Things just got even better

By Stephen Elsby, Director of RCUK US

This is a good news story. It begins with a fundamental challenge for research funders and ends with a significant new opportunity for UK and US researchers.

Let’s start with the vital role that government funding plays in supporting high quality research. Investment through the UK research councils has undoubtedly helped support a world leading university capability. This capability, through training future generations, asking difficult questions and generating new ideas and concepts; is a key part of ensuring our future health, wealth and wellbeing.

Now collaboration is often a way to deliver the highest quality research and research itself doesn’t necessarily respect international barriers. The best collaborators may be based in different countries. Apart from these “best with best” collaborations enriching research outputs and capabilities, it’s recognised that collaboration is the only way to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

This is where the challenge comes in and it starts with a confession. I work for a geographically limited national research funder (most of us funders are). I, quite rightly, must justify the way I use the taxpayers’ money and this can limit the scope for funding of projects that involve researchers from multiple countries. Recognising a challenge is the first step to dealing with it, and I can assure you that I am not the only one to consider this (we even get together occasionally to offer each other support).

University researchers often try to address international collaboration by splitting up larger research projects along geographic lines so they can be submitted to different funders. Sometimes this works well; at other times it does not. At worst, this can lead to disjointed parts of a potentially exciting whole project, reduced chances of funding and in general a disincentive to discuss collaborative proposals.

National funders can approach this by issuing joint calls for proposals. This places the emphasis on funders rather than scientists deciding which kinds of research would be best done collaboratively (though in reality these decisions are usually made through a consultative process). It may also require dedicated mechanisms and thus more bureaucracy. However this approach does work well as demonstrated by the increasingly large number of internationally collaborative opportunities.

So it is good after all? For some it’s about to get better.

UK and US research funders (RCUK and NSF) have just entered into an agreement to trial a new approach. The agreement is currently limited to social science research, but may be expanded. We believe it is the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Here is how it works:

  • British and American researchers put together a truly joint proposal.
  • They send the proposal to either the US or the UK funding body, depending on where the majority of the research will be carried out.
  • That agency peer reviews the proposal, with input from the other funder, on the same basis and in competition with other domestic proposals.
  • Under the terms of the agreement, if the proposal is approved, the other funding body will also fund research taking place within its own country.
  • Thus only one approval is needed for a project to go ahead, but it will be jointly funded.

It’s a deceptively simple approach that requires trust and understanding of each other’s funding processes, objectives and researcher capabilities. It’s built on an extensive history of collaboration and continued evidence of impact, and is a real game changer for our communities. Beyond the projects it directly funds, it incentivises our communities to explore opportunities and discuss collaborations in areas where they, the experts, see the most benefit from UK/US partnership. Finally, it passes the “value for the tax payer” question by using existing processes (no extra bureaucracy) to facilitate world leading, high impact research.

Does it solve everything? No, but along with engagement through other approaches (e.g. previously mentioned joint calls) it does show a continued focus by national funders to respond to the opportunities presented by an increasingly international research community.

It’s nice to make international collaboration is a little less of a challenge.

Enhancing collaboration between research and industry: Lessons from UK-India collaboration

By Dr Nafees Meah, Director, RCUK India

Over the last five years, RCUK India has developed a major collaborative research partnership with India involving all seven of the UK’s Research Councils and covering some of the biggest challenges facing the world. Our joint research covers: energy security; food and agriculture; and climate change, as well as looks at the enormous social and cultural changes that are taking place in India. Our collaborative programme has gone from an almost zero base in 2008 to over £100 million now.

We want our collaborative programme to continue to grow. However, the name of the game these days is to answer the “so what?” question. What difference has this research made now? And, if not now, what difference will it make in the future? Indeed, all the Research Councils are committed to ensuring that publicly funded research delivers impact – by which I mean the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy.

One way of finding out about impact is to see to what extent that industry, business and other end users have engaged with the UK-India research programme. That is why we commissioned Sally Daultrey, an independent research analyst based in India, back in January this year to take stock and address the following questions:

  1. What have been the outputs from our co-funded research projects e.g. papers produced/in production, outreach or dissemination events, patents or licenses?
  2. What has been the extent of business and industry participation in our research portfolio?
  3. What are the opportunities for enhanced collaboration with business and industry?

Believe it or not, Sally’s report makes a very interesting read. She looked at how and why relationships between academia, industry and other partners come about; what makes them tick (the magic word here is ‘trust’); and what makes them sustainable. She also developed a typology of different kinds of partners -some are in it for the long term – ‘platform builders’; some who want to be involved in developing the programme right from the start – ‘co-developers; and some who want to dip in and out of programmes depending on their short term needs – ‘opportunistic’ partners. Each of these has a valid role to play in the overall innovation ecosystem.

Finally, Sally’s report presents a bottom-up, hands on experiential picture of international collaboration between researchers and industry partners and comes up with a number of practical steps that can be taken to make things better. A lot more needs to be done to ensure that knowledge generated from our programmes has maximum impact. However, Sally’s report should help us in defining the way forward to maximise the impact of the joint UK-India public investment in research.

Read the Times Higher article on the report.

New report benchmarks European collaboration and mobility against US

By Professor Paul Boyle, President, Science Europe, International Champion, Research Councils UK. Chief Executive, Economic and Social Research Council.

Today sees the launch of a new report comparing researcher collaboration and mobility within Europe and the United States. The analysis is produced by Elsevier, at the request of Science Europe, and provides a valuable benchmarking exercise. It is well-recognised that the global nature of research is growing rapidly and this, combined with the European Commission’s drive to increase collaboration across the European Research Area (ERA), makes it timely to compare how researchers collaborate and move about within these two global ‘regions’. The report is available at on the Science Europe website.

This study provides much needed evidence on researcher collaboration and mobility. The ERA needs to be built on trust and robust systems which support research funders, performers and administrators to create a space for great research to happen.  This flexible and innovative system needs time to evolve and we recognise that there is still more work to be done, but progress is steady.

In this report, Elsevier looks at the 41 countries in Europe which directly contributed to Framework Programme 7 (the 27 Member States plus 14 Associated Countries) as well as all 50 US states. The researcher populations are broadly similar at approximately 1.64 million for Europe and 1.47 million for the US. For the purposes of the study, which uses data up to 2011, a European country is treated as similar to a US state; a somewhat blunt comparison but the first of its kind and one which provides some useful insights into the process of researcher collaboration and mobility.

Much of the report corroborates widely accepted views, but there are some findings which provide good evidence for Europe’s success – past, present and future – as a research leader. For example in 2011, Europe produced 33.4% of the world’s research outputs, while the US accounted for 23.4% and this gap is growing. The 13% of papers involving collaborators in more than one European country was quite similar to the 16% of papers involving collaborators in more than one US state, and inter-country collaboration in Europe is growing (2003-2011) while inter-state collaboration over the same period in the US fell slightly. It would appear that national and pan-European collaboration mechanisms are working. However, US researchers are more likely to collaborate with researchers outside their own region (30%) compared to European researchers (23%).

There are also some interesting findings relating to mobility, showing that while US researchers are more likely to relocate between states than European researchers are between countries, the impact of this mobility is strikingly different between regions. For example European countries with the highest citation impact, such as Switzerland, tend to show lower percentages of ‘sedentary’ researchers while the US states with the highest citation impact, such as California and Massachusetts, tend to show higher percentages of ‘sedentary’ researchers.