Research collaborations – how can we balance national and global interests?

That was the question posed to 3 academic thought leaders at the Pan-European conference. Here’s what they had to say

By Linda Willems - June 30, 2021
Elsevier editorial illustration for World of Research

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a rise in research collaboration projects spanning multiple countries.

This shift has been driven by a range of factors. For scientists in developing or less research-intensive economies, international collaboration can help them access much-needed funding, equipment and knowledge. For others, it offers the chance to build networks, pool resources and expertise, and potentially accelerate discovery. When it comes to “mega science” projects like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the costs and resources required are just too vast for one country to manage.

At the same time, the tools that enable researchers to meet and collaborate online are constantly improving and, thanks to the move toward open science, it’s now easier than ever to share data.

Interestingly, studies even suggest that international collaboration increases citations.



But while the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the value of global collaborations, it has also exposed the challenges associated with these partnerships, including their potential to conflict with national concerns. This year has also seen growing concerns over the wisdom of sharing sensitive, or commercially important, data beyond country borders.

During a lively panel session at Elsevier’s virtual Pan-European User Conference for SciVal & Scopus in May, three experts shared their views on how these varying needs might be reconciled. The 630+ live attendees included university research officers, librarians and strategy specialists from more than 41 countries in the region. It was the first Europe-wide event of its kind, set up in response to interest expressed by Scopus and SciVal users over how to measure and understand the impact of Covid-19 on their research activities.

Here are some key points the panelists raised about potential obstacles to international collaboration and how to address them.

Stephanie Smith: “I don’t think the issue of data sharing has been entirely resolved …”

Stephanie SmithStephanie Smith is Head of Policy for the Russell Group, which represents 24 UK universities.

On potential tensions in the relationship between international research collaborations and national research strategy

We always say that research is international in nature and we collaborate internationally because it increases the impact and the quality of our research. So we know by looking at Australia and America over the past few years that who you collaborate with when it comes to research into topics such as artificial intelligence and quantum is becoming more of a question.

I think we have to be careful about how we justify the importance of being able to continue to collaborate with partners across the world, no matter where they are from. It’s about being able to show that yes, we have our cyber hygiene processes in place, and we gain as much from these international collaborations as we give. Universities have to be aware of new and emerging risks in international collaboration, and it’s something that researchers are going to have to be more cognizant of too.

On how EU regulations restricting the sharing of research data outside the EU will affect collaborations and research quality

In terms of collaboration with the EU, I don’t think the issue of data sharing has been entirely resolved at this point. It’s a really tricky one because data and research needs to be open in order for collaboration to happen, and I think we’ll just have to continue to make the case for that as we go forward. Otherwise, the research endeavor just won’t be possible.

Prof Marc Salomon: “We in Europe have to build, maintain and control our own research infrastructure …”

Prof Mark Salomon, PhDDr Marc Salomon is Dean and Professor in Decision Sciences at the University of Amsterdam Business School in the Netherlands.

On potential tensions in the relationship between international research collaborations and national research strategy

We in Europe have to build, maintain and, importantly, control our own research infrastructure — we should not be dependent on those built by other countries, like the US and China.

Of course, on applied and fundamental research, we can work together with the whole world, but I think we should be very careful with, for example, our cyber infrastructure and our storage of knowledge infrastructure, those kinds of elements.

On how EU regulations restricting the sharing of research data outside the EU will affect collaborations and research quality

I find it very good that the European Union is taking care of data privacy. I’m only a little bit disappointed about the lack of European sanctions against countries outside Europe that don’t respect privacy. They can currently operate rather easily in Europe, and that reduces competition. We need more capacity for law enforcement to deal with that.

Massimo Busuoli: “I think an important influence on how the money is going to be spent will be public opinion.”

Massimo BusuoliMassimo Busuoli is Director of the Brussels office of NTNU – Norwegian University of Science and Technology

On potential tensions in the relationship between international research collaboration and national research strategy

I’m looking with a lot of curiosity at how the future programming period [with Horizon Europe, the EU’s new research funding program] will influence the dynamics of collaboration between countries, the discussion about aligning funding, and putting money in a sort of common pot to create the right investments for the European system.

I also think an important influence on how the money is going to be spent will be public opinion — the citizen engagement which is becoming a priority for the next programming period at a European level. It will play a decisive role in highlighting the importance of funding of research, aligning the funding and creating joint initiatives.

On how EU regulations restricting the sharing of research data outside the EU will affect collaborations and research quality

In Brussels, there is a big debate on how to ensure the continuity of collaborations with important players and partners like the UK, Switzerland and other associate countries. But all the stakeholders still want, and are very committed to, the dialogue. The universities in Brussels are really keen to keep the doors open for strong and effective collaboration.

Theo PillayAfter the conference, Theo Pillay, SVP & GM for Institutional Products at Elsevier, credited the members of Elsevier’s user community, who came together from across Europe:

Speakers and attendees both brought a wonderful mindset of sharing knowledge and an openness to learn and explore new ideas. This commitment to knowledge exchange for the benefit of others is a credit to the community, and ongoing engagement is critical to deliver these real-world examples of successes, learnings and best practices. Our special thanks to all the subject matter experts who told their story.

Contributors


Linda Willems
Written by

Linda Willems

Written by

Linda Willems

After starting her working life as a newspaper journalist (covering everything from amateur dramatics to murder trials), Linda Willems held a variety of communications roles before joining Elsevier. During her six years with the company, she focused on researcher communications and edited several of Elsevier’s researcher-focused publications. She's now a freelance writer and owner of Blue Lime Communications.

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