Tailored policy needed to boost international collaboration

Localised measures based on needs, priorities, and conditions are the effective and realistic way forward to promote international research collaboration (IRC) in Africa because the African context differs in many aspects from other regions of the world.

In fact, the scientific landscape in each country is unique, according to Jorge Cerdeira, João Mesquita, and Elizabeth S Vieira of the University of Porto in Portugal, authors of the article titled ‘International research collaboration: Is Africa different? A cross-country panel data analysis’ published in the journal Scientometrics on 8 March 2023.

“In Africa, given the limited resources devoted to research and development activities and the crucial role that scientific knowledge generated through research activities can have in socioeconomic development, IRC may be an opportunity to strengthen scientific capabilities,” the authors said.

The benefits of IRC lie in access to funding for research activities, equipment and the development of research, management, and learning infrastructures, according to the study. Therefore, in determining policies to promote IRC, it is imperative to name its barriers.

See Africa in context

According to the authors, a study on IRC and geographical, economic, political or governance, cultural, intellectual, and excellence distance has yet to be conducted in the African context. It has already been found that these factors hamper IRC in other regions.

“The question, therefore, is that: Is Africa different? If so, what are the implications for science and science policy?” the authors asked.

To answer the question, the study used panel data for 54 African economies that include the bilateral collaborations of African countries (with another African country or a non-African country) to examine the effects of geographical, information and communication technologies (ICTs), economic, governance, cultural, intellectual, excellence and social distance on the cross-national research collaborations of these countries.

The number of co-publications between two countries using InCites Benchmarking & Analytics data for the period 2000-17 was used as a measure of IRC, which provides only a partial perspective on collaboration. “Given the complexity of the collaboration process, it is challenging to have a concept of research collaboration and an index that can adequately measure it,” the authors pointed out.

Language hampers IRC

The study found that geographical and ICTs distances, lack of colonial ties and common language, large discrepancies in the knowledge base, the inexistence of past collaborations (a proxy for social distance), and the dissimilarities concerning the collaborators belonging to each country’s network significantly and negatively affect IRC.

Past collaborations and speaking the same language have the highest effect on IRC, and ICTs distance the lowest.

On the other hand, the study found that economic distance promotes IRC, contradicting earlier studies in other regions, and that governance and excellence distances and a common coloniser do not affect IRC.

“The results suggest that Africa is, indeed, different. While geographical, economic, political or governance, cultural, intellectual, and excellence distance hampers IRC in other regions, we argue that economic and excellence distances actuate differently in Africa.”

The authors said that, while certain factors hinder IRC in other regions, they may promote collaboration in an African context. “This may happen with economic distance, considering the low level of development of African science and technology systems and the need to bring them on par with others in terms of socio-economic development.”

Improve ICT to promote interaction

They argue that excellence distance may not be an obstacle “if we consider that an appropriate alignment of science and its funding according to the socio-economic needs is more fruitful than scientific excellence per se, in countries with early-stage science and technology systems”.

The results of the study show that science policies need to be adapted to different environments because the landscape in each country is unique. Policies tailored specifically for Africa are, thus, necessary. To foster IRC, the policies should recognise that physical distance is a hindrance.

The authors suggested that the negative effect could be minimised through investing in ICT infrastructure that allows “continuous interaction among scientists and access to key resources (databanks, specialised equipment)”. Policies to promote interaction between African countries should have the same foundation.

While the availability of ICTs cannot overcome all the limitations of physical distance (the share of tacit knowledge continues to be an issue), it contributes to diminishing the number of visits and limits the time and financial resources so important in the context of African scientists, the authors explained.

Policies should be balanced

“Only with the appropriate resources, is it possible to take advantage of the benefits of cultural proximity in research collaborations,” the authors emphasised. “Bilateral and multilateral collaborations with developed countries should continue, but always aiming to address scientific problems that hinder Africa’s socio-economic development.”

According to the study, policies promoting IRC should heed interactions between academic, government and industrial sectors, which are weak in most African countries. In the absence of policies to foster academic-government-industrial sector interactions, each sector will seek international research relationships, mainly the academy, which can lead to asymmetric relationships, especially when dealing with countries having solid science and technology systems, according to the authors.

They explained that it weakens the internal interactions of the different sections if African scientists adopt the research agenda of international partners – and also perpetuates socio-economic under-development.

Building research ability

“We, therefore, advocate for a balance between policies that promote and support IRC with the most developed economies and those that stimulate interactions between the different actors,” the authors suggested.

The study showed that African countries must “focus more on policies aimed at promoting the development of the scientific domains with a weaker knowledge base, without neglecting the policies in scientific domains where African scientists can continue to contribute to the advancement of knowledge”. This will ensure a more balanced spectrum, leading to more effective policies that reflect the scientific knowledge needs of individual countries.

Another point the researchers made is that policies should be aimed at building the research ability of a wide pool of researchers, not only those known for their excellence.