Funding agencies to collaborate in new Global Research Council

Last month 47 leaders of research funding agencies from 44 countries met at the headquarters of the National Science Foundation in Arlington, US, for a two-day summit of the newly minted Global Research Council.

The goal was to devise ways to reduce differences in scientific collaboration across borders and to establish stricter guidelines for supporting research based on merit – all in the context of shrinking funds for academic research.

The gathering of the Global Research Council, or GRC, which is headed by National Science Foundation (NSF) Director Subra Suresh, also worked to define certain key parameters and establish new communication and peer review infrastructures.

The GRC has emerged in response to growing awareness among publicly funded research organisations and policy-makers worldwide that the globalisation of science not only offers unprecedented opportunities for collaboration and cooperation but also requires greater standardisation (and accountability) in the assessment of proposed research.

And with a dramatic growth in global interconnectedness over the past decade – evidenced by citations in science and engineering publications – the need for standardised protocols of merit review that govern the way projects and scholars are funded is greater than ever.

According to the Royal Society’s 2011 publication, Knowledge, Networks and Nations: Global scientific collaboration in the 21st century, over 35% of articles published in peer-reviewed journals had multiple nationalities sharing authorship – up 10% from 1996.

Moreover, patterns of international collaboration are shifting, especially among BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and their G7 partners Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, the UK and the US.

For this reason, establishing new paradigms to manage global research traffic has increasingly been the goal of various regional consortia, as seen in the vision for enhanced international cooperation that was developed by the European Scientific Foundation and European Heads of Research Councils in 2010.

Need to establish international metrics

But it was the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in conjunction with the NSF that in 2011 identified the need to establish broader international metrics to address these issues.

They facilitated five regional meetings of global science policy-makers. The culmination of this work was ratified as the Statement of Principles for Scientific Merit Review at the Global Summit on Merit Review in mid-May, the founding meeting of the GRC.

Delegates identified two distinct and intertwined objectives.

The first was the need for global agreement on core, high-level principles that will “foster international cooperation among funding agencies that support the scientific research community”. The second was that participating countries arrive at “consensus on the key elements necessary for a rigorous and transparent review system”.

Not binding in any legal way, the principles are objectives that are intended to help pilot the process of peer review. They articulate the basic, uncontroversial role that transparency, impartiality, appropriateness, confidentiality and integrity-ethics must play in all global research endeavours.

Elaborating at a press conference after the summit, Suresh affirmed that these principles are “not necessarily all-inclusive”, but rather are intended to help guide multinational research projects in the future. They are, he added, “the first step toward a more unified approach to the scientific process”.

Robert Paul Königs, the director of scientific affairs at the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, agrees. In conversation with University World News, he underlined how “emphatically the summit delegates agreed upon the principles”.

“Bland as [the principles] may seem to be, they are – importantly – a point of agreement. In fact, they are an achievement because they have the major scientific research funders of a lot of countries behind them.”

Indeed, the principles heavily underline the importance of ensuring the review process is governed by the opinion of experts in terms of both appropriate knowledge of the research field and specific objectives and methodological framework.

As Suresh noted: “For funding agencies, peer review is our bread and butter. We have to pick the best ideas and people in the most transparent and ethical manner.”

Co-hosted by Brazil and Germany, next year’s meeting in Berlin will consider issues of open access to research data and publications, as well as issues of research ethics and integrity. But, noted Königs, it is likely that research integrity will be the focus of that meeting because there is already much consensus about the need to address the matter.

Need to establish practical measures

Although international guidelines have been articulated in agreements like the Singapore Statement on Research Integrity of 2010, the global scientific community is eager to establish practical measures that will ensure that comprehensive standards, codes and policies in the promotion of integrity in research are more universally accepted.

Key to that agreement and to the GRC’s mandate is the adoption of fundamental principles and responsibilities that govern the way research is conducted, reported and policed across national boundaries.

“Even though it would be difficult to make such points of reference binding on a global basis,” explained Königs, “articulating them formally would be a good indicator of consensus within the research community.”

There is no doubt that building consensus about standards and practices will go far towards ensuring accountability and helping realise the best that international collaboration has to offer.

“Consensus, in my opinion, was the most important thing to come out of this summit,” observed Könings.

All of this bodes well for next year, especially in the light of the fact that more than 100 member countries are expected to attend and that as many as six countries are vying to host the 2014 meeting.