Thursday, 10 November 2011

Globalisation: Notes from Research Fortnight Conference

The Research Fortnight conference this year was held at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, and focused on 'Globalisation: the future of research institutions.' The title could have been framed as a question: as the world convulses with economic shocks, is now the right time to be reaching out in partnership?

They'd brought together an impressive roster of speakers to discuss this. Some faces were familiar – such as Julia Lane of the NSF who spoke at the ESRC Seminar Series on Impact a few weeks back – whilst others were new to me. But all gave thought provoking insights into issues around collaboration.

'Research belongs to no country'

Lord Bhattacharyya, Chairman of the Warwick Manufacturing Group, kicked off the day by quoting Louis Pasteur: 'Knowledge belongs to no country.' UK research had considerable strengths, said Bhattacharyya, that placed it well in the global market place: it was both high quality and covered a broad range of disciplines, as well as being relatively open and academically free. However, these were offset by areas of concern: the UK's disciplinary strengths didn't match the research interests of the emerging economic superpowers; collaboration - both with overseas partners and industry - wasn't happening fast enough, and its spending on research and development was too low.

The UK needed to think strategically about dealing with the challenges of the new global research environment. It needed to be more open to attracting new business research funding, and look to the market priorities of the BRIC countries, namely engineering, biology, and the physical and health sciences. Incentives needed to be created to overcome the potential reluctance to engage with Chinese or Brazilian colleagues, resulting from such considerations as lower citation rates from such partnerships.

'Collaborate to compete'

Throughout the day this analysis was knocked about, questioned, confirmed or refuted. Prof Anton Muscatelli, Vice-Chancellor of Glasgow, emphasised the need to 'collaborate to compete.' He agreed with Bhattacharyya that the UK faced challenges in doing so, at a time when it was facing its own, internal uncertainties. However, he was upbeat about Britain's ability to cope in this brave new world. British universities were both efficient and effective, he said, and the key to their success was the autonomy they had, coupled with the shark pool they swam in for research resources.

But why should UK institutions collaborate? Muscatelli suggested that there were three reasons: to diversify their income streams, as funding became tougher in the UK; to 'bring the best together'; and to address common, global challenges. These were all positives, but equally you could see that they had no choice: the UK was too small to go it alone. The Darwinian race for partners would see the open survive and prosper, and the insular wither and perish. The research map of the UK would be radically redrawn.

'Science is like a parachute: it only works when it's open'

Jeremy Watson, Global Research Director at Arup, outlined the view from industry. Arup had been behind such iconic buildings as the Sydney Opera House, the Pompidou Centre and the Gherkin. It had always relied on what Watson described as a 'knowledge supply chain', building on both internal and external research. For him, the case for collaboration between industry and academia was clear, and he suggested frameworks by which this might happen in the future, such as transnational 'centres of excellence' (as Rolls Royce had already developed); open innovation clubs with multinational industrial partners; and 'co-innovator' partnerships between academia and industry with 'permeable boundaries.'

Haggit Messer-Yaron, President of the Open University of Israel, concurred. Universities and industry had very different agendas, but it could be these differences that made partnerships work. There needed to be openness, however: 'science is like a parachute,' she quoted: 'it only works when it's open.' There should be a synergy, a complementarity. Governments could act as brokers for these relationships, providing early stage funding and support for 'bridging the development gap' as well as a conducive legal framework in terms of IPR laws and taxation. However, governments tended to act in the national interest, and as such may act against the principles of globalisation.

'It's the intersection of technology and liberal arts that makes our hearts sing'

After lunch we broke up into parallel sessions. I went along to the one that focused on the engineering and physical sciences, which quickly veered productively off track. Prof Graham Galbraith, DVC at the University of Hertfordshire, complained of the blinkered 'siloism' of current research policy. The difficulty with engaging with business, he said, was that most universities think within disciplinary boundaries, whereas most businesses don't. Of course, these disciplines may be useful – or indeed necessary – for running large organisations, but they were unhelpful in thinking creatively. 'Real innovation is not really rewarded or recognised,' he bemoaned. The ghost of Steve Jobs was conjured up: 'technology alone is not enough,' he had said. 'It's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the the results that make our heart sing'.

So were the funders to blame for holding apart the disciplines? A representative of EPSRC was on hand to defend them, and the sense was that it was more to do with an engrained culture within academia. The discussion swiftly moved on to developing the necessary mindset for exploiting the opportunities offered by internationalisation. Phil Clare, Associate Director of Research Services at the University of Oxford, was bracingly breezy in his acceptance of the new deal offered by BRIC nations. 'We need to stop worrying about selling our birthright,' he said. Universities exist to generate knowledge, but can also act as catalysts for collaboration, and foci for local economies.

The conference finished with a final plenary on the experience of different institutions in developing and managing cross-continental relationships. The day had crackled with ideas and questions and, whilst no conclusions were reached, it had been a valuable opportunity to develop and debate our thoughts on this critical new horizon.

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