Disseminating research policy knowledge to global South

Although recognised as the basis for a knowledge economy, research is an expensive undertaking, often with uncertain outcomes. Thus its management is a growing area of focus for policy-makers around the world who are faced, inter alia, with two key issues: how to set priorities for the research agenda in the context of finite resources and competing demands; and how to evaluate the impact of that research.

These are highly complex issues. Although they are the “most talked about” they are also the “least researched”, according to Merle Jacob, professor in research policy at Lund University in Sweden and UNESCO Chair in Research Management and Innovation Systems.

Jacob was addressing participants in the policy stream of the Research, Higher Education, Development and Innovation – RHEDI – project, launched in Durban from 19 to 23 May under the management of the South African non-profit educational SANTRUST.

RHEDI’s work will include research into developing country challenges and opportunities, and executive leadership training aimed at building capacity in higher education institutions and systems in a range of African and Southeast Asian countries. Jacob spoke at an expert roundtable session held on 20 May to identify key issues for the RHEDI programme.

Reframing the brain drain problem

Jacob said that in the current era of internationalisation, any engagement with the management of research networks could not avoid the issue of academic mobility, now a non-negotiable component in a successful career of researchers in both developing and developed country contexts, and an ongoing source of concern for developing countries.

“The so-called brain drain is now everyone’s problem, rather than a problem of the periphery only,” she said.

Rather than withdraw higher education investment in order to stem the leakage of highly educated graduates, Jacob suggested that governments in developing countries would do better to develop strategies for international research collaborations that could involve local researchers regardless of where they were on the geographical map.

“Governments should be concerned about making use of their competence rather than worry about their physical presence,” she said.

By reframing the problem of global brain circulation, it could be possible to tap into the desire held by many mobile academics to contribute positively to the development of their country of origin, but who, for a variety of reasons, find it difficult to return, she suggested.

And increasing numbers of cross border regional linkages, particularly in Southeast Asia, made it possible to challenge the idea of a South-North movement of successful academics, she said.

“It’s simply not about ‘us and them’ anymore. We are part of a much bigger game. If a developing country has 50 of its academics in Canada, for example, that could be framed as a plus, rather than a loss.”

But mistrust between countries around ‘brain drain’ and poaching of skills persists and capacity building – particularly in the area of research management and policy-making – remains one of the most powerful tools available in any attempt to re-shape global dynamics.

Policy-making can reshape global dynamics

For Jacob, the implementation of the RHEDI training programme – which is designed to build capacity among higher education research managers and policy-makers – signals the fulfilment of an ambition which was conceived with the formation of the UNESCO Forum on Higher Education, Research and Knowledge following the 1998 World Conference on Higher Education. The forum’s inception was from 2000 and its activities began in 2002.

“This [executive leadership programme] is the culmination of 15 years’ work which always intended to include training. I feel most proud now to engage with people working in science and technology in higher education, assess our achievements and make a difference to their work,” she said.

The UNESCO Forum was disbanded and recreated for a couple of years in the OECD as IHERD – Innovation, Higher Education and Research for Development. During this time Jacob worked closely with higher education policy expert Professor Lynn Meek to establish the research management and policy needs of various countries.

Under the auspices of the OECD, the emphasis shifted later to identifying new research in gap areas. “We use that work as a knowledge base for teaching.

“Our goal is to provide qualitative mapping, to map the needs of different parts of the world in relation to research and higher education policy and to include all the information people say is missing beyond the numbers – a quick way of comparing arrangements qualities such as governance, funding, outputs.”

In 2010, Jacob was appointed to the UNESCO Chair in Research Management and Innovation Systems based at Lund University in Sweden, a position which intersects with many of her ambitions for RHEDI, particularly when it comes to the chair’s stated aim to facilitate “research on global trends on research and innovation systems and policies with particular emphasis on how these trends affect higher education institutions in the South”.

Also important is the “transfer of knowledge about capacity-building and governance of research systems through North-South-South institutional partnerships focused on training, research seminars, research exchanges and professional education”.

Transferring research management knowledge

RHEDI represents the next stage at which research accumulated during the UNESCO Forum and IHERD eras can be used to implement executive education, which she describes as a pillar of the UNESCO chair.

“For me this [RHEDI] is the realisation of a dream I had as chair – to use my skills as research policy scholar to disseminate our knowledge to those who need it most,” Jacob told University World News.

“The point is not so much to create a perfect course on policy – Research Policy 101; the bigger impact is gained by talking to people struggling currently with these issues. The process is mutually beneficial.”

Jacob said there had been a struggle to find an appropriate home for the project outside academe – one that could embrace the multi-disciplinary character of the project while at the same time give it a platform from which to engage global policy-makers.

“The project has always had three levels of ambition: to conduct path-breaking research, to push boundaries in academia; and to contribute to practice and build capacity. The challenge is to maintain this balance: do work that policy-makers can actually apply and which is also academically interesting,” she said.

On day three of the programme, Jacob told University World News that she was happy with the way the course in Durban was going but anticipated that future gatherings might struggle to attract the balance of participants captured in the current group of 48 executive students from universities and governments in six African and three Southeast Asian nations.

And it’s not only in lectures that learning happens. Jacob said most of the difficult questions were usually raised with her outside of the formal sessions.

“In addition there’s a lot of academic networking going on and that’s one of the benefits of this programme that cannot be overemphasised. Knowledge exchange like this could not be easily facilitated in a purely academic setting.”

* RHEDI will launch its own, interactive and resource-rich website on the University World News platform in the near future.