Global Collaboration Needs a Firmer Evidence Base


Nov 10, 2014

Research, Science and Innovation Commissioner-designate Carlos Moedas of Portugal waits for the start of his hearing before the European Parliament's Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, at the EU Parliament in Brussels September 30, 2014

Research, Science and Innovation Commissioner-designate Carlos Moedas of Portugal waits for the start of his hearing before the European Parliament's Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, at the EU Parliament in Brussels Sept. 30, 2014

Photo by Yves Herman/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on Research Europe on November 6, 2014.

Making best use of Horizon 2020's budget for research into grand societal challenges requires a better understanding of what makes a successful international research partnership, say Ben Baruch and colleagues.

One of the issues facing Carlos Moedas, who this week began his tenure as European commissioner for research, innovation and science, is how to maximise the potential of the 38.5 per cent of Horizon 2020—amounting to €29.67 billion in funding—dedicated to addressing societal challenges.

The size of this investment is intended to match the complexity and scale of global issues that reach beyond borders and affect billions of people. The research will inevitably be collaborative and international.

Such collaboration involves financial resources and infrastructure being pooled, and leads to the development of knowledge transfer channels. Well-established research links can also help to achieve economic benefits such as stronger trade, and can become a form of science diplomacy that contributes to constructive international relationships.

However, research across borders also brings complications. Bureaucratic differences can create barriers to progress. Legal frameworks governing areas relevant to research, such as intellectual-property law, vary between countries. International collaborators must therefore decide which framework to follow.

These issues are, of course, already part of many researchers' working lives. R&D is globalised, and knowledge flows are more interconnected and international than ever. And yet, as has been noted in previous issues of Research Europe, research on grand challenges also takes us into uncharted territory.

Tackling these issues would be difficult enough in a static, homogeneous environment. Doing so on a global scale, against a shifting economic and political backdrop, adds another level of complexity to already fearsomely complex problems.

There are, for example, differences in how the EU and countries such as China, India and the United States conceptualise societal challenges. A case in point is Horizon 2020's funding of research into “Food security, sustainable agriculture, marine and maritime research and the bio-economy”. The latest 5-year plans of China and India, respectively, formulate their challenges on these topics as “Food security” and “Rural transformation and sustained growth of agriculture”. Recognising differences in how challenges are defined can help the EU to formulate how it reaches out to partners, and to make sure its approaches are well received.

To help improve understanding of these issues, earlier this year the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation commissioned the research institute RAND Europe to write a report on international collaboration in research on grand challenges, to inform the work of the European Research and Innovation Area Board.

When breaking new ground, it is useful to know what has worked before. But we found that the EU had only limited information on its history of international collaboration. In particular, there were no data comparing results from research collaborations on societal challenges.

There is, then, the need for an improved evidence base to help Moedas and DG Research to make strategic research procurement decisions. Policymakers should carry out a robust evaluation to assess the EU's research collaboration to date and analyse its impacts. This review should also compare the EU's portfolio with the collaborative research achievements of other players in international research, and should look forward and analyse potential future impacts.

Such evidence would enhance the EU's research procurement strategy, helping to back it up by reference to reliable sources. This is crucial given the significance of the decisions to be made, such as whether to collaborate multilaterally or bilaterally and how to engage partners from emerging economies.

The goals of European research are moving towards more applied activities. Given the scale of the ambition needed to address grand challenges, this may increase the risk in research funding decisions. More informed decision-making will help make the best use of the Horizon 2020 budget and increase the likelihood of impact through successful innovation.

The stakes are high—higher even than €29bn. National governments will inevitably be tempted to ignore promises of mutual long-term benefits in favour of immediate financial returns, with repercussions for sustainable development. Minimising this temptation means spending—and being seen to have spent—research budgets as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Ben Baruch, Cecile Hoareau McGrath, Salil Gunashekar and Joanna Chataway are all at RAND Europe in Cambridge. They are among the authors of The International Dimension of Research and Innovation Cooperation Addressing the Grand Challenges in the Global Context, and write here in a personal capacity.

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