Science council collaboration can be challenging

Collaboration between the ‘silos’ that are science councils can be demanding and requires a spirit of engagement that often goes beyond understanding the problems they face, according to Dr Stephen McGurk, vice-president of the programme and partnership branch of the International Development Research Centre, or IDRC.

The Canadian agency is engaged in how research addressing development priorities gets picked up and used, he told a consultative conference of its Science Granting Councils in Sub-Saharan Africa project, held in Somerset West in South Africa late last year.

A key element in the pick-up of research is institutionalised forms of support, which comes in many forms including funding councils, parastatal and public sector bodies, business and industry associations, and incubators. The private sector has a range of tools to pick up results from research.

“We are interested in seeing what has been learned from this institutionalisation of evidence for change.”

Starting this work in Latin America, said McGurk, “we found there was a great desire among emerging research councils to share their experiences in fairly instrumental ways”. There was also enthusiasm for thematic collaboration on key issues across countries and sectors.

“We saw this a decade ago in Southeast Asia, where colleagues in a range of countries confronted a number of collective action problems, particularly around emerging infectious disease spreading across countries and sectors.” There was “a tremendous desire to work together to break through siloed sectoral lines and siloed country bureaucracies”.

However: “That turned out to be far more difficult than we imagined. We began with the Thais and the Chinese and later added the oceans, Indonesia and the Philippines. Only in 2013, after more than a decade, did the Chinese government finally decide that this was something it wanted to join in and support.

“So these kinds of collaboration we know from experience can be very demanding and require a spirit of engagement that often goes beyond just the understanding of the problem and the desire to be engaged in hard work.”

Research on research

Headquartered in Ottawa, the IDRC has regional offices in Nairobi, Cairo, Montevideo and New Delhi and its major work is around social and economic policy, agriculture and the environment, health and medical technology, and science, technology and innovation.

Its mandate is to initiate, encourage, support and conduct research into the problems of developing regions and into means of applying and adapting scientific, technical and other knowledge to socio-economic advantage. It builds research capacity, innovative skills and institutions required to solve problems facing developing countries

A major focus of the IDRC is research on research. Science is an increasingly global enterprise, Naser Faruqui, director of science and innovation, told the African conference.

“There are more than seven million researchers in the world who publish in more than 25,000 journals, and there is a combined research and development spend of over US$1 trillion, which is a 25% increase since 2002.”

While traditionally the scientific superpowers have been the United States, Western Europe and Japan, science is now happening in more and more places.

“China overtook Japan and Western Europe recently in terms of journal outputs, and other developments have also taken place in India and newly emerging scientific nations in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa as well as many smaller European nations.

“This scientific world is becoming increasingly interconnected. International collaboration is on the rise. For example, today 35% of the articles published in international journals are intra-national and collaborative, and that’s up from 25% just a few years ago,” he continued.

Collaboration enhances the quality of research, improves its efficiency and effectiveness, and is increasingly necessary as many of the problems research tackles cross borders.

“But we don’t really know that much about the dynamics of networking, about the mobility of scientists, how this affects global science and how best to harness these networks to catalyse and synergise science for the common good,” Faruqui said.

IDRC has an intellectual interest in better understanding international science collaboration, and funds research on research to understand the context in which science is undertaken. It also has a practical interest, funding science parallel to national funding organisations.

Work in Africa

The year-long Sub-Saharan Africa study of science granting councils in 17 countries was undertaken by the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology – CREST – at the University of Stellenbosch.

It is due to report this month, and is part of a global project that seeks to understand changing contexts of how governments support and promote science, consult with research funding agencies on these changes and explore opportunities for cooperation.

And it is one of several major lines of work in Sub-Saharan Africa that includes the Think Tank Initiative, support for research into food security, health systems and climate change adaptation, and the Cape Town-based African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.

There are university chairs programmes, including in Kenya with the National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation and, for example, research chairs in food and nutrition at the University of Ghana and in health systems at Makerere University in Uganda.

The centre’s Science and Innovation Program supports research on science, technology and innovation (STI) policies that contribute to economic growth and poverty alleviation, said Faruqui – and is currently supporting the government in Mozambique to review its policy.

The Information and Networks Program looks at the benefits and risks of open systems – open science, open education, open governance and open business models. There are a number of initiatives across Africa on open governance, for instance, and a research initiative on open science with the University of Cape Town.

Science granting councils project

The project on science granting councils in low- and middle-income countries was created because of new interest and directions in partnership funding.

A number of countries and intergovernmental organisations are creating new bodies to fund science in developing countries, said Faruqui, who was intrigued to discover from the Sub-Saharan Africa research that 12 of the 17 countries have recently set up new science funding bodies or will be in the near future.

“The other factor is changing programming directions, whether it is reacting to significant economic or political change in Cote d’Ivoire for example, or in Egypt where secret agencies under [former president Hosni] Mubarak actually approved research projects.

“Countries are rethinking their programming directions. We heard in our regional Latin America and Caribbean consultation that countries are interested in funding research related to inclusion, including in Argentina, Colombia and Chile.

Also, new and exciting partnerships are happening, domestically and internationally, Faruqui pointed out.

“For example, councils in Tanzania, India and China have developed joint research programmes, and Kenya and South Africa are working together on research. Numerous countries have also moved to build partnerships with industry, to commercialise research.

“Then there are countries like South Africa, India and China with emerging development cooperation agencies. There are opportunities for these agencies to collaborate, and with science funding agencies, in research for development.”

The global science funding councils project began with scoping studies and consultation in Latin America and the Caribbean. Parallel to the Sub-Saharan Africa consultation was one in South Asia, and in December another in Southeast Asia and finally one in the Middle East and North Africa.

In Latin America, background studies are looking at issues related to financial instruments for supporting and the issue of inclusion. In Southeast Asia the IDRC is working with science granting councils in the ASEAN and there is considerable interest in open science.

In South Asia there are two strands of work, one looking at non-traditional sources of funding – both philanthropic and private sector funding for science – and the second looking at open science, open data and open access.

Today the question, said Faruqui, is how to work with funding bodies in future in the effort to solve global problems. “That question is very much on our mind because we are embarking on developing the next strategic plan for the IDRC. We are considering and consulting on how best to work with organisations in the South in future.”