BRICS academic collaboration moves forward – slowly

Recommendations for academic and research collaboration among the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – are to be taken forward after a heads of state meeting in Russia in July adopted a BRICS Academic Forum vision paper. The proposals include easy visas for researchers and a fund similar to Europe’s Horizon 2020 to finance joint research.

Some 160 scholars attended the latest BRICS Academic Forum held in Moscow from 22-23 May, and approved a 190-page report titled Towards a Long-Term Strategy for BRICS Countries, developed by the BRICS Think Tanks Council.

The strategy was subsequently approved at the Seventh BRICS Summit in July and endorsed in its ‘Ufa Declaration’, which said that a permanent platform for in-depth expert opinion was valued and would help to consolidate high quality research and analysis.

“The BRICS Think Tanks Council should further strive to enhance cooperation in future-oriented research, knowledge sharing, capacity building and policy advice between think tanks in BRICS countries,” the declaration says.

Universities and BRICS

The strategy report was the result of three years of work, said Dr Nico Jooste, president of the International Education Association of South Africa, or IEASA. He was at the Moscow meeting of the forum, which meets annually.

“Universities are at the forefront of academic and cultural innovation. BRICS is there to be an alternative voice in global society, and if universities and students don’t collaborate we won’t see any progress,” he told University World News at the annual IEASA conference held in Port Elizabeth from 19-21 August.

“We need to find ways not only to re-imagine economies, but also to re-imagine collaboration between these five countries.”

BRICS is not in opposition to anything: “It’s an alternative. Unless we are thinking about what sort of alternative, cooperation will go ahead slowly. We have to start looking at alternatives because the world is running out of solutions to its problems, and BRICS provides potential for a new way of thinking.”

Collaboration within and among BRICS countries could be a game changer, Jooste believes. While comparisons with the European Union should not be made, the Erasmus programme – which drives student and academic mobility – has been a game changer there. “More than a million mobile students helped to create the whole concept of Europe being one.”

In terms of higher education, said Jooste, BRICS would need to develop its own rules, “or who do we imitate?” But currently there is little academic cooperation between the five countries and there are inconsistencies between ideals and practice.

For instance, Russia’s ‘5-100’ plan to have five universities in the global top 100 includes Russian universities working with those already in the top 100. “So they are going to work with nobody in BRICS. Brazil did the same with its ‘Science Without Borders’ initiative – it is only sending students to America and Europe. Unless we find our own centres of excellence and start building around them, academically nothing will change.”

Currently there is collaboration between Russia and China, and between India, Brazil and South Africa – IBSA – which Jooste pointed out has more money for higher education collaboration than there is in the BRICS environment. IBSA’s future is now in doubt.

But BRICS recently created the New Development Bank, which will help finance challenges such as infrastructure development, reducing inequality and boosting development. It is anticipated that the Bank will provide funding for academic collaboration from 2018.

“It has been clearly stated by everybody in the BRICS Academic Forum that collaboration will go nowhere without funding,” said Jooste, who is senior director for international education at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth.

A Russian perspective

Professor Maxim Khomyakov, vice-rector of Ural Federal University and head of the BRICS Studies Centre, told the IEASA conference that the BRICS countries encompassed a quarter of world territory, 40% of the world’s population and its largest emerging markets.

“It is forecast that by 2020 the BRICS countries will have the most developed economies: China first, the United States second, India third, Brazil fourth and Russia fifth. Today someone could say that China is slowing down, Russia is experiencing great problems with its economy and currency, and there are political problems in Brazil.” Still, together the countries were a force to be reckoned with.

But while collaboration in education and science would be crucial for the success of BRICS, the countries had very different education and research structures and little collaboration. “BRICS countries are very far from any integrated education and science area – we are just starting our collaboration.”

Khomyakov described two multilateral initiatives that were significant steps forward – the BRICS Universities League, a Chinese initiative begun two years ago, and the BRICS Network University, a Russian initiative.

The BRICS Universities League started in 2013, involving five Chinese and five Russian universities only. Last year the first summer schools were held at Fudan University in Shanghai and a global education initiative was launched in Ekaterinburg. The league will be officially launched by its university presidents in October.

The BRICS Network University project has developed a charter that has been sent to all BRICS ministries of education in the bloc and will be signed this month.

Khomyakov describes the project as being largely about joint masters. Universities in the network will come together, agree on certain areas of collaboration, agree on the content of the masters and then organise network mobility between them.

Russia would provide resources and university places for foreign students from other BRICS countries. “The hope is that all BRICS countries would also contribute something.”

Regarding research, ministers of education produced a Cape Town declaration outlining areas of responsibility for each BRICS country: climate change and disaster mitigation for Brazil; geospatial technologies and application for India; renewable energy and energy efficiency for China; astronomy for South Africa; and water resources and pollution treatment for Russia.

