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Going global

Is a research system that rewards competition ready to collaborate?

Among the many things that were said at last week’s Research Fortnight annual conference, one uncomfortable fact surfaced several times in the presentations, especially from those speakers who had flown in from outside the European Union: this is that the UK is not always the country of choice for major non-European research collaborations.

That is not to say that UK researchers do not work with their counterparts in, say, Australia, Brazil, Israel, India or Pakistan. But it is to say that working with UK institutions is not necessarily a strategic priority for the universities and governments of these countries. Indeed, it is often not even a priority for our own.

This year’s conference—Globalisation: The future of research institutions—was intended to help the UK’s research leaders to discover and grasp the many opportunities that exist beyond our shores for institutional research partnerships. Among the emerging economies there is much appetite for knowledge and learning and, as one of the world’s leading knowledge economies, the UK ought to be up there shaping future agendas with the best of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and others in the southern hemisphere.

Institutional research partnerships are essential for many reasons. They are essential to many of the cross-border grand challenges, such as climate change, food security, the fight against infectious diseases—all areas where UK researchers are thoroughly experienced and have much to offer.

But institutional research partnerships are essential for another reason: all of the major emerging economies will one day become knowledge leaders. They will trade in the currency of ideas and produce advanced knowledge in much larger quantities than today. Some are well on the way there. For more-established countries such as the UK to remain at or even near the cutting edge of research, it is imperative they make lasting connections, and make them now, with those who will join the top table.

On reflection, it should not be a great surprise to discover that UK institutions do not make natural research partners. We should be under no illusion that enhancing institutional research collaboration, especially for English institutions, will be anything like a stroll through the quad.

UK policymakers often take great pride in the fact that the UK has one of the world’s most competitive research environments and that researchers here are incentivised to behave competitively. Such an environment undoubtedly helps us to maintain a dominant position in university rankings and keeps us at the top of research performance indices. But a hard-boiled competitive ethic can also be a disadvantage, both when seeking research collaborations and making them work.

As an elite research environment, our universities and research centres are clearly more comfortable in the role of magnet for the world’s research talent (see Jobs, page 11). We need to understand that joining with others, forging collaborations, and seeing them through to the end requires a different and more collegial way of thinking and working; one that is more pro-active and does not expect the world to beat a path to our door.