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.