Cross-border partners ‘key to science breakthroughs’

Scientific and technological breakthroughs are more likely than ever to be achieved through international collaboration, a trend that is creating fresh funding opportunities for US universities. But researchers seeking new sources of revenue also must be prepared to navigate a more complex array of regulatory requirements and cultural considerations.

That was the message at a forum last week aimed at helping US universities tap into research funds available through Horizon 2020, a major European Union initiative that aspires to create a worldwide network of researchers that can together address global challenges.

Over the course of seven years, from 2014-20, the European Union expects to invest about €80 billion (US$91 billion) on Horizon 2020 research and innovation projects, many of them calling for large, multi-partner, transnational and interdisciplinary research teams.

The largest multinational research programme in the world, Horizon 2020 is particularly interested in international projects that “tackle challenges that affect us all”, including health and medicine, clean energy and transportation, said Errol Levy, the deputy head of the science, technology and innovation section at the Delegation of the European Union to the United States.

One challenge for US universities, where limited federal involvement is a cherished hallmark and research collaboration tends to evolve out of informal connections among faculty members, will be whether they can "adapt to the formal regulations of the European Union", said Tom Wang, director of international cooperation of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS.

University officials speaking on one panel acknowledged that the decentralised nature of US higher education can lead to unnecessary duplication and missed opportunities.

“We all know there’s a lot going on your campuses that you know nothing about,” said Jong-on Hahm, a distinguished senior fellow at George Mason University and former programme director for the National Science Foundation, which oversees federal funding of university research projects. "Faculty [members] just think of themselves as lone rangers."

Benefits of Horizon 2020 worth the effort

But the potential benefits of Horizon 2020 are worth the effort, several speakers suggested, especially at a time when US competition for federal funds is stiffer than ever and universities are seeking to diversify their research portfolios.

“My job is to help faculty find the money," said Shandra White, director of sponsored projects at George Washington University. “And if the money is across the pond, then that’s where we go.”

About 70 senior international officers were registered for the AIEA Thematic Forum, which was organised by the Centre for Global Studies at George Mason University, located just outside Washington DC, and the National Council of University Research Administrators. It was co-sponsored by the Association of International Education Administrators, or AIEA, and the EU Delegation to the United States.

The day-long programme was the closing event of the AIEA annual conference, where a number of sessions addressed opportunities for international research.

A study published last year by AIEA argues that strategic international research partnerships will become increasingly indispensible for top-tier US research universities. All but two of the last 15 Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry and physiology and medicine have gone to international teams of researchers, for example.

Journal articles co-authored by researchers from more than one country have also become increasingly prominent.

The share of single-country co-authors remains prevalent, up from 36% in 1997 to 44% in 2012. But the share of international authorship grew faster during that period, from 16% to 25%, data from the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2014 show.

"Because scientific knowledge is now more dispersed around the world, the value of international networks is critical both to US universities and to the nation," the report concludes.