Internet and other information technology resources have clearly favored long-distance communication among scientists, but importantly, most of the collaborations begin only after the parties have established personal contact.
Besides the clear evidence that cooperation can be highly beneficial, there is a long way to go until the partnership works smoothly and productively. Too often, misunderstandings, different jargon, unrealistic expectations, mismatched capabilities and excessive bureaucracy undermine steps to create effective cooperation. These obstacles lead to frustration, wasted resources and missed opportunities.
A report from the Global Science Forum of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) provides a valuable overview of good practice and provides some concrete suggestions for strengthening collaborations. The report stresses the contribution of collaborative work in building the research capacity of each partner, considered the most important long-term impact of collaborative programs sponsored by funding agencies. It also emphasizes the need to achieve “. . . an optimal balance between the imperatives of research (bottom-up initiatives, peer review, etc.) with top-down strategic development priorities.” The report also points out that any potential collaboration needs to pay attention from the beginning to the way that its results will be evaluated — whether in scientific or in social terms — and how they will be communicated to both policymakers and the general public. Some of the ideas presented are less obvious, but also very important. For example, the report highlights the importance of a supportive policy environment for research collaboration, stressing the role governments can play in providing support to cut through red tape and minimize bureaucracy. Furthermore, it warns of the dangers of relying on political backing, particularly in unstable situations where such support can disappear overnight with a change in government, as unfortunately happens more frequently than it should.
In a world hungry for new knowledge and innovation there are important lessons being learned about the factors that combine for optimal results in terms of research collaboration.
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