Ignoring Developing Countries

Outside of medicine, collaboration between research elites and poor nations is limited, study finds.

September 21, 2018

Involving universities from the developing world in international collaborations is often seen as a key way that scholarship can have a lasting impact on some of the poorest societies in the world.

But how often are the world’s top universities actually working with researchers in such countries? And when they do, is the nature of the relationship fair and set up in such a way that it will benefit the developing world?

According to a Times Higher Education analysis of data in Elsevier’s Scopus database, it is striking that partnerships between the poorest nations and the world’s research elite form a very small slice of international collaborations.

For instance, at nine out of 10 of the top-ranked universities in THE’s World University Rankings 2018, less than 3 percent of cross-border research featured a partner from nations categorized by the United Nations as the world’s least developed. At four of the universities, this share was lower than 1 percent.

According to the data, analyzed using Elsevier’s SciVal tool, there were about 57,000 pieces of cross-border research produced between 2013 and 2017 that featured at least one author from a least-developed country (LDC), which are mainly made up of nations in Africa but also include some of the poorest countries in Asia, such as Laos and Cambodia.

However, out of the world’s top 10 universities, only Harvard University (1,775) and the University of Oxford (1,181) were involved in more than 1,000 of those papers.

Oxford had the greatest share published with the LDCs (3.2 percent), followed by Harvard (2.9 percent) and Imperial College London (2.2 percent). Every other university had a share under 2 percent.

Much of the variation can be explained by collaborations with the LDCs being heavily skewed toward medicine, which makes up 42 percent of all the LDC collaborative research. As a result, universities with a lot of medical research tend to have the most LDC collaboration.

But in a way this only highlights how, away from medicine, collaboration involving the LDCs is at a very low level.

In engineering, for example, there were about 4,500 internationally co-authored papers involving the LDCs, but none of the World University Rankings top 10 appear among those institutions collaborating the most with the group. In terms of nations co-authoring the most engineering papers with the LDCs, Malaysia was top, while the U.S. was second.

Kevin Marsh, professor of tropical medicine at the University of Oxford and director of the Africa Oxford Initiative, which aims to develop more sustainable and equitable collaborations with academics on the continent, said that medicine dominated both owing to the importance of global health issues but also the sheer amount of funding available.

There are “many big traditional funders that fund medical research” involving the developing world, he pointed out, “but it is important to make sure that we support all areas [such as] climate change, sustainable food production [and] engineering, [which is particularly] core to international development.”

Maggie Dallman, vice president (international) at Imperial College London, who has called on top universities in the West to work more with emerging countries, said that the shift toward other subjects was beginning to happen as more opportunities emerged to apply research to local challenges.

“Certainly our engineers are getting very interested in trying to produce technological solutions for local problems in Africa,” she said.

Dallman added that such applied research might also not always show up in the best journals, despite its potentially having the greatest societal impact.

“There is a piece that we should be thinking about in terms of [measuring] impact locally … as that is every bit as important, if not more important, as getting a paper in Nature.”

For the medical research that makes up the largest chunk of LDC collaborations, there is also the question of how equitable the partnerships are.

In the past few years, the priority for many Western academics and funders has been “shifting the center of gravity” toward the poorer nations themselves to help boost their own research capacity.

For Marsh, who is also a senior adviser to the African Academy of Sciences, “early engagement” with research partners in the developing world was crucial “so that everything is co-developed and co-produced.” Too often in the past, he added, Western universities would “set up on their own track and then try to engage partners.”

The “really important shift” is to go further and fund developing world researchers directly, so that they make the decisions, he said. “People are very nervous about this due to the issue of financial accountability and so on, but that is a really important move.”

This is an approach that is already central to the strategy of one of the biggest medical research funders, the Wellcome Trust, which made a decision about 10 years ago to target funding directly at principal investigators in developing countries rather than the other way around.

“We are totally agnostic if he or she [then] decides to have a U.K., U.S., Australian or [other national] partner … it is totally their decision … rather than an assumption that the [Western] institution would make that decision,” said Simon Kay, Wellcome’s head of international operations and partnerships.

“They obviously do pull in expertise,” he added, “but the decision and the leadership is always in Africa. Then you almost don’t need a discussion about equitable partnerships.”

In addition, Wellcome is also one of the major backers of the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa, an agency set up to lead and manage distribution of research funding on the continent.

Kay accepted that it was easier for an organization such as the Wellcome Trust to take such an approach, owing to its independence, and that he was “totally sympathetic” as to why taxpayer-funded agencies might have more concerns.

“Obviously we audit them, but we don’t operate from a point of view of a huge fear of fraud or corruption; our operating point of view is that it makes a huge amount of strategic sense and we’ll manage the risk that’s around that,” he said.

But if the approach works, it could mean that the networks of research collaboration for the world’s poorest nations are, in the future, firmly rooted in the developing countries themselves.

“As far as possible, we are shifting the decision making and ownership as close as possible to where it’s needed,” Kay said.

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