Why North-South collaborations are good for everyone

“We must let go of the old paradigm of always seeing scientific relations in terms of winning.” — Prof César Pulgarin on the mutual benefits of North-South collaborations

By Libby Plummer - May 24, 2021
Cesar Pulgarin quote card
Prof César Pulgarin leads the Advanced Oxidation Processes Group at the Institute of Chemical Sciences and Engineering, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).

When researchers and institutions from the Global North and Global South work together, the benefits can be huge, but only if the work is treated as a true collaboration.

That has been the experience of Prof César Pulgarin of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) Institute of Chemical Sciences and Engineering. Speaking in Spanish, Prof Pulgarin talked about how to make these collaborations work for all involved. His comments have been translated into English:

We must let go of the old paradigm of always seeing scientific relations in terms of winning. We must see it in terms of collaborating even when there is an asymmetry of means.

Having worked at the EPFL since 1989, where he is now leader of the Advanced Oxidation Processes Group, Prof Pulgarin has collaborated on many International projects where researchers from the North and South have joined forces to work towards a common goal.

While the reality is much more complex, the concept of the Global North and Global South describes the socioeconomic divide between those countries in the Northern hemisphere and most of those in the Southern hemisphere. The causes for this divide are diverse, ranging from natural hazards and the availability of natural resources to how countries are governed and differing levels of healthcare and education. This disparity is also reflected in the world of science and research.

“In the South, all the indicators of scientific activity show we have fewer documents resulting from research, fewer patents, fewer startups, and less economic activity based on know-how,” he said.

By teaming up with researchers and institutions in the North, those in the South can gain huge benefits that will help them in their work. “They will accrue information because they will have access to a scientific community that is more solid, more rich — not more intelligent but more abundant, numerous and experienced,” he explained.

While research teams from the North traveling to work with their colleagues in the South can be hugely beneficial to the hosts, it can also be valuable for those in the South to work in the North:

If you take a scientific community in a field like mine, in Europe there are perhaps up to 3,000 of us. In all of South America, there are at most 150 of us, so the scientific community is reduced. Working with the North, researchers from the South gain recognition — there are many people that don’t even know there are researchers in the South.

This recognition of their contribution can help researchers from the South feel much more valued in their interactions with the North, Prof Pulgarin said. And as the professional networks in the North tend to be broader and stronger, this is also a huge benefit for researchers from the South. It’s also advantageous for them to see how institutions and projects are approached in other places, particular for those from countries that have a very old scientific culture.

Prof Pulgarin highlighted the example of Mario Molina, the late Mexican chemist known for his work highlighting the harmful effects of CFCs and his role in discovering the Antarctic ozone hole. While Molina’s career was largely based in the North, he was the first Mexican-born scientist to receive a Nobel prize in chemistry and “an example that shows us any culture from the South can produce geniuses like this,” Pulgarin said.

While it’s important for the North to nurture and recognize researchers in the South, institutions in the North also stand to benefit. Most of the major problems in the world are global, even if they have a more negative impact in some areas. So in tackling them together, everybody wins. The mutual enrichment that is enabled by North-South collaborations is multi-faceted.

By hosting colleagues from the South, researchers and students from the North can broaden their horizons to new cultures, new challenges and different ways of seeing the world. This effect is amplified when researchers from the North travel to work on projects with their counterparts in the South. This gives researchers from the North what Prof Pulgarin describes as a “crash course in humbleness,” where they realize that many researchers in the South are doing great work with far fewer resources but also working in different ways they may not have encountered before:

I went through that culture shock when I went to Africa, even being Colombian. That’s an enriching experience that you cannot describe.

Taking a progressive approach to North-South collaborations can also help institutions work towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include reducing poverty, improving education and reducing inequalities. Prof Pulgarin explained:

Science has disciplinary communication codes that are standardized and accepted in all parts of the world. There is a dictionary of scientific language. This means that in any part of the world, since scientific language is universal, this language can transcend other languages, other cultures, and other political regimes.

Having a universal language of science is a contribution towards sustainable development, as it allows scientific collaboration which I believe contributes to reducing asymmetry. The idea is that this asymmetry should be reduced in order that those who speak the scientific language, but find themselves in less favorable conditions, can grow and improve. And as all the world’s major problems are interrelated and globalized, whatever positive things we do in the South have a positive knock-on in the North.

As well as helping to move science forward for all, North-South collaborations can also help to promote the idea that countries in the South produce excellent researchers who are doing great work. “Collaborations helps to reiterate the idea that the South is not just a source of cheap raw materials and labor, a place for environmentally-unsustainable industrial activities, or a hunting ground for talent, where we pick out the best and take them away,” Prof Pulgarin said.

It’s clear that researchers and institutions in the North and South joining forces can be highly beneficial to both sides, not only in terms of moving science forward by embracing new ways working, but also by promoting global sustainable development. But what’s the next step? In the second of our two-part series, Prof Pulgarin will talk us through the steps needed to set up a North-South collaboration and how to ensure its success.


Libby Plummer
Written by

Libby Plummer

Written by

Libby Plummer

Libby Plummer is a freelance journalist and copywriter specializing in tech, science and space. Based in London, Libby has nearly two decades of experience working across a wide array of business and consumer publications in print and online, as well as working in several fast-paced newsrooms. Libby has a bachelor’s degree in communication and has also completed a course in Astronomy and Astrophysics with the University of Oxford Department of Continuing Education. During 2020's lockdown, she used the extra hours gained to complete an additional course in Aerospace Engineering, Astronautics and Human Spaceflight through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's MITx online learning initiative.

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