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International scientific collaboration: a quick guide

Summary

The policy brief summarises the issues likely to be faced by decision makers in both developed and developing countries when handling collaborative projects, with reference to policies and guidelines within which collaboration can take place.

Introduction

Most developing country governments recognise that science and technology can bring economic and social benefits to their country. But the value of encouraging collaboration between their own scientists and technologists and those of other countries is less obvious to them.

Furthermore, the degree to which governments have recognised the connection between investment in science and technology, and the benefits that such investment can bring, varies greatly in the developing world. The leaders of many of the least developed countries in Africa, for example, are still looking for a compelling analysis to show that science and technology are relevant to their needs.

Within this context, however, there is a growing awareness that the return on investment in science and technology in developing countries can be significantly increased if part of that investment is used to promote collaboration with researchers in other countries.

As a result of this realisation, the form that collaboration in science and technology should take, the conditions under which it is likely to succeed, the risks that collaborative projects can face — especially when collaboration takes place between partners of unequal scientific strength — and the potential barriers that can stand in their way, have each become major topics within the research and development policies of both developed and developing countries.

This policy brief focuses on these issues in the context of international collaboration in scientific research — the process by which scientists in two or more countries collaborate to carry out research of mutual interest.

National research institutes and business firms also collaborate internationally to develop new technologies; indeed the rise of globalisation has meant international technological cooperation has become a major component of the economic policies of many countries. But such collaboration raises different issues from those associated with international scientific collaboration, and will not be addressed in this paper.

Neither does the paper address the funding of research in developing countries by international donors. This can be an important source of research funding for those countries, and indeed is sometimes referred to as international scientific collaboration. But it is more appropriately called 'science aid', and (apart from the funding of joint projects between researchers in developing countries) will not be explicitly addressed here.

What this policy brief does seek to do, however, is to summarise the issues that are likely to be faced by decision makers in both developed and developing countries when handling potential collaborative projects, as well as addressing the relevant institutional government policies and guidelines within which collaboration can take place.

Included in this is a brief reference to the increasingly important impact of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on collaboration, as well as some of the ethical issues that can arise. Finally, the policy brief suggests that national strategies are needed to maximise the benefits that collaboration can bring.

The benefits of international collaboration

To judge by the steadily rising percentage of scientific papers that list authors living and working in different countries, collaboration in scientific research has been increasing steadily in recent years. There are several ways in which the governments of developing countries can benefit from this trend.

First, most scientific knowledge and expertise is located in relatively few advanced countries. Collaboration between scientists working these countries and those in developing countries therefore provides an important channel for the latter to access this knowledge and expertise, and apply them to local problems.

Second, working with foreign scientists — especially those from more scientifically advanced countries — provides a good way of enhancing domestic scientific capabilities through the exchange of knowledge and experience (see, for example, Wagner et al, Science and Technology Collaboration, report from Rand corporation to the World Bank).

Another advantage is that collaborative research can provide access to scientific facilities that may not be available locally, for example, large computing facilities, or 'big science' facilities, such as particle accelerators, radiotelescopes and oceanographic research vessels.

One important value of collaborative research is that it can provide access to foreign sources of funding for researchers in developing countries. In addition, some donors, such as the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Canada, and the department for research cooperation of Sweden's International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida/SAREC), have contributed financially to the promotion of scientific collaboration between developing countries. This can be useful in particular where neighbouring countries often have similar research interests and common publication profiles.

Furthermore, collaboration between countries can have useful political advantages. It can create trust and personal friendships between researchers, which can sometimes help diffuse tension and conflicts between the respective countries (see Scientific Cooperation, State Conflict: The roles of Scientists in Mitigating International Discord, New York Academy of Sciences).

Another example is the way that the European Union has encouraged scientific collaboration between its member countries as a device to encourage European integration. Similar collaboration within developing country blocs, for example between countries in Central America or belonging to Mercosur in South America, has also led to closer political ties.

