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Does Global South research funded internationally enjoy greater visibility?

April 28, 2023

By Linda Willems

© istock.com/FotografieLink

That’s the question a study by University of Oxford Professor Maia Chankseliani set out to answer — with surprising results

In 2021, Prof Maia Chankseliani(opens in new tab/window) published a thought-provoking bibliometric study on academic publications from post-Soviet countries(opens in new tab/window). No one was surprised by the finding that countries investing a greater proportion of their gross domestic product in research and development had more researchers and publications.

But the paper also contained a curveball: Extra spending on research could not be linked to the quality of their outputs.

When Maia shared these findings with colleagues, one suggested that “perhaps the impactful research in those countries was being funded by international sources,” she recalls.

Prof Maia Chankseliani. PhD

Prof Maia Chankseliani. PhD

Intrigued by this idea, Maia, who is an Associate Professor of Comparative and International Education at the University of Oxford(opens in new tab/window), embarked on a new study to explore the flows of external funding in Central Asia and the Caucasus. She worked in collaboration with Elsevier’s International Center for the Study of Research (ICSR) and its ICSR Lab — a cloud-based computational platform that enables researchers to analyze big datasets, including those that power Elsevier solutions such as Scopus and PlumX Metrics(opens in new tab/window). The ICSR Lab team used Scopus to prepare a dataset of papers published between 1990 and 2019 that met two conditions:

  • They contained a funding acknowledgement.

  • They had at least one author affiliated with an institution in Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan) or the Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia).

Following a deep dive into the 175,000 records she received, Maia published her findings late last year in the paper “Who funds the production of globally visible research in the Global South?(opens in new tab/window)” Here, she shares some highlights.

Key finding #1: Most globally visible research produced by authors in these countries was funded by international sources.

Maia explains: “I use the term ‘globally visible’ to describe research that has been indexed by literature databases used worldwide — in this case, Scopus. What I found is that a very small proportion of globally visible research (co-)authored by academics based in these countries was funded by their respective local sources.”

In fact, the volume ranged between 0 papers in Kyrgyzstan to 5.3% of papers in Uzbekistan. Maia says: “Kazakhstan was the outlier with 28.5%; this is not surprising because the Kazakhstan government has been investing a lot in the development of higher education and research over the last decade or so.”

She adds: “I suspect that these aren’t the only nationally-underfunded countries that are sustained by international funding flows. For example, African countries may show similar results, but there are currently no papers to support that. It would be very interesting to find out!”

Key finding #2: US and Russian sources dominated in the funding acknowledgements.

Maia had expected these two to top the list. “Because the countries in my study were formerly part of the Soviet Union, their connections with Russia are still quite strong. This is especially true in Central Asia — in fact, Russian is a predominant language in universities there. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the US and European countries also channeled quite a lot of development funding into the region, including for higher education and research.”

What did surprise her though was the proportion of funding acknowledgements linked to sources in these countries: “In the case of the US, it was around 14.2 %; for Russia, just 5.8 %. I had expected both %ages to be much higher.” The proportion of Russian funding varied per country between 5% to 24%. And Tajikistan bucked the trend by being the only country in the region with a larger share of Russian sources.

Maia also identified variations in the composition of US and Russian funding sources: “Almost all agencies acknowledged from Russia were government agencies: The most frequent contributor was the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research followed by the Russian Foundation for Basic Research. While US investment also came from government sources — the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Energy were the most frequently mentioned — there were also philanthropic sources listed, along with multilateral agencies based in the US.”

Key finding #3: Another 96 countries have funded research in these regions.

For Maia, this finding was particularly surprising, given that these “are very small countries in the Global South.” Following the US and Russia, the countries most frequently mentioned in the funding acknowledgements were:

  • Germany: 5.7%

  • UK: 5.6%

  • Brazil: 4.0%

  • Canada: 3.9%

  • Switzerland: 3.3%

Maia says: “We have to remember that, in almost all cases, the funding is linked to collaboration, so there is clearly wide interest in working with researchers in Central Asia and the Caucasus.” Although she believes further research is required to understand exactly how and why these collaborations happen, she does have some ideas: “I have strong evidence from my previous publications that most of the research conducted in these countries is in the natural sciences, engineering and technology, and medical and health sciences. And when you look at the types of international funding agencies investing in these countries, many of them are in those fields. This leads me to think that some funding agencies might be choosing to work in Central Asia and the Caucasus because the regulations and policies governing the kind of research they support are less restrictive there.”

