Maintaining international collaboration amid the Covid-19 pandemic

Despite the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is hope that a new balance between online and in-person collaboration will be found

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7 Nov 2022
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The mass shift to online education brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic has changed expectations and practices in research collaboration. Calls for academics to work together in a more flexible way have resulted in a need to reconsider the mix of in-person and digital research collaboration between universities, government and industry.

During a panel discussion hosted by Times Higher Education in partnership with Huawei, UK academics came together to discuss the challenges caused by the pandemic in terms of research collaboration – starting with practical and cultural issues.

“For healthcare, it did two things,” said David Robertson, chair of applied logic and vice-principal and head of the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Edinburgh. “It increased some of the pressure to share knowledge internationally. But we lost some of the on-the-ground benefits of academics visiting other research labs.”

“We found that existing relationships shifted online very smoothly,” said Alison Ray, senior strategic research development manager and head of research strategy at the University of Surrey. “However, this was more difficult where relationships were new. This required more time and investment.”

“It was very hard to create genuinely new collaborations,” said Jonathan Deer, director of research and enterprise at City, University of London. “But in certain fields like humanities even existing relationships were heavily disrupted where projects had to radically rethink their design and time frames.”

“The pandemic did create great challenges for international collaboration but, on a positive note, the different methods that countries had for managing the crisis meant that where a research lab in a certain country was forced to close, another in a different location could continue its progress, helping the research project overall,” noted Sai Gu, deputy pro vice-chancellor at the University of Warwick.

“There was a kind of global empathy released by the situation,” said Huw Williams, professor and associate pro vice-chancellor of global health and life sciences at the University of Exeter. “Shifting things online, we were still able to engage with stakeholders – whether they were in government, industry or academia – because there was recognition that we were all in this together.”

The panel agreed, however that the disruptive effects of the pandemic could not be ignored. “We found that the pandemic had a particularly negative impact on our early career researchers,” said Stuart Humphries, dean for research environment at the University of Lincoln. “We have also found that there have been more grant proposals submitted and generated solely through online conversations. I wonder how these collaborations will fare in the long term.”

“Mobility requires resources,” said Zabih Ghassemlooy, professor and head of the NCRLab at Northumbria University. “So perhaps for developing countries, there may be some evidence that online collaboration provided new opportunities for engagement. But even so, this can’t replace the benefits of travelling and experiencing new environments. Hopefully, funders and research councils will provide the resources needed to catch up with what we lost over the last two years.”

“What we are facing now is a new working methodology,” explained Yue Gao, professor of wireless communications at the University of Surrey. “Looking ahead, we need to find a balance between online and in-person meetings, especially in terms of research collaboration and outreach.”

Although the pandemic has undoubtedly created challenges for collaboration – whether domestic or international – relationships have persisted, often strengthened by new methodologies for connecting and engaging with relevant stakeholders. 

“The principal driver for institutions is simple,” Robertson added. “In niche fields, in particular, you need access to a global community of collaborators. It’s the only way of advancing your research.”

“The aim should always be meaningful collaboration, not extracting talent from abroad,” Williams acknowledged. “Research needs to be replicated in various locations to be truly useful. That’s why international collaboration remains so important.”

The panel:

  • Jonathan Deer, director, research and enterprise, City, University of London
  • Stuart Humphries, dean for research environment, University of Lincoln 
  • Yue Gao, professor of wireless communications, University of Surrey
  • Zabih Ghassemlooy, professor and head of NCRLab, Northumbria University
  • Julia Gilmore, branded content manager, Times Higher Education (chair)
  • Sai Gu, deputy pro vice-chancellor, University of Warwick                          
  • Alison Ray, senior strategic research development manager and head of research strategy, University of Surrey
  • David Robertson, chair of applied logic, vice-principal and head of College of Science and Engineering, University of Edinburgh
  • Huw Williams, professor and associate pro vice-chancellor, global health and life sciences, University of Exeter

Find out more about Huawei and higher education.

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