It will likely not come as much of a surprise to most of us that international collaborations and partnerships in science continue to increase as globalization and technology advances. Whether between institutions across the globe, or between universities and industry partners, these types of collaborations are proving invaluable to answering increasingly complex scientific questions.
In the year 2000, science and engineering articles published by authors from multiple countries numbered only 13% of all published research. In 2018, this number increased to over 23%. In Canada, over 56% of all published science articles have involved international collaborators, and in the United Kingdom, that number goes up to 62% of all publications. These numbers clearly show how science has not been overlooked in the wave of globalization that has been sweeping our world in the past few decades.
For some disciplines, such as particle physics or space exploration, international collaboration has been the standard almost since their inception. The technology and infrastructure required by these fields is simply too large and expensive for one country alone to foot the bill. The results have revolutionized our understanding in the physical sciences, from the sub-atomic particles that make up matter to the effects of microgravity on the human body.
The life sciences have joined in on globalization more recently. One of the best-known examples was the glowing success of the Human Genome Project, initiated in 1990, which involved twenty institutions from six different countries. Since then, international collaborations have taken off, owing to their efficacy in addressing large and complex challenges.
Benefits of International Collaboration
The rise in international collaboration in the sciences has been primarily fueled by the many benefits researchers obtain from such interactions. Chief among these is the diversity of ideas and experiences which come from having a team that hails from around the globe. Certain countries or institutions specialize in various techniques or have technology available which others do not. Through collaboration, these techniques and technologies now become available to all. An example of this is mass cytometry (CyTOF) which was developed by Dr. Scott Tanner at the University of Toronto. Tanner worked closely with Dr. Garry Nolan at Stanford University to improve this technology’s applications, and now these two universities export their expertise around the world. This type of collaboration results in an increase in the pace of scientific discovery, reducing redundancies, and enabling more people to validate the results of studies which can increase the reliability of conclusions.
International collaboration can also be very beneficial in the context of clinical studies and trials. These partnerships can allow trials to be run in the population of interest, or in a globally representative population. A good example of such collaboration were the trials that were conducted to determine the efficacy of the various COVID-19 vaccines. The BioNTech/Pfizer mRNA vaccine had Phase III clinical trials conducted in Argentina, Brazil, Germany, South Africa, Turkey, and the United States. The AstraZeneca vaccine was tested in the United Kingdom, Brazil, and South Africa. These international trials ensure that the results can be more applicable, and we can be more confident that we have accounted for differences in genetic, cultural, or socioeconomic factors which may affect outcomes of trials.
Global partnerships are also advantageous to a researcher within and outside of the scope of their study. Having such partnerships can serve to diversify our professional networks, which may in the future provide us with job opportunities when we need them or even establish larger collaborations. Additionally, global collaborations allow us to expand our personal networks by meeting new people that can become friends (in addition to colleagues), learn more about different cultures and customs, and global pandemic notwithstanding, even travel to distant places we would not otherwise visit. International collaboration enhances our appreciation for the diversity of the human family and our intercultural awareness.
Limitations & Considerations of International Collaborations
Despite the considerable advantages of international collaboration, there remain some significant considerations which hinder universal implementation. One such example is the language barrier that can inhibit some researchers from seeking collaborators outside their country. The language of science, in publications, conferences, and meetings, is overwhelmingly English. Either not speaking English at all, or not feeling able to communicate effectively in English can be an impediment in establishing partnerships.
Another barrier separating collaborators is space and time. Even though we can travel anywhere in the world, air travel can take up an enormous amount of time out of a busy researcher’s schedule (it can take up to two days, including time differences, to get from Canada to Australia). The apparent solution would be to just meet virtually, and while video conferencing allows us to speak to someone on the other side of the planet, the time differences between countries can lead to meetings at hours that suit no one.
However, the largest challenge to overcome before embarking on an exciting global partnership is, as you might have guessed, obtaining the necessary funding. The necessary grants need to be secured by each collaborator in their respective countries, and if even one fails to do so, the entire project may fall through. In fact, a 2014 survey by Universities Canada reported, “83% of universities cited a lack of research funding opportunities as the most significant barrier to international collaboration.” Obtaining funding can be significantly impeded by the political and economic climate of a country. For example, when the United Kingdom left the European Union, some lucrative EU grants became inaccessible to UK researchers. Currently, there are efforts underway by some governments to try to reduce funding as a barrier to international collaboration. These include the $275 million Tri-Council Research Fund from the Canadian government or the €80 billion Horizon 2020 fund from the European Union, both of which aim to fund projects that involve international collaboration.
Science continues to evolve, and it would appear that to some extent, this evolution is being fueled by international collaborations. An article by Coccia and Wang from 2016 states that these partnerships are driving the convergence of applied and basic science, the result of which is the evolution of new fields of modern science. However, the innovation and advancement created when people from around the world come together, overlooking what makes them different, and instead focus on the common goal of improving our society, is possibly the greatest benefit of international collaboration.