“Something like a marriage” is how Kiyoshi Yoshikawa, executive vice- president for research at Kyoto University, described his institution’s relationship with the University of Bristol. Trust is the most important factor, alongside shared ambition, he said.
Professor Yoshikawa was in the UK this month as part of a delegation of 90 academic colleagues for an international symposium that hoped to cement the growing bond between the two institutions.
Discussions ranged from building on existing research collaborations in subjects from economic theory to developing artificial skin, to laying the foundations for staff and student exchanges and sharing resources in technology transfer.
Although the size of such a meeting may be unprecedented, bilateral collaboration between universities on opposite sides of the globe is an increasingly popular phenomenon - and one that is firmly supported by the UK government.
The Bristol symposium, held between 9 and 11 January, was partly funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s Building Global Engagements in Research programme. But despite the relatively low cost of collaborations, so far “the sources of money have been a bit fragmented and policy on funding such partnerships is a bit different from one research council to the next,” said Guy Orpen, pro vice-chancellor of research at Bristol.
“It would help us a lot if it were to be more even across the research council domain,” he added.
In March, Research Councils UK will publish an international framework for developing more sustainable funding for such collaborations and harmonising approaches across the councils, in the hope of better supporting the kind of sustainable partnership that Kyoto and Bristol are building.
According to Alicia Greated, director of RCUK China, while partnerships based on individual relationships are the “absolute foundation” of collaboration, it is the job of RCUK - in particular through its offices in the US, China and India - to “be more strategic in certain areas that we feel we could enhance or where we don’t feel the collaboration necessarily exists”.
Ideas being floated for the strategy include joining up individual research council efforts on international PhD exchanges; supporting bilateral agreements between research council institutes around the world; and making it easier for RCUK to respond to potential collaborative opportunities.
With countries such as China developing so quickly, making the most of engagement means being clear about plans and potentially having money to put on the table fast, Dr Greated added.
It is not just RCUK that has an eye to the rest of the world: research systems everywhere are becoming rapidly more international. According to the Royal Society, in 2011 more than a third of all articles published in international journals were globally collaborative compared with a quarter 15 years previously.
Estimates suggest that the UK is already ahead of the curve. The percentage of UK papers produced with international partners is likely to have risen from about 33 per cent in 2003 to 45 per cent in 2012, said Jonathan Adams, director of research evaluation for Thomson Reuters.
Overall, the number of UK articles produced in the five years from 2008 to 2012 was 17 per cent higher than in the period 2003 to 2007. But the number of articles co-authored with international partners grew at a much greater rate, data from the Web of Science show: the number of papers written in collaboration with the US increased by 39 per cent, and growth in collaboration with China and South Korea was more than 100 per cent (see table).
It is not hard to find reasons for the rise or for RCUK’s desire to boost joint working: according to Kyoto’s Professor Yoshikawa, the ability to collaborate with the best in the world and to share their practices and perspectives makes for better research.
Merging ideas, cultures and expertise also means you are able to tackle global problems that “can hardly be treated by just a single academic area or by one university”, he added.
Rates of citation by other researchers suggest that, on average, papers with international co-authors have greater impact than purely domestic ones. But the benefits of collaboration stretch beyond research and student exchange, Professor Orpen argued.
“One of the first things we’re likely to develop is an exchange of staff in our research development and enterprise offices, so we learn about each other’s culture and to some degree expose our IP [intellectual property] to the other country,” he said.
The value of working with Japan - which like the UK is a technologically advanced, heavily populated island nation - is sometimes underestimated, Professor Orpen said, adding that in many ways the two countries “address similar problems”.
But there is no doubt which countries are the UK’s targets for the future. Sophie Laurie, head of RCUK International, told Times Higher Education that the organisation has no plans to establish more offices outside India, China and the US, although it would continue to explore the need to do so.
But although China shows plenty of interest in working with the UK, the latter is not its top priority, Dr Greated said. The US heads the list of China’s desirable collaborator countries on account of the cultural ties between the two nations based on immigrant communities.
Competition is growing from Germany and Australia, too, with 39 of 41 higher education institutions in the latter country already holding formal agreements with Chinese institutions, according to Universities Australia.
On 14 January, RCUK made significant progress when, on the back of years of successful work with the National Natural Science Foundation of China, it announced its first round of joint funding with the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology - &#163;1 million in matching funding for projects in healthy ageing populations, energy and food security.
But RCUK and UK universities need to move quickly to ensure that they do not miss out, Dr Greated added. “When you visit China you can almost feel the movement of the country: the investment and the attitude are changing so quickly, and we are trying to be part of that.”