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Sweeping national boycotts ‘damaging’ for research

Research Professional News Live webinar hears of challenges to international cooperation in science

Sweeping national boycotts that restrict universities from working with countries such as China and Russia risk damaging individual researchers and the quality of the wider research landscape, experts have warned.

Major global challenges such as climate change, energy security and recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic are international by nature, and cross-border research collaborations will be crucial in helping to find new solutions, speakers said in a Research Professional News Live webinar on 25 October

But volatile global politics are making it harder for researchers to work in the internationally collaborative ways they may be used to, they said.

Speakers warned that R&D partnerships were under scrutiny by many Western governments, particularly in light of the war in Ukraine, which has prompted many leaders and organisations to implement a boycott on Russian trade and partnerships.

Economic uncertainty is also disrupting established funding streams, panellists added, making it difficult for research institutions to plan which countries and research groups to partner with, and how to do so responsibly.

Jenny Lee, a professor in educational policy studies and practice at the University of Arizona, said that in times of geopolitical tension, international research partnership patterns offered some valuable clues as to how and where geopolitical power “shows up”.

“We cannot assume collaborations are neutral endeavours,” she said, since to do so “ignores wars and other geopolitics”.

But “sweeping boycotts” imposed by universities and governments risk damaging research and throwing academic freedom into question, she warned.

Events such as the war in Ukraine are creating pressure on researchers to end some collaborations, she added, and “mechanisms are needed to prevent government overreach”, such as controls on how researchers can continue their projects with Chinese and Russian collaborators.

But boycotts also “damage scientists who are resisting the government”, she added. “It undermines our ability to be competitive and to address global issues. We need to do a better job discussing who we are fighting against…Scientists have lost trust in their institutions.”

Changes to the research landscape

Lee’s comments followed figures outlined by Ross Potter, a senior data scientist at Clarivate’s Institute for Scientific Information*, showing that international research collaborations produce papers that are “more impactful” than national research projects and those by researchers working in silos.

Giving a data-led presentation, Potter revealed figures showing that international collaborations were on the rise, in part due to better access to funding, he said.

This is positive in many ways, he added, since internationally authored papers “tend to be more impactful, possibly because they focus on larger global issues like Covid-19”.

But a focus on international projects could also “stifle national research”, he said, particularly for smaller countries that often rely more heavily on international funding.

Clarivate figures also show a rise in multilateral collaborations—projects that take place between four or more different countries—and a trend towards hyper-authorship in published research.

“The country that really stands out is China, which produced around 2,000 articles in the Web of Science in 1981, but since 2018 China has been the second-biggest research-producing nation,” Potter explained.

When looking at bilateral collaborations, Chinese research has increased substantially, particularly in terms of partnerships with Nordic countries, he said.

Meanwhile, many of the bilateral partnerships between non-EU countries are with Russia.

“Given what’s going on at the moment politically, this may decrease in the next 5 to 10 years, which could change the make-up of research partnerships, particularly for Nordic countries,” Potter concluded.

Inequality in research partnerships

Yves Flückiger, chair of the League of European Research Universities and rector of the University of Geneva, spoke about the difference between globalisation and internationalisation in research. His own figures demonstrated a “growing inequality in collaborations”.

“We should ask ourselves: are we creating a space for education with more inequalities than before?” he said.

The fact that researchers are often being told to stop collaborations with Russian researchers will lead to the latter becoming more isolated, “the effects of which will be seen in five to six years’ time”, he said.

At the same time, geopolitical changes are leading to new opportunities for partnerships, he added. At his own institution, there were very few collaborations with Ukrainian universities before the war. “Now we have something like 150 Ukrainian researchers obtaining scholarships…so after this period of war, there may be new opportunities for collaborations with Ukraine,” he said.

He called on the research community to develop a more detailed dialogue with society and citizens to better understand the scope and complexity of global challenges.

“We need more autonomous, more international and more interconnected universities,” he said. “We need to invent a Science 2.0 that integrates citizen participation and that anticipates [problems] rather than reacts [to them].”

*Research Professional News is an editorially independent part of Ex Libris, which is owned by Clarivate.