How to Strengthen Global Cooperation among Research Funders
By FAN Yingjie and Manfred Horvat
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the fact that national isolation is not a viable option. Bringing the global scientific community together and harnessing its collective wisdom is essential for battling a pandemic but also for addressing global challenges such as climate change, demography and resource allocation.
National science funders provide the infrastructure supporting international scientific exchange and fostering cooperation among international research teams. While tensions and competition loom large at political level playing counterproductive roles when addressing shared problems, we believe that funders can define conditions that create safe spaces for fair, open, transparent, and reciprocal collaborations based on mutual trust.
Systemic changes in cooperation
Science flourishes through the open exchange of people, ideas, and cultures. Meanwhile, global challenges call for global research efforts, and as a consequence, there is a general trend for increased internationalization of scientific collaboration. The global science system has entered what public policy expert Caroline S. Wagner calls "the collaborative era in science," and has evolved into a highly networked global system.
Moreover, focusing on global challenges and societal impact shifts are taking place in collaboration across disciplines, and sectors where interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are essential. Achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), described as "a call for action by all countries - poor, rich and middle-income - to promote prosperity while protecting the planet," requires new approaches for conducting collaborative science. These approaches include cocreation, interdisciplinarity, and transdisciplinarity, essentially a framework that involves interactions among science, industry, government, the environment, and society.
Consequences for funders
For adapting to this new paradigm, funders are broadening their portfolio of funding measures beyond basic research to mission-oriented and use-inspired research. More and more attention is paid to funding interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, for example, by applying specific funding measures or establishing dedicated structures for promoting and supporting interdisciplinary research.
At the same time, funders' open exchange and close collaboration in different formats and forums are important for monitoring developments in the global science system. This monitoring includes identifying new trends and emerging areas of scientific investigation; reviewing how research funding is organized; and examining which changed strategies, structures, and procedures of research funding may be necessary and appropriate. Together they help promoting ongoing or new trends in global science.
In the context of funders' transborder cooperation addressing common challenges, funders as well as cooperating scientists play also major roles in science diplomacy when other means of international communication and joint engagement are difficult. Adapting general principles, framework conditions, and regulatory arrangements for their cooperation is of significant value for safeguarding international scientific cooperation when anti-globalization, isolationism and nationalist tendencies are emerging. Research funders have the potential to develop safe spaces for fruitful collaboration under commonly agreed conditions.
Helping funders to cooperate
Funders are able to create internationally credible conditions allowing them to cooperate freely, efficiently, and effectively across different cultures and jurisdictions. To accomplish these goals, funders must discuss and find agreement on a set of general values and principles, which might include:
●A strong research culture and commitment to international scientific standards of excellence;
●Mutual respect, trust, and understanding of different scientific systems;
●Research integrity and ethical conduct;
●Reciprocity and equal access to funding and resources;
●Independence, openness, transparency, and accountability;
●Gender equality (e.g., hiring practices and pay);
●Free movement of people and ideas.
In terms of specific programs that can encourage, support, and promote researchers from different countries working together, funders must discuss and agree on framework conditions, such as:
●Jointly identified objectives and roadmaps of priority themes for strategic cooperation considering complementarity and mutual benefit;
●Appropriate funding schemes and long-term commitments for establishing and maintaining sustainable cooperation;
●Transparent and mutually agreed rules for data sharing, transnational transfer of materials, access to research infrastructures, intellectual property management and protection, and dissemination of results;
●Procedures for monitoring, regular review, and impact assessment of joint activities, follow-up, and mutual learning;
●Procedures for responding to allegations of misconduct.
Once funders have reached consensus on values, principles, and framework conditions, they may attempt to align the rules for cooperation. From a practical point of view, the following aspects deserve special attention:
●Well-defined target groups or institutions and respective eligibility criteria;
●Types of grants and instruments for international cooperation;
●Procedures for implementing joint activities, launching calls for proposals, evaluating and selecting proposals, and regularly reviewing joint activities.
The above three sets of conditions for cooperation build on one another. Only funding institutions that agreed on the general values, principles, and framework conditions will arrive at the final stage of resolving technical issues. There, differences can be solved through open dialogue and communication, as well as flexibility and adaptability.
The path forward
Common agreements on the terms of funders' relations are the necessary basis for effective and sustainable cooperation structures and procedures which leads to the challenge of how to arrive at an appropriate level of alignment among different funders' approaches while at the same time enabling them to meet national priorities and follow national laws and internal procedures.
The following suggestions can form the basis for discussing these issues among funders and finding viable solutions that meet the requirements of different challenges.
Firstly，cocreation of internationally applicable mechanisms: Funders need to work together to ensure the sustainability of their collaboration by regularly updating and agreeing on the terms of their cooperation. These agreements mean sharing best practices around science funding and implementing funding schemes that meet international standards.
Secondly, open exchange and close coordination: The regular communication, trust-based dialogue, open exchange and close coordination in different formats of the participating funding agencies from around the world facilitates the exploration of common strategies to both adapt to and promote emerging trends in science while overcoming frictions and misunderstanding in the framework of a global community of research funding professionals.
Thirdly, a special focus on young people: International cooperation in networks of distributed teams is characteristic of twenty-first century science and has become an integrated part of researchers' careers. Therefore, funding agencies need to prioritise encouraging young people to go abroad for study and training. This broader exposure will aid their research efforts as well as build their personal scientific relationships while deepening their experience, understanding, and respect of other science communities and systems.
Fourthly, a long-term perspective: Establishing and maintaining open international cooperation and developing trusted relationships requires time and effort, and these activities should be promoted with a long-term focus. Keeping collaborations alive at all levels under difficult circumstances demands commitment, perseverance, and patience.
The twenty-first century is the era of collaborative science and international science networks. Cooperation among funding agencies provides and safeguards the basis for globally connected and integrated science and creates safe spaces for international scientific collaboration - potentially stimulating the emergence of new ideas. This global cooperation is needed now more than ever if the scientific community shall develop solutions for the challenges of our time, not only achieving the SDGs, combating climate change, and addressing the problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also creating a better world and shared future.
FAN Yingjie is the deputy director-general of the Bureau of Planning and Policy at the National Natural Science Foundation of China in Beijing, China. Manfred Horvat is an honorary professor at the Vienna University of Technology, Austria.This article is a short version of the article published on Issues of Science and Technology, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, US ,2021/6/16