An additional reason for encouraging collaborative research that is sometimes overlooked is that it provides a useful mechanism for engaging the talents of émigré researchers who have joined the brain drain, but still wish to stay in touch with their country of origin.

Finally, scientific collaboration between developing countries may be necessary in order to help solve regional and global problems.

Possible disadvantages

Despite the various factors that favour collaboration, there can be circumstances in which these conflict — or at least are seen to conflict — with those that favour competition. This is particularly the case when the research is close to the market place. Indeed, it is the need to manage the tension with competition rules and guidelines that leads both firms and governments to develop strategies on international scientific collaboration. 

There are other potential disadvantages with collaboration that need to be recognised. Sometimes an element of exploitation can exist with a collaborative arrangement, particularly when partners of unequal scientific strengths are involved. The stronger partner, for example, may design the project, analyse the results, and take the lead in publishing the results, using the weaker partner merely as a research assistant to collect data.

Such an arrangement can provide little benefit to the weaker partner, with the result that little new capacity will have been created at the end of the project. Indeed collaborative projects can even be a way of encouraging the brain drain, if a researcher from the scientifically weaker country leaves to join the main research team once the project is ended.

A further potential disadvantage is that, if the partners are unequal, any commercial benefits from the research may be claimed by the stronger partner. Furthermore, the greater scientific strength of a country, the greater is the propensity to engage in international collaboration; this can lead to foreign scientists playing an excessively dominant role in setting the research agenda of a country that is scientifically weak.

Then there is the fact that mechanisms for supporting collaborative research have sometimes been deliberately used to gain access to politically-sensitive areas — such as geographical regions under military control. Alternatively, there may be fears that collaboration is being used to carry out unethical human medical trials, natural resource investigations, or even experiments in biological warfare that may be prohibited in the country of the stronger partner.

Finally, the administrative and other costs — referred to as the 'transaction costs' — of collaborating with partners in foreign countries can often be high. Such costs may be incurred by language differences and the resulting communication problems, by bureaucratic and management differences and styles, and by frustrations caused by travel restrictions and time taken to acquire visas.

Each of these potential disadvantages of collaboration must be carefully weighed up against the potential benefits before any collaborative arrangement is agreed.

Formal and informal collaboration

There are two main categories of collaboration: informal and formal. Informal collaboration is that which occurs between scientists in the normal course of doing research. It is a 'bottom up' type of collaboration, and is seldom governed by formal agreements between governments, although governments may provide financial support. 

In contrast, formal collaboration involves contractual obligations to undertake specific research activities, and may require approval by the relevant government authorities.

The values of informal collaboration

There are three main reasons researchers in scientifically advanced countries may choose to collaborate informally with partners in developing countries. The first is to work with researchers with specific research skills and talents.

The second is to gain access to geographical regions and environmental conditions that may not be available in their own countries, such as specific geological formations, fauna and flora that are only found in tropical environments.

The third reason is that the researchers may wish to gain access to scientific facilities that can operate only in specific geographical locations, such as the optical telescopes placed high on mountains in Chile or Hawaii, where they can benefit from the clear air.

Other factors can also be involved. For example, in the biomedical field, cooperation can provide researchers with access to those with diseases that are only found in some developing countries.

More personal reasons can include a desire to maintain contact with former graduate students, an interest in helping developing countries to strengthen their scientific capabilities, or even because the researchers involved enjoy working in such countries.

As for scientists in developing countries, there are a number of reasons to collaborate with others in more scientifically advanced countries. For example, the collaboration can enhance their skills, give them access to resources and facilities, enable them to remain in contact with the latest advances in their fields and participate in international conferences, and increase their chance of publishing in international scientific journals.

The values of formal collaboration[1]

In parallel with the logic behind informal collaboration are the various reasons for establishing formal collaborative arrangements. Governments of developed countries, for example, may choose to support collaborative research with developing country partners as part of their foreign aid programmes, and with the intention of strengthening the research capacity in those countries.

