An OECD report outlines good practice for effective international research collaboration — but success can never be guaranteed.
One of the most promising aspects of the development scene in recent years has been the growing willingness of researchers, spurred by agencies such as the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, to collaborate across international boundaries to develop potential solutions to important scientific and social problems.
Initially, most of this international collaboration was between scientists in the developed world — who tend to have greater financial and technical resources — and those in developing countries who were often cast in the role of junior partners, allocated tasks such as data gathering or number crunching.
More recently, these partnerships have become more equal as scientists in developed countries have seen how local context affects their work, and developing countries have built up their own research capabilities. South–South research collaborations have also grown as developing countries have sought to strengthen their science base.
Last month, Mexico and Honduras announced an agreement on scientific exchanges — the latest in a rapidly growing list of collaborations that are producing scientific, social and even political benefits, helping to cement trade links, for example.
But there is still a long way to go until all such collaborations work smoothly and productively. Recent years have seen plans to boost research and development in the Islamic world fail to come to fruition. And in Africa, plans for a flagship network for postgraduate science training were held back last year by political infighting.
Too often, misunderstandings, unrealistic expectations, mismatched capabilities and excessive bureaucracy undermine steps to create effective partnerships. These obstacles can lead to frustration, wasted resources and missed opportunities.
In a bid to increase the prospects for successful scientific collaboration, the Global Science Forum of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) last month published a report on opportunities, challenges and good practices in international research cooperation between developed and developing countries.
Based on the conclusions of a project initiated by the Japanese government in 2008 and culminating in a workshop held in South Africa last September, the report provides a valuable overview of good practice and provides concrete suggestions for improving collaboration.
The report distils a wide set of practical experiences (both successes and failures). It is based on broad consultation with scientific and development agencies, although admittedly most were based in developed countries.
Much of what the report outlines will be familiar to those already engaged in collaborative activity. For example, it sets out the criteria that should be used to select potential partners, and how potential collaborators must weigh up their goals.
Equally important is the contribution that collaborations can make to building research capacity. This is often the most important long-term impact of collaborative programmes sponsored by development agencies.
The report emphasises the need to achieve "an optimal balance between the imperatives of research (bottom-up initiatives, peer review, etc.) with top-down strategic development priorities".
And it points out that any potential collaboration needs to pay attention from the beginning both 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.
But some of the proposals are less obvious — and just as important. For example, the report highlights the importance of a supporting policy environment for research collaboration, stressing the role governments can play in providing the type of backing that can cut through red tape and minimise bureaucracy.
At the same time, it warns of the dangers of relying on political backing, particularly in unstable situations where such patronage can disappear overnight with a change in government.
On a more positive note, participants at the South African workshop concluded that, in general, concerns about "asymmetry" in research collaborations between partners from developed and developing countries no longer reflect what happens in practice, as was highlighted some years ago in a report by the Swiss Commission for Research Partnerships with Developing Countries (KFPE).
"Rather, these collaborations bring together partners with distinct and complementary strengths," says the Global Science Forum report. "This finding challenges all stakeholders to develop ways of identifying the contributions in documents, reports, and evaluations of programmes and projects."
There is no simple formula to ensure success in research collaboration. What works in one situation — for example, a partnership between institutions with no government support from either side — may not work in another, where external support is essential.
Even political support can be a mixed blessing. Where it is based on genuine scientific opportunity, it can help in achieving success. But where political pressures lead to reluctant partners being shoehorned together without adequate resources, failure is inevitable.
The OECD report provides a valuable checklist of factors for researchers and administrators to consider before embarking on a collaborative project.
Success can never be guaranteed. Each project will have its own internal tensions and external pressures. But one thing is certain: the more such collaborative projects succeed, the greater will be the overall contribution of science to development.