Coordination and information nodes will be created in universities, in BRICS priority areas. For example, Khomyakov’s Ural Federal University will have an international information and coordination point in astronomy. “There will be a network of information points for BRICS research.” Education ministries are also talking about creating centres of excellence to support research in the priority areas.

There will also be a number of joint short-term courses like summer schools and graduate seminars. Research conferences and other events will be organised in the coming years.

“Research and education collaboration among BRICS countries is developing quite fast now. We don’t have any sizeable results yet. We have just started the process. But there is hope that with our mutual interest in each other, this project will develop further.”

Behind all this activity, Khomyakov concluded, were the main goals of the BRICS in research and innovation – to facilitate transfer of knowledge for sustainable development, provide support to BRICS infrastructure projects, create common education, research and innovation areas, enhance the visibility of the BRICS in global citation indexes and rankings, and contribute to advanced research in priority areas of the BRICS nations.

Long-term strategy

Towards a Long-Term Strategy for BRICS Countries finds positive and negative aspects to science and technology development in BRICS. While countries had seen “significant progress”, they were still lagging behind rich countries.

Brazil and India almost doubled the number of scientific and technical publications between 2000 and 2009, while China quadrupled its publications. There was now significant scientific production by BRICS countries in areas such as material sciences, chemistry and physics.

China had been able to increase its share of patents and gross domestic expenditure on research and development as a percentage of gross domestic product from 0.6% in 1996 to almost 2% in 2012.

The report concludes that among BRICS nations, “China is the leading performer in science, technology and innovation indicators”. While China lagged in some indicators, due to the size of its population it was among world leaders in aspects such as the number of people employed in and expenditure on research and development.

“Second, despite the progress in some indicators such as the number of scientific publications, there is still much room for improvement when compared to the most technologically advanced countries.”

The strategy document makes the following recommendations in its ‘pillar’ chapter on “Progress through sharing knowledge and innovation”:
  • • BRICS countries should make special arrangements to facilitate and encourage exchanges among researchers, including simplifying visa procedures and reducing approval times.
  • • BRICS should strengthen cooperation under the Patent Cooperation Treaty to facilitate the simultaneous registration of patents in all BRICS countries.
  • • BRICS should establish a fund to finance patent applications.
  • • BRICS should support joint projects by researchers and institutions. It should create a BRICS framework programme similar to the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (the subsequent research initiative is Horizon 2020) to finance joint projects through the New Development Bank.
  • • BRICS should facilitate technology and knowledge transfer, including by establishing a fund for a repository where owners of the rights to technologies will be able to apply for assistance in their commercialisation.
  • • A BRICS institute of innovation and technology should be established, along the lines of that successfully developed in Europe.
  • • BRICS should increase focus on innovation for inclusive development. Science and technology in BRICS countries should be harnessed to the benefit of poor and marginalised populations, and not only focus on the forefront of technology and catch-up.
  • • There have been a number of capital market failures in early-stage funding of innovation-driven start-ups in BRICS countries; therefore, BRICS should research comparative assessment of financing.
  • • BRICS countries should sponsor comparative initiatives to enhance linkages between universities and industry. The separation of teaching and research in BRICS countries has adversely affected innovation. Experiments with instruments to promote university-industry linkages and public-private partnerships have been developed, such as incubation centres for university spin-offs.
  • • BRICS countries should consider the possibility of adopting a Bayh-Dole Act equivalent in all BRICS nations, covering the ownership of intellectual property rights of state-funded research by institutions or researchers.
  • • BRICS countries should sponsor research focused on public-private partnership funds and efforts to reinvigorate research in universities.
  • • BRICS countries should stimulate sharing experiences of technology licensing offices in universities and research and development institutions, and comparative research on investments and other policies for higher education to build human resources for innovation.
  • • Given that TRIPS – Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights – has affected BRICS nations, all of which have changed intellectual property rights laws, BRICS countries should stimulate comparative research into regulatory experimentation in intellectual property laws.
  • • BRICS countries should provide incentives to stimulate the participation of their firms in global production in innovation and technology networks.
  • • BRICS countries should design a joint position for their participation in TRIPS-related negotiations.
BRICS Academic Forum

According to a statement after the BRICS Academic Forum meeting in Moscow, there was discussion on the strategy paper and issues ranging from international peace and security, the role of international institutions and reform of the international financial system, to social challenges, trade, economic cooperation priorities and culture, and education and science as drivers for enhanced cooperation in BRICS.

Jooste said his takeaway from the forum came in the final moments, when each head of delegation presented a statement.

Zhou Yuyun, deputy general director of the international department of the Communist Party’s central committee and a council member of the China Center for Contemporary World Studies, compared the BRICS to the five fingers of the hand. “Five fingers make a fist. But we are not going to hit anyone with this fist; instead, we are taking a constructive stance for promoting our interests,” said Zhou.

Collaboration not clout will be the driver of BRICS collaboration, Jooste said.