Jisc Futures: what next for the UK’s international research collaborations?

Paul Feldman explains why the UK must be ready to embrace research collaborations on an increasingly international scale

July 4, 2017
Map technology

The world is changing and we are in the midst of a digital revolution where technology is disrupting the whole nature of research.

For the UK to become the most digitally advanced research nation in the world, we need to understand how both the data revolution and open science are changing the game.

Rapid advances in digital networked technologies mean we now live in a new era of research, one that can be characterised as data-driven by default and increasingly open, as governments around the world seek greater social and economic returns on investment in research-based innovation.

These factors have combined to create some of the most promising opportunities, and the biggest challenges, that the sector will face for years to come.

In our world of ever-increasing data collection, it is essential that the UK has an e-infrastructure that allows all aspects of the research and innovation ecosystem to have access to the best data and technology in order to give the UK a competitive edge.

At Jisc, the sector owned organisation responsible for supporting the use of technology, we are helping UK institutions and industry to access cutting-edge research, and enabling domestic and global partnerships via the Janet Network (the UK’s National Research and Education Network: NREN). It is the NRENs around the world that are responsible for providing the vital infrastructure that enables big science facilities to organise and share vast amounts of data globally.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescopes – sited in Australia and South Africa, with a HQ near Manchester and a consortia of engineers gathered from 17 different countries – is a perfect example of this. The level of collaboration needed for this project would be impossible without an e-infrastructure to ensure the fast and safe data transfer between the equipment and the processing sites. SKA is set to be one of the most ambitious scientific adventures of the 21st century and is made possible by the digital infrastructure that enables collaboration at a global scale. 

In the UK we are lucky to have an innovative policy environment where our research funders and successive governments recognise that open science means better research, and better economic and social outcomes for the UK.

However, an innovative policy environment is not enough on its own. To realise the potential benefits of research being “as open as possible and as closed as necessary”, the UK must aim to maintain its world leadership position in implementing policies and embracing the changes in culture and practice this requires from our scientific community.

This is not an insignificant task when most of the incentives and promotion prospects for researchers are tied squarely to traditional ‘prestige’ publication routes.

As a sector, we have an opportunity to creatively and constructively challenge these paradigms in order to free up the research community’s capacity to innovate and develop into a new era where the outputs from research equate to more than a PDF text document controlled largely by commercial interests (or held behind a paywall).   

All along the research lifecycle (the design of the methods, the creation of the data, the analysis and computation of the results, the publication, dissemination, discoverability and re-use of the outputs, as well as their evaluation by peers and funders) open science has the potential to demonstrate the UK’s leading position in the global research community and stimulate the collaborations that make it the great research nation it is.

While the focus in the UK is firmly on Brexit, the internationalisation of research is happening at pace in both EU and non-EU countries that want to realise the potential of throwing the net wide. Surviving and thriving in this mixed economy of collaboration and competition will need skilful adaptation and a change in attitudes to risk. The UK is already a leader in implementing open access policy, but we need to do more to enshrine open scholarship. We also must raise our research-focussed eyes beyond the EU and recognise a truly global research view.

What does it mean for UK to be truly global in its approach?

A 2016 report by Digital Science illustrated the extent of the UK’s international collaborations in the context of funding, impact and published citations. It examined the potential losses resulting from separation from the EU, while recognising the importance of European Framework Programmes as an important stimulus for collaboration (more than half of UK co-authored papers are with the EU). It also urged UK universities to ‘develop strategies to expand international engagement to remain competitive’.

In a post-Brexit world, will the sector need to rethink its concept of ‘international’ (regardless of the final deal struck with the EU) to ensure the UK is taking advantage of the unprecedented connectivity and access it has to other countries, collaborators and creativity?

New and emerging research nations, who have seen where the future of data-driven research lies, bring increased competition but also valuable collaborative opportunities. To retain and build on the UK’s position, the country’s research community must be bold and vocal about its achievements.

The quality of UK research, its innovative thinking and digital networks are all reasons that partners from across the world already want to work with us, and we have much to offer. The UK must start celebrating its leadership in open science, continue investing in its digital infrastructure and explore new horizons in order to become a truly global research nation. 

Dr Paul Feldman is chief executive of Jisc, the UK's expert body for digital technology and resources in higher education, further education, skills and research.

Jisc is the UK's expert body for digital technology and resources in higher education, further education, skills and research. This article was commissioned by Times Higher Education in partnership with Jisc as part of the Jisc Futures series. 

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