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Breaking Fences May Make for Good Neighbours

Published: 2012-10-30

IFS together with the Carnegie Corporation begins piloting a Collaborative Research Approach

Graham Haylor, DirectorGraham Haylor, IFS Director

Robert Frost’s famous poem Mending Wall, an ode to individualism, celebrates the role of good fences in ensuring good neighbourliness, especially where fences protect crops from neighbour’s cattle. Whilst this may be true with forage, the opposite is true for information. Information is not depleted by use, but enriched and rendered more accurate. Research on a particular problem may require a wider range of skills than any single individual, or even a single institution, is likely to possess. Researchers working together to achieve the common goal of producing new knowledge can derive mutual intellectual benefits and social influence from their collaboration. ‘Breaking the fences’ that separate scientists, laboratories, institutes, countries, and disciplines can achieve greater research outcomes. We believe there may be a range of benefits from a Collaborative Research Approach. Such as: sharing of knowledge, skills and techniques; tacit knowledge transfer; learning social and team management skills; sourcing creativity; intellectual companionship; greater scientific visibility; and pooling equipment. Click on this link to read the full paper entitled Breaking Fences May Make for Good Neighbours in Collaborative Research.

The International Foundation for Science primarily exists to support ‘young’ scientists to become established in research careers within the developing world. We believe it is vital that science in developing countries should expand. Young people today constitute the largest youth cohort in human history, with the vast majority in developing countries; they are in the vanguard of research endeavours. It is clear that working together, developing world scientists are well placed to identify the challenges they face, and to propose transformational research, to build resilience to global volatility; to engage in global negotiations; and to innovate for sustainable futures. Researchers who start collaborating early in their careers are known to be more likely to be strategic in their collaborative decision making, enhancing the benefits and productivity of their collaborations. There is therefore a clear coherent rationale to help to bring together scientists, to build capability early in researchers’ careers, to understand and manage collaboration, and in so doing possibly to to contribute to the scale, scope and efficacy of research outputs. These are the drivers behind the IFS Collaborative Research Approach. However, continuing the philosophy within IFS of building capability through opportunities at a scale that is suited to early-career scientists, direct co-operation among three to five researchers is to be the core unit of the IFS Collaborative Research Approach.

Of course there are specific costs to collaboration: finding collaborative partners; financial costs; time costs; administration and reconciling different financial systems; management cultures and mechanisms. The IFS Collaborative Research Approach aims to promote research collaboration amongst early-career scientists. This will include access to an on-line collaborative environment using the Podio software platform for use by all eligible registered applicants, as well as successful teams of grantees; subject specific and technical mentoring; and, to reduce some of the costs to collaborative researchers, a specific budget for team coordination costs.

It is becoming clear that some of the most significant scientific advances can come about as a result of the integration or 'fusion' of previously separate fields. New or emerging fields of collaboration are considered increasingly likely to form the basis of major new technologies. Linked to this is the recognition that advances in certain areas of biological resources research are crucial for the development of new generic technologies such as biotechnology and new materials. In this context, collaboration not only across scientific disciplinary boundaries, but also between sectors – for example, between universities and industry – becomes increasingly important. This then is a driver behind the IFS Contributing Innovation Approach, piloting later in the 10-year strategy.

The opportunity to collaborate in research today is enhanced by the digital revolution and by the substantial fall in real terms in the cost of travel and of communication, accompanied by growing availability and easy access to both.

Along with these contemporary enabling factors, practical manifestations of the political will to support researchers working together are also emerging. One example is ‘Open Science in the 21st Century’ and emerging ‘Global Knowledge Partnerships’ that promise more efficient data-sharing, replication of experiments, better testing of theories and accelerated innovation, to which all European Science Academies declared their commitment this year. Another is the evolution of some of the largest instruments in support of collaborative research, development and innovations in science, engineering and technology ever conceived, e.g. the European Union’s Horizon 2020 (previously named FP8) which will shape the future of European research starting in 2014 and running to 2020 with an €80 billion budget. A central tenet of both of these flagship programmes is research collaboration, incorporating provision for the participation of non-EU countries.

The International Foundation for Science will pilot collaborative research, because building capability in research collaboration amongst developing country scientists now can empower colleagues to shape, play meaningful roles in, and benefit from Open Science. It can better equip scientists to demand and fulfil meaningful roles within collaborative research, development and innovations in science, engineering and technology.

In our core individual research approach or in support of our pilot research collaboration, now is the time to increase support for developing country scientists who are working to realizing their right “to share in scientific advancement and its benefits” (Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

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