Striving for a truly omnipresent science

The International Association of University Presidents, or IAUP, is proud to have been a founding partner of the United Nations Academic Impact and its 10 guiding principles for global tertiary education.

Two of these are:

  • • A commitment to human rights, among them freedom of inquiry, opinion and speech.
  • • A commitment to encouraging global citizenship through education.
Having visited many universities in many countries in my time as president of the IAUP, I believe that our national systems by and large reinforce rather than challenge the orthodoxies and shared assumptions that continue to instil identities in our students that define us in distinction to – and as different from – others rather than identities that ground us in universalities or experiences of ourselves centring on felt commonalities.

This – together with the underlying culturally specific socialisation that precedes our formal tertiary education – complicates designing and conducting scientific research that is rooted simultaneously in a deep understanding, appreciation, transcendence and ultimately celebration of difference – within an overarching commonality.

A relatively new objective that has emerged in college and university mission statements around the world is the preparation of ‘global citizens’.

My observation is that for many institutions this is addressed in sending and receiving students – and sometimes professors – in international exchange. This certainly is an important element of broadening individuals’ understanding of cultural relativity versus a more narrowly parochial sense of the world as seen through one’s own cultural lens.


I recently reviewed the findings of the “2012 International Presidential Forum on Global Research Universities: Effective education and innovative learning”, which took place in Korea.

The forum’s areas of focus all stress the need for innovation – new models with new ways of thinking, including newly conceived paradigms, pedagogies and curricular design – and this was emphasised in the forum’s declaration, which was endorsed by 50 leaders from tertiary education worldwide, including one from Saudi Arabia.

The goals it described bring into sharp relief the tension between traditional concepts of intellectual property (it belongs to the individual scholar, or funding institution, or home nation); as well as notions of the national interest versus the ‘common good’.

Where historically the emphasis has been on the former – and certainly the national interest continues to have essential value in scientific research today – there are clear implications as well of an interdependent global citizenry within which and in the service of which the knowledge exchange in scientific research takes place.

Our moment in time includes an increasing emphasis on the internationalisation of science: its methods and design across disciplines and national interests, its assessment and measurement, the breadth of its audience and applications, the belief systems in which assumptions are rooted.

Clearly implicated in this emphasis are the conceptual and philosophical foundations for university study that are inculcated globally in both primary and secondary educational systems – and the imperative to train teachers at these levels to themselves learn, teach, think, design and interpret through a more fundamentally global lens than ever before.


“Emerging nations are transforming the scene, although traditional powers remain,” said physicist and former director of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, CERN, Christopher Llewellyn Smith in the March 2011 Royal Society report on the state of global science.

The report, titled Knowledge, Networks and Nations: Global scientific collaboration in the 21st Century, analysed peer-reviewed science papers with abstracts in English to assess which countries were claiming slices of an expanding research pie. The report’s findings include the following:
  • • From 2002-07, global investment in R&D – which while uneven throughout the world, and shifting away from North America and Europe, remains concentrated in major cities internationally – increased by about US$350 billion, the number of researchers grew by 1.4 million and the number of published research papers increased by 500,000, emanating largely from the same 12 cities where most R&D is invested. Many of the emerging publishing centres are in Asia.
  • • The proportion of scientific papers with more than one international author has been rising steadily – indicating both increased globalisation and greater quality in scientific research overall. One measure of the improved quality is the growth in citations of papers with international researchers involved.
  • • The international student population has more than quadrupled since 1975, from 800,000 to more than 3.7 million in 2009 – and undoubtedly an incrementally higher number today. These are our ‘global citizens’ in the making, as their international experience, personal and professional contacts and language and cultural abilities inform their development as researchers.
I would argue that the concomitant challenge for the home institutions is to welcome these more broadly prepared internationalists home with pedagogies, curricula and methodologies that build upon and incorporate their experience abroad.

Clearly, from this report, we see that an investment in both welcoming international students to our home institutions and sending our own students abroad is an investment in the future of scientific research and the bodies of knowledge that it will produce.

China, not unexpectedly, is the most promising ‘new kid on the block’. In terms of the world's total research paper output, it leapt from sixth place in 2003 to second place in 2008. Today, over 10% of the world's scholarly articles come out of China.

The report projects that the country will pass the United States, which currently produces 21% of the world's research papers, within the decade.

The quality of research is a measure separate from number of publications. The Royal Society report measured it primarily in numbers of citations per paper. Here, although citations of Chinese papers have increased over the same period, the rise in quality has not been as fast as that of output.

The panel members said it would likely take time before countries recognised the new players such as China as worthy partners and began citing their work.

Llewellyn Smith said that the most surprising finding of the Royal Society report was strong scientific growth in a group of countries not perceived as research powerhouses.

Iran, for instance, increased its yearly number of peer-reviewed science publications from 736 in 1996 to 13,238 in 2008. Turkey tripled the percentage of GDP spent on R&D in a little over a decade, and the number of researchers in the country increased by 43%, a finding that may add clout to its long-pending bid to join the European Union (EU). Tunisia and Qatar also showed significant increases in research spending.

Llewellyn Smith said it was too early to speculate on how recent political changes in Islamic countries would affect these trends.

The report stressed the importance of international collaboration on expensive, unrepeatable projects. Over 35% of papers published in 2009 now include international collaboration, up from 25% 15 years ago.

While scientists' natural tendency to seek out the best researchers, wherever they may be, remains the main driver of this increase, the panel attributed research improvements in Portugal, Austria and Greece to a concerted effort by the European Commission's Framework Programme, which funds research only if it includes collaboration with an emerging EU country. “This top-down approach had an effect,” said Llewellyn Smith.

So what steps can the world take to enable omnipresent science?

The report suggests concrete measures such as more open-access journals to allow poorer institutions to have access, easing visa restrictions on visiting scientists, and investigating new metrics and analysis techniques that will allow research panels to accurately assess global collaboration.

Removing barriers

Steps that our members within IAUP are finding effective include the above as well as individual memoranda of understanding between cooperating universities – often arranged as an outcome of the personal relationships that develop between the presidents – jointly designed curricula, and pedagogies that encourage open and critical inquiry and application free from any particular orthodoxies or ideological restraints.

Barriers to exchange of knowledge live primarily in the inverse of what has been described so far: the choice to ‘stay at home’ both physically and ideologically, designs that are engineered to produce results supporting preconceived notions, conceptualisation that is driven by ideological or nationalistic constraints rather than encouragement to think openly, creatively and collaboratively – with a confidence that the previously unknown will birth results that cannot be fully imagined beforehand.

While clearly there is and must be a balance between, for example, research focused on a nation’s national security interests and that seeking common solutions to global health challenges, so too must there be a balanced approach to training – and where needed retraining – our researchers and researchers-in-training so that keenly intentional discernment and differentiation of design and outcomes is a normal part of their professional lives.

In conclusion, I return to the two principles of the United Nations Academic Impact, which form a vital part of this important conversation: a commitment to human rights, among them freedom of inquiry, opinion and speech – which is surely the foundation for a robust and critically differentiated exchange of scientific knowledge in a global context – and a commitment to encouraging global citizenship through education at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, so that all members of all societies globally are provided the opportunity to organically integrate the habits of mind that are required to embrace global citizenship with other chronologically and age-appropriate aspects of their developmental experience.

* Neal King is president of the International Association of University Presidents and president of Sofia University in the US. This is an edited version of his presentation at the 3rd Forum of Societal Partnership, "Scientific Research and Knowledge Exchange", held at Al-Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in April.