Research and development

When entering the debate about North-South research collaborations, I quickly became aware of the fact that such relationships with African partners are often situated in at least two different fields: In the scientific community and in the development politics community. What does this difference imply for assessing North-South research collaborations?

Basic vs applied science

On the one hand, partners with strong research interests mostly want to cooperate on specific scientific problems without regard for national borders. The socialization as scientists very often includes such a cosmopolitan outlook. Only curiosity for the solutions of challenges and puzzles is said to contribute to the driving of science and their expected innovative output for the building of theories. Such “blue sky” science is supported by different organizations such as the German Science Foundation and science academies as lobbying groups. The following introductory remark to a study by the Dutch Royal Academy of Science (KNAW) illustrates this perspective in a nutshell:

“(I)t is crucial for researchers to be able to work and cooperate freely and independently, without ulterior political or commercial motives. If that is not possible, we should probably conclude that it is better not to join forces.” (Hans Clevers, President of KNAW, 2014)

On the other hand, the explicit engagement of researchers with commercial and political actors is nothing new to science either. Captured in the differentiation of ‘applied’ vs ‘basic’ science, researchers engage with daily and local problems to generate solutions that matter in their respective societies and beyond. The story of chemistry and physics since the 19th century is replete with examples of crossing borders between industry and research centres. This story is also replete with commercial competition.

Research outputs are then expected to lead among other to patents, as usually seen in the life and engineering sciences. But also politicians want immediate public impact of research – often expressed as “value for taxpayer’s money” – to legitimize the education and research budget. References to national interest, the building and maintenance of innovative capacities to be competitive in the market appear in numerous policy papers of this field. Science is supposed to be useful to many players.

Research for Development (R4D)

Research is even more expected to lead to innovations that eventually contribute to the general welfare of the targeted society. Examples such as multi-donor multi-national collaborations in the trials of vaccines against infectious diseases are a point in case (see for example the EDCTP). Scientists linking research to development in African contexts also become part of the overall development discourse with all its promises and pitfalls. The aforementioned “knowledge-bases societies”-paradigm requests researchers and others to support scientific institutions and processes also in African countries to guarantee that they “catch up” with the research systems of Western/Northern states. Science becomes the object and subject of intervention.

Numerous funders and policy-makers have established initiatives to meet the expectations of supporting innovation and scientific systems of developing countries, which have yet insufficient research infrastructures. Capacity-building, for individuals, research organisations and polities, has become a key target in funding research collaborations. Trained scientists add to the capabilities of nations with their new technical, administrative and socially intercultural tested skills. Funders support organisations in the building of administrative capacities, for example to processing large amount of funds. Such theories of change have also become elements of research collaborations that seek to promote sustainable development, not only in the health and agriculture sectors. Each collaborative research project, therefore, has multiple dimensions, which go beyond the basic vs applied boundaries within science.

Whose research interests matter?

Moreover, the literature on scientific collaborations reveals that science has had a strong applied character in developing countries. Besides the capacity building, researchers from the South have long criticized that Northern partner were not very keen to respond to local needs and to apply their methods to develop local solutions in their collaborations. Sometimes, Southern partners emphasize more often the “third mission” of universities, that means the community outreach alongside teaching and research. Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) is one example of such an approach, especially in the field of health. Each partner of collaborative projects therefore needs to ask for an equal agenda-setting and agreement about the challenges or puzzles to be tackled together. Of course, this should not be restricted to African contexts alone.

There are several precepts and criteria available for assessing the equality and sustainability of research cooperation along these lines: The Commission for Research Partnerships with Developing Countries in as early as 1998 developed a set of criteria along which to establish and enable fair research partnerships, which satisfy the needs of both sides. The Research Fairness Initiative is another attempt to contribute to “measures to create trusting, lasting, transparent and effective partnerships in research and innovation” in the field of health. I will dedicate further blog entries on this issue.