Gulf in research capacity hinders international collaboration

Big gaps between research capacity and research investment in South Asian countries and between universities in South Asian countries and major western research institutions have prevented research collaboration being as strong as it could be, a seminar on South Asia heard in January.

Research investment has been increasing in most South Asian countries but it is still low and international collaborations are lagging behind other parts of Asia, particularly Southeast Asia and China, a meeting of South Asian and UK education leaders organised by the British Council heard.

Within South Asia, just 2.2% of international collaborations involve countries within the region, such as between India and Sri Lanka, according to a report for the British Council by the Economist Intelligence Unit, or EIU, entitled A Mighty Web: Research collaborations can foster growth in South Asia.

While the cursory report released at the meeting does not examine the research landscape itself, it noted that language, geopolitics and cultural issues can be significant barriers to research collaboration within the region.

Security is also an issue with Afghanistan and Pakistan suffering as a result of decades of political instability which has made it harder for overseas universities and research institutions to establish a presence on the ground. Researchers are unwilling to visit, according to the report.

Nonetheless, “most of the countries in South Asia face similar kinds of challenges, so collaborative research would be the ideal way to transfer information about dealing with these challenges from one country to the next,” the report said.


Another barrier, not discussed at this meeting, was that of visas, with Ghader Ghorbani of Iran’s Ministry of Science, Research and Technology unable to secure a visa in time to attend the 22 January seminar in London, “despite our best efforts and the efforts of the (British) Foreign Office”, said Danny Whitehead, British Council representative in Iran.

Whitehead added without irony: “Collaboration in research is a form of diplomatic relations.”

But funding is the biggest hurdle. Although research collaboration is often touted as a good way to do research more cheaply, Richard Black, pro-director for research and enterprise at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, which co-organised the seminar, noted that international collaboration costs money in terms of travel and accommodation.

Black said more generally, a barrier to equitable collaboration is the huge variation between countries in research investment. “This is something of a problem across international boundaries when one state invests more than another. The differences can be quite wide.”

Nonetheless, many South Asian institutions want to collaborate with the very best internationally. Many collaborations in South Asia “are meant to be aspirational”, said Hillol Nag of QS Intelligence Unit, London.

This has motivated other Asian countries. One of the key drivers of China’s research collaborations with Western countries is transfer of technology, the seminar heard.

Black added that some institutions were seeking to collaborate internationally “to jump the rankings” without thinking how to give something back via that collaboration. “There are lots of collaborations that are not two-way and are not real collaborations as a result,” he said.

There was also a greater demand for international research collaborations with India than with other countries in the region, such as Nepal, which are perceived as being “too small” by institutions overseas.

Data reserves

Some institutions pursuing international collaboration are interested in South Asia’s “huge reservoir of data”, much of it underused, the EIU report said.

“This is where the academics and top universities have an interest; they want to collaborate with institutions in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh because we have so much accumulated data here,” Wahiduddin Mahmud, chairman of the South Asian Network of Economic Research Institutes was quoted as saying.

But this aspect may be overplayed. Black cautioned that even Western institutions could not necessarily handle vast amounts of data. “We have way too much data and lack the capacity to do it,” he said.

Rather than some of the superficial, perceived economic benefits of research collaboration often cited by university management, Black said a key benefit from research collaboration is “the value of knowledge itself”.

“Knowledge has value when it is shared. There is a strong argument to be made that the value of knowledge significantly increases the wider the gap between the country with which it is being shared,” Black said.

However, only “over the long term can you build the trust necessary to work together”, Black said. “You need a long time-frame and universities are very good at long time-frames.”

But he also said that there was “no disgrace in starting small”, adding, “I suspect that many university partnerships are at their root, best on a personal partnership level.”