Research intelligence - No more 'double jeopardy'

RCUK has brokered a single application process for UK and Sao Paulo collaborations. Zoë Corbyn reports

September 17, 2009

International research collaborators face many barriers - not least the fact that they usually have to make separate cases to their national funding agencies to secure cash. Different application forms and rates of turnaround, plus the perennial problem of one partner securing funds while another misses out, are just a few of the many hurdles to be cleared.

Yet for UK scholars looking to collaborate with Brazilian academics, life is about to get easier. An agreement has been reached to allow British scholars and Brazilian researchers from the state of Sao Paulo to apply for collaborative funding through a single application and peer-review process.

Under the agreement announced this week, brokered by Research Councils UK and the State of Sao Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), collaborating scholars need submit only one application to the appropriate UK research council.

Its peer-review process will determine if the bid is successful, and FAPESP will automatically pick up the bill for the Brazilian part.

Although individual UK research councils already have bilateral agreements with international funding agencies, this is the first time they have come together to forge one agreement.

It represents a growing trend among the councils to try to reduce so-called double jeopardy when international collaborators lodge funding applications.

Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, said the agreement would allow researchers in the UK and Brazil "to reap the benefits from collaborating without worrying".

"I'm looking forward to seeing partnerships between the two countries grow stronger," he added.

For many, the agreement has come not a moment too soon. A paper published in July by Evidence Ltd, the research-analysis firm, warns that Brazil is a burgeoning research power and that the US and Europe could face "intellectual marginalisation" if they fail to forge alliances with the "Latin tiger".

"The cost of not making a commitment to partnership with Brazil will be significant in terms of both intellectual and economic development," says The New Geography of Science, citing a tenfold increase in the number of papers produced by the country since 1981.

It states that Brazil's main research strength lies in the life sciences, particularly in relation to natural resources, and points to a plethora of papers in tropical medicine, parasitology and agriculture.

Great place to start

Within Brazil, Sao Paulo is considered the hub of research productivity, with about half of the country's 20,000 or so scientific articles a year originating in the state.

Mike Bright, head of international policy and strategy at the Economic and Social Research Council - lead broker of the agreement on behalf of RCUK - said the deal would make it almost as easy for Sao Paulo and British researchers to collaborate as it is for scholars in different UK universities.

"Before we had this agreement, if you were a British researcher and wanted to collaborate with somebody in Sao Paulo, you would both have to make separate applications," he explained.

"There would be different timescales and requirements, so you would have to write two proposals and face different peer-review processes. One might say 'yes' and the other 'no', or you might not get the money at the same time."

He added that FAPESP had similar standards, systems and processes to RCUK, making it easy to "do business". Brazilian partners will simply attach their costs to the single application form for FAPESP to process, with the Brazilian body entitled to suggest to the relevant UK research council suitable referees who could be approached on either side's behalf.

Mr Bright added that if the deal were successful, it could provide a model for agreements with other agencies.

"We would hope we could extend this to other organisations in Brazil," he said.

The agreement was welcomed by Terezinha Nunes, professor of educational studies at the University of Oxford, a Brazilian who is working on a collaborative project with researchers from Sao Paulo comparing how children in both countries understand fractions.

She added that a single application process would allow the strengths of the "comparative approach" to shine through.

"What we had to do before was make the case for the research here in the UK and there in Brazil," she said.

"Not only was it complicated, but the comparative approach got lost. Now you can just do one application and show the strengths of the comparison."

The agreement with FAPESP follows plans for closer collaboration mooted during the UK-Brazil Year of Science and Innovation, which ran from March 2007 to March 2008.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

www.rcuk.ac.uk.

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