Another more idealistic reason is that developed countries can recognise the importance of involving developing countries in the generation of knowledge as a 'global public good'. This applies particularly to research in areas such as neglected diseases (HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis), neglected crops (cassava and other traditional non-cash crops), and various environmental issues.

Finally, collaborative scientific projects may also be supported by developed countries for overtly political reasons, namely to promote better relations between their respective countries.

There is a similar set of reasons why developing country governments support research collaboration with researchers in developed countries. One is a wish to see their countries benefit from globalisation, and to tap into foreign knowledge and expertise. 

In pursuing collaborative research agreements, however, developing countries are becoming increasingly aware of the need to avoid the disadvantages that collaboration may incur.  In particular, awareness is growing of the need to ensure that they do not lose out on commercial benefits by not being given a share in the intellectual property rights that may result from the research.[2]

The impact of information and communication technologies

The revolution in information and communication technology (ICT) is having a major impact on the conduct of collaborative research, an issue that has, for example, been highlighted in a recent report from the UN Commission on S&T for Development.

Firstly, the Internet and e-mail have become invaluable in the design of projects, providing the opportunity for easy exchange of drafts proposals between participants in different countries. 

Secondly, the Internet permits the quick international exchange of data, while computers allow researchers at both ends to apply sophisticated analyses to such data. 

Search engines permit literature reviews to be carried out, even without access to major libraries. And the Internet facilitates the joint preparation of scientific papers, in particular by providing the opportunity for the authors in different countries to comment on drafts.

Another way that ICTs have had a major impact is by facilitating the participation of scientists from all developing countries — and not just those with privileged access to more conventional media — in debates on contentious science, technology and society issues. SciDev.Net is an example of how this potential can be realised.

But there are also downsides to the use of ICTs. One is the danger that the large amounts of information now available electronically makes it difficult to identify knowledge that is genuinely useful, and has been sufficiently digested to make it accessible. Again, SciDev.Net provides an example of an organisation that is helping to solve this problem.

Another problem can occur when the Internet makes it relatively easy to collaborate with research partners in the North on projects and agendas determined in the North. This process of absorption has been referred to as a "migration of minds without migration of bodies".

Finally, researchers on both sides need to be aware that communication via the Internet is never a full replacement for physical meetings, which are essential to create trust between individuals. It is only when this has been established that the Internet can facilitate genuine collaboration.

Ethical issues

Many of the ethical issues raised by international collaboration in science and technology have been referred to above. However there are some further points that need consideration by those involved in collaborative projects.

One is that fact is that some people consider it to be unethical that so little of the world's research and development is targeted on meeting the basic needs of the worlds poor. Similarly, many criticise the way in which the intellectual property systems applied in most countries in the world seem designed to protect the interests of the rich and powerful, rather than the poor and weak

What can be done to address the ethical issues that can arise around collaborative research projects? One approach is to emulate the request made by Indira Gandhi, when she was prime minister of India, to the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs (subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize), asking the organisation to create a set of guidelines that would apply to all participants involved in international science and technology collaboration.

Gandhi's move was made in response to concern expressed by the Indian Government over what many claimed to be unethical approaches involved in some of the collaborative research being undertaken in the country. Some Indian scientists were concerned that studies of the migratory patterns of birds could be used by those seeking vectors for disease-causing organisms as a form of biological warfare.

The guidelines drawn up by the Pugwash organisation were widely distributed at the UN Conference on Science and Technology for Development in Vienna in 1979, and still provide a useful checklist of concerns, as well as a description of appropriate behaviour by all the concerned partners. Indeed some feel that it could be useful to revisit and update the Pugwash guidelines.

In addition, however, additional contentious issues concerning science, technology and society have arisen since the 1970s that have had major implications for developing countries. Three examples of these are genetically modified crops, xenotransplation (the use of animal organs as human 'spare parts'), and the impact of climate change resulting from human activity.

