Encouraging and expanding research collaborations

By Elizabeth Moses

Recent political events in the U.S. and the U.K. have cast significant doubt on the future of international research collaborations. The decision in the U.K. to exit the European Union has generated uncertainty about the future of the U.K.’s international research partnerships. In the U.S., some scientists have expressed concern that president-elect Trump’s campaign rhetoric could inform his administration’s foreign policy, erecting significant barriers that could slow immigration and international research collaboration in the near future.

Research collaboration allows scientists to complement their own knowledge and skills and gain access to specialized equipment and additional datasets. Due to the complexities of biological research, collaborations are often the most expedient way to make scientific progress. The state of global research collaborations is outlined in the Nature Index 2016 Supplement, which tracks institutional contributions to articles published in a group of highly selective science journals. “This Nature Index supplement shows that international collaboration is a consistent and rapidly growing feature of high-quality research worldwide”, says David Swinbanks, founder of the Nature Index.

As measured by the Nature Index, the U.S. is a partner in about three percent of all international collaborations, but it contributes 38 percent of total, global collaborative effort, reflective of its significance in these relationships. And international collaborations are growing–38 percent of articles in the Nature Index in 2012 were multinational collaborations and this rose to 43 percent in 2015. One advantage of these collaborations is that they increase access to funding, because the money from a grant funded in one country can be shared with their international counterparts. That can be especially beneficial for U.S.-based researchers, where competition is increasing and research dollars are shrinking.

Bilateral collaborations between the U.S. and China outnumber all other international partnerships. Almost a quarter of the 400,000 foreign-born Ph.D. holders in science and engineering in the U.S. come from China, and most China-U.S. collaborations are between Chinese researchers living in the U.S. and their fellow researchers back in China. Immigration restrictions could damage these collaborations and effectively drain this pool of U.S.-based scientists.

Another phenomenon apparent in the Nature Index is that of the 100 strongest partnerships (based on collaborative papers), nearly half are between research organizations in the same city. Local networks dominate research collaboration indicating a strong correlation between proximity and co-invention. Some of the most effective intracity collaborations are in Boston and San Francisco, but these types of collaborations are not unique to the U.S. as Beijing and Paris also rank highly on the list of intracity collaborations.

These data demonstrate how science has become a global endeavor, but several recommendations can be made to better allocate the benefits of these collaborations. First, expanding collaboration hubs by collaborating with institutions in other regions of the country can increase the diversity of ideas and cultural perspectives in these partnerships. Second, increasing the recruitment and hiring of foreign researchers can create more opportunities for international collaboration by opening lines of communication and working through potential cultural differences. Overall, increases in collaboration between local and international universities is promising for producing diverse, competitive science, receiving grants in today’s funding climate and creating scientific models that will be applicable anywhere in the world.

headshot_2Elizabeth (Liz) Moses is interested in improving science communication and advocacy and increasing public interest in scientific research. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in Pathology in the program in Immunology at Boston University School of Medicine and is the communications liaison for BU’s Science and Technology in Public Policy organization. Liz can be reached on Twitter (@emoses91) or by email (emoses@bu.edu).

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