Research funding under threat from globalisation, academic warns

Polish professor warns of increasing ‘tension’ between national research funding and global science

June 17, 2021
Global collaboration
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Scientists and universities could find themselves without research funding in coming decades if they become so globalised that governments believe their work no longer has national relevance, an academic has warned.

Marek Kwiek, Unesco chair in institutional research and higher education policy at the Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, said the direction of international science was being driven by self-organising individual scientists who had increasing freedom over what they researched and with whom.

But, speaking during a seminar hosted by the UK-based Centre for Global Higher Education, he warned this could lead to a rising “tension” with research funding, which was mainly national.

“What our countries want us to do…is to harness global knowledge [for] national economic needs, and my feeling is that that is getting more and more difficult for a number of reasons,” he told the event.

“If public funding for research in the West is spent on highly internationally collaborative research globally, what is the argument to keep high public funding at the current levels or higher levels?”

If all the results of research become international and “cannot really be pinned down to our nations…this rationale for public funding may somehow be diminished”, Professor Kwiek said.

During a question-and-answer session following his talk, he added that as it was unlikely that research funding could become wholly globalised, the only answer to these growing tensions was to create more incentives “to make us scientists more relevant nationally”.

“The ideal is to harness our scientists for global public good…with proper incentives. If we are not incentivised properly, we can go private in terms of motivations,” he said, referring to chasing individual prestige and citations.

“If you are somehow nationally relevant, we get paid. If our universities are nationally relevant, they get paid. If they are not nationally relevant, [then] in the long run…we’re all gone. Science [will be] global…but then we scientists are gone, we are unfunded, which I can’t accept.”

Professor Kwiek also used his talk to point to bibliometric data that showed how the humanities and social sciences were becoming vastly different due to increased international collaboration.

This was because solo publications were still very common in the humanities – at around 50 per cent of research output in many countries – but were less and less so in the social sciences, where single authorship was rapidly declining.

Talking about the humanities and social sciences “as a traditional expression” was losing its relevance as a result, he argued, “because social sciences are like natural sciences with increasing internationalisation”.

The risk of this was that metric-minded grant funders might then lean more towards the social sciences because, if looking only at research output and citations, it looked as if this disciplinary field had more impact.

“I wouldn’t say humanists are not collaborating, I would just say humanists are having a different publishing pattern,” he said, but what funding panels might do “if they are metrics inclined is they will choose the social scientist”.

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