Each of these issues can involve collaborative research. Improved mechanisms therefore need to be found to give developing countries a greater say in the way that ethical issues raised by such research are resolved. Here again, novel mechanisms (such as those represented by SciDev.Net) can play a useful role in helping developing country scientists and policymakers become more effectively involved in debating these issues.

National strategies

An increasing number of both governments and corporations are now realising the potential benefits from international scientific collaboration. Each obviously wishes to maximise the benefits they acquire from such collaboration, and minimise its potentially harmful effects. To achieve both of these, many governments and corporations have found it useful to develop explicit strategies in this field.

Doing so requires them to identify the goals they seek to achieve from collaboration and to design a strategy to help attain these goals. In the process, both governments and corporations need to identify any possible negative impacts, and to design mechanisms that will help alleviate these negative impacts as a part of their overall cooperation strategy.

Developing a national strategy must involve the various stakeholders, including representatives of the scientific and business communities. And attention must be given to its implementation. For example, if collaboration in certain scientific fields is considered a high priority, then either internal resources need to be made available, or foreign donors need to be encouraged to provide resources to enable such collaboration to take place.

But provided that the strategy is well thought through, that adequate arrangements are made to ensure that it is properly administered — and that adequate resources made available to ensure that it can be effectively implemented — scientific collaboration offers a valuable mechanism by which the impact of investments made in research can be significantly increased, and all those involved can benefit at many different levels.

References

[1] There is another set of actors which are becoming increasingly involved in research in the scientifically emerging developing countries. These are large foreign companies which are both commissioning research in developing country institutions, and in some cases also building their own research laboratories in those countries. China is a good example of a country which has seen a rapid rise in foreign investment in its research and development.  The foreign companies support this action because it gives them good access to the Chinese market, and to knowledge about that market. It also enables them to employ outstanding research talent at salary rates which are reckoned to be one-tenth of the international rates, but which are ten times the rates paid by local Chinese institutions. The knowledge and intellectual property rights generated through the commissioned work and the companies’ laboratories is owned by the foreign corporation. This creates a possible problem if the knowledge is exploited elsewhere by the company. It could lead to an internal brain-drain whereby some of the best Chinese researchers are working on foreign problems rather than local problems. This is an issue that might become a problem for the Chinese Government, but at the moment the trend is still seen as positive for both China and the foreign corporations.

[2] In recent years there has emerged a new set of partnerships built around the need to find solutions for urgent developing country problems, especially in the health area. These public private partnerships involve collaboration between public and private actors in several countries. Their objective is usually to generate knowledge and use it to solve problems. One of the best known of these partnerships is the International Aids Vaccine Initiative (IAVI)  which involves many actors. Funds are provided by governments, foundations and private individuals. It involves research and field trials that incorporate biotech companies, academic and government researchers in both developed and developing countries.

Further reading

International Workshop on China's National Strategy of International Science and Technology Collaboration: 17-19 January 2000, Beijing.  Collected papers, Ministry of Science and Technology, Beijing, PRC.

Jacques Gaillard.  La co-operation scientifique et technique avec les pays du sud. Peut-en partager la science.  Karthala, Paris 1999.

New York Academy of Sciences 1996, Global Co-operation in Science, Engineering and Medicine.  Report from New York Academy of Sciences Science Policy Program, 43 pages.

G. Oldham 1995.  La Co-operation Scientifique Internationale in R. Waast (ed) Les Conferences, Vol. 1 Les Sciences hors d'occident au XX  siecle.  Paris ORSTOM Editions 154 pages.

Lunkkonen, T, Persson, O, Swertse, G, Understanding Patterns of International Scientific Collaboration, Science, Technology and Human Values.  Vol.17, No.1.  Winter 1992, pp 101-126.

Lavakare, P.J., Parthasarathi, A., Udgaonkar, B. (Eds.), Scientific Co-operation for Search Development: for New Directions.  Vikas Publishing House, Ghazrabad, India, 1980.