‘Little appetite’ for overseas collaboration fund post-Brexit

Creating a separate pot of money for international research ‘risks funding second-rate’ work, conference hears

March 15, 2018
Giant finger
Source: Alamy
Thumbs down: ‘we see a strong resistance to the idea that there should be a national strategic organisation to support international research collaboration’

Academics have little interest in the notion of UK research councils establishing a fund specifically for international collaboration, a survey has revealed.

As UK universities grapple with the prospect of European research funding drying up post-Brexit, one idea that has been mooted is for research councils to launch a separate pot of funding for academics who want to apply for joint grants with foreign partners.

But Jonathan Adams, who was until recently chief scientist at Digital Science, said that a snapshot survey of scholars suggests that there is little appetite for such a programme in the academic community.

Speaking at Universities UK International’s International Higher Education Forum, Dr Adams said that the results of the study, which was conducted by Digital Science for Universities UK, show that “individual researchers are very good at managing their own arrangements” with foreign scholars.

“Out of this, we also see quite a strong resistance to the idea that there should be a national strategic organisation to support international research collaboration,” he said. “Individuals know who they want to work with [and] they know why they want to work with them.”

He added that a government or top-down strategy would likely identify “very large, grand challenge-level” research and countries to work with, but would not necessarily determine “whether or not there is a possibility of an effective functional working relationship between two research groups” on niche areas of research.

“So actually having UK Research and Innovation set these grand strategic goals and say that there is going to be money for this is not necessarily the best way forward,” he said.

The study, which will be released later this year, also surveyed researchers in other countries, as well as staff who manage institutional-level partnerships in universities.

Dr Adams, who will start as director of Clarivate Analytics’ Institute for Scientific Information next month, said that comments from researchers in Australia, a country that has “tried this strategic approach” to international collaboration, suggest that it “ended up supporting research which is not necessarily as good as research that they could have supported domestically”.

Speaking to Times Higher Education afterwards, Dr Adams said that the “problem with funding international research at the national level is there is a real risk that it will fund second-rate stuff”.

A top-down strategic approach also would not address the fact that researchers who want to collaborate internationally are most in need of “small-scale money” for activities such as travel and workshops, rather than large-scale money that they can already apply for through existing programmes.

However, Michael Hengartner, president of the University of Zurich and of the Swiss Rectors’ Conference, told the same panel how Switzerland had “set up with Germany and Austria a clever bilateral system” where researchers across the countries write joint grants that can be submitted to any of the three countries’ funding councils.

“It gets submitted once [and] if that panel says ‘yes’ [it is] approved,” he said, thereby removing the danger of a “double jeopardy” problem.

“This simplifies the system dramatically and it makes collaboration across borders identical to collaborations with a town next door,” he said. “That’s something that I think is scalable…I would suggest let’s do the same thing between Switzerland and the UK.”

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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