Richer nations dominate sustainability science tie-ups

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Copyright: Dieter Telemans / Panos

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  • Sustainability science is becoming more collaborative and global
  • But North-South partnerships remain scarce and unbalanced
  • They may not reflect developing nations’ priorities

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Sustainability science is becoming increasingly collaborative and global, a recent report found, but researchers say cooperation between scientists from the North and South remains scarce and unbalanced.

Publication and citation data show that North-South collaboration has increased for all countries between 2009 and 2013, says Coralie Bos, a coauthor of the report Sustainability science in a global landscape, produced by academic publisher Elsevier with SciDev.Net.

Scientists in developed countries such as Australia, France and the United States have increased their scientific output in collaboration with countries in the South, the report shows. For example, 18.7 per cent of France’s sustainability science publications were collaborations with developing countries in 2013, up from 14.8 per cent in 2009.

Improved internet-based communications have made cross-border collaboration easier and more efficient, and many sustainable development challenges such as AIDS or climate change require a global response, the report says.

“Successful collaboration depends on all parties having a certain level of scientific and technological capacity.”

Sustainability science in a global landscape

But the number of North-South collaborations is still small, says Lei Pan, the other author of the report, which was presented on 24 September ahead of the UN Sustainable Development Summit in New York, United States.

“These collaborations are largely driven by the North and do not necessarily reflect priorities of the South,” she says. “The positive side is that the collaborations help knowledge transfer between the North and the South.”

The report says: “Successful collaboration depends on all parties having a certain level of scientific and technological capacity.”

Geert De Neve, an anthropologist at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom, who has extensive experience in India, says Indian academics may underperform because India has fewer research institutions and less research funding than developed countries.

A lot of collaborative research is funded by developed countries and hence driven by their research interests, the report’s authors say. In addition, researchers in the North tend to get more credit for their work from other academics than do researchers from the global South.

Publication and citation figures usually reflect the dominance of Europe and North America over global research, says Daya Thussu, an Indian academic at the University of Westminster in the United Kingdom. “This is partly because of the [higher] quality of research and scholarship in Western universities,” and partly because of the “political economy” of global academic publishing, says Thussu, who is codirector of the university’s India Media Centre.

The academic system in the global South also places less emphasis on peer-reviewed research publications than it does in the North, De Neve says. For example, many academics in India focus on teaching and do little research after their doctoral degree, he says.

In the United Kingdom, researchers face regular assessment of the quality of their research, and this affects their career advancement, De Neve explains. “In India, there is not the same institutional pressure on publishing, and hence academics do not necessarily prioritise it in the way we do in the UK.”


Sustainability science in a global landscape (Elsevier, 24 September 2015)