Web of silken ties

March 31, 2006

Commonwealth universities are establishing a growing network of global partnerships to swap knowledge and collaborate on research. Becky McCall reports

Rarely does an international conference go by these days without the concepts of collaboration and partnership taking centre stage. But is the endless attention afforded these ideas anything more than lip service? An intricate network of Commonwealth universities is building a global web of joint initiatives between institutions that benefits communities in the South and their richer partners in the North equally.

This April, Bob Boucher, vice-chancellor of Sheffield University, will become British chair of Development Partnerships in Higher Education (Delphe), an international partnership programme funded by the Department for International Development and the British Council. Delphe will support a variety of partnerships between institutions in 25 countries through activities linked to sustainable development and poverty reduction.

But it would be misleading to believe that benefits will be felt only by the developing-state partner.

"Typically, we would have a British university department with the relevant expertise to impart its knowledge overseas, while someone from the partner institution might gain new skills and experience in the UK before returning home to share them, influencing research, industry and society in the longer term," Boucher says.

Judy Powell, director of higher education at the British Council in London, emphasises that the programme is an essential stepping stone. "Small Delphe-sponsored initiatives give researchers leverage to get started and develop larger-scale initiatives that would then be attractive to organisations interested in sustainable development," she says.

A collaboration between Leeds University and South China Agricultural University is researching molecular tools for diagnosis of a disease that devastates silkworm colonies and can ruin a community's silk yield, destroying livelihoods.

"Scientists profiled the DNA of the pest, producing a diagnostic technique that they are now using to train specialists in how to deal with the disease," Powell says.

Alan Whiteside, director of health economics and HIV/Aids research at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, notes: "Partnerships have to involve an exchange of resources. But it would be wrong to think that this is just financial. Resources mean people, ideas or money."

The department of geography and environmental sciences at Canada's Carleton University linked up with KwaZulu-Natal's Health Economics and HIV/Aids Research Division (Heard).

"The partnership developed further when in 2004 Heard hosted a postgraduate student who carried out an excellent study of vulnerability to HIV/Aids among street traders in the Warwick Junction area of Durban - a centre for trading. Heard gained a foothold into an important research area, published an Aids brief from the work and has built a long-term partnership with a number of joint projects," Whiteside said.

Tapping into existing relationships and developing available resources chimes with the aims of the Association of Commonwealth University's Research Management Project (RMP).

John Kirkland, the ACU's deputy secretary-general for development, says:

"Income is fiercely fought for from sources such as the World Bank and the Carnegie Corporation. The RMP organises seminars where we bring together people from the UK and US with developing countries and benchmark universities against each other."

After one such exercise in South Africa, the South African Research and Innovation Management Association was set up to promote high-quality research as a means of economic and social development.

Under a scheme run by the Tyndall Centre at the University of East Anglia, partnerships are forged with agents in the Caribbean to prepare people for the effects of climate change. Emma Tompkins, a climate change scientist at UEA, leads a programme that trains government officials at UEA. They then return to the Caribbean to implement a plan of action.

Whiteside believes that the best collaborations are the ones that span disciplines and cultures. "We don't live, breathe and die geographers or economists. Understanding issues and finding solutions needs us to have a perspective of many disciplines," he says.

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