Key finding #4: The majority of international funding (68%) came from foreign government sources.

Maia explains: “This proportion ranged from 45.1% in Kazakhstan to 77.3% in Azerbaijan. A small proportion of funding acknowledgements — just 7.3% — mentioned philanthropic/charity sources, and where they were mentioned, most were based in North America or Europe.”

Multilateral funding sources — for example, the European Union, European Commission, the World Health Organization and the World Bank — made up 5.3% of funding acknowledgements. Maia says: “That last point is quite surprising, as from my own knowledge of the region, I thought European funding would be higher. However, the frequency with which a funder is mentioned doesn’t reflect the amount of money they have invested — Europe could be a bigger funder than the proportions of acknowledgements suggest.”

Why Central Asia and the Caucasus?

For Maia, the region offers “a compelling space” for her research on the internationalization of higher research and education. “It was a part of the Soviet Union for most of the 20th century, and it was only after the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991 that the borders of most of these countries opened, enabling global links and the flows of knowledge and finances. Out of every 10 globally visible publications from post-Soviet countries, seven to eight are now internationally co-authored.” Maia adds: “I also come from Georgia, which means I have useful connections there for my research. And with my studies, I can try to raise visibility and knowledge of these countries.”

And of those papers with a funding acknowledgement, only 3% were published prior to 2010 (the study covers the period 1990-2019). Also, funders names written in a language other than English, or with variable spelling, may not have been consistently captured.

Maia notes: “The ICSR Lab team had warned me about the limitations of the data, but I’m just so grateful I had access to it — without the dataset this study wouldn’t have happened. And the team was very responsive, detail-oriented and helpful throughout the process.”

The project has prompted the ICSR Lab to permanently add “Funding Acknowledgement” to the data fields it makes available to researchers.

Kristy James(opens in new tab/window), Senior Data Scientist with the ICSR Lab, explains: “Funding is a huge driver in so many aspects of the research enterprise, so we are thrilled to include this integral view — especially since Maia’s study has shown that despite the challenges these timelines and regions involve, our funding data can still deliver thought-provoking insights.”

Those challenges include the fact that some of the historical articles were digitized retrospectively, leaving the Scopus team dependent on content availability. In addition, coverage of the Global South can be impacted by language requirements for inclusion in the database. And the countries that Maia studied experienced a period of great political change, when names of institutions and nations were in flux, resulting in some incomplete records.

To overcome those challenges, the ICSR Lab team worked closely with Elsevier’s Scopus, Funding and Natural Language Processing (NLP) teams on the dataset.

“We’ve all learned a lot from this project,” Kristy said.

Kristy James

Kristy James

Reframing the Global South narrative

Maia’s findings suggest that existing views on research funding inequalities between the Global North and the Global South may not be so simple. She explains: “The story is always that the Global South is lagging behind. This paper shows that there are a lot of flows of funding and knowledge between countries so perhaps the story is more nuanced.”

One of Maia’s goals with her work is to promote greater understanding around the internationalization of research and higher education. “This includes highlighting the huge inequalities that still exist, but also the benefits to be gained from the world opening up,” she explains. “Even if the motivation for some of the international investment we see in Central Asia and the Caucasus might have problematic overtones, this funding does enable people to collaborate and it broadens the mindsets of all parties involved. Most researchers working in this region view international funding positively; they see themselves as European and are keen to have more international links.”

This was made clear recently when Georgians successfully protested over a proposed new law. It would have designated Georgian organizations that receive more than 20% of their funding from external sources as “foreign agents.” Maia says: “I was able to point to this paper on social media and in conversations with academics as evidence that globalization can bring benefits.”

This paper is only one element of a wider project exploring the internationalization of higher education in Central Asia and the Caucasus, funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council. Still to come is a qualitative study featuring interviews with policy makes and academic surveys.

Contributor

Portrait photo of Linda Willems

LW