Why research about scientific collaborations?

Global challenges are often said to be effectively tackled by knowledge-based societies. “Knowledge societies” became prominent during the late 1990s due to its use by Joseph Stiglitz and has influenced funding agencies and banks such as the World Bank. Therefore, scientific collaboration and their funding mechanisms with focus for example on health and energy, security and education on a global scale – as summarized in the Millennium Development Goals and their successors – become viable instruments for sustainable development.

However, research shows that science cooperation does not always work out well, especially when it is biased by persistent structural North-South asymmetries. During the process of collaborative research projects, such asymmetries affect the agenda-setting, financing, administration and the division of labour. Frederic Moyi Okwaro and Peter W. Geissler aptly summarize such inequalities for the life sciences:

“Collaborations in biomedical research are necessary and beneficial for scientists and institutions both from the north and the south. These partnerships, however occur, under conditions of gross economic and ethical inequality that serve both as a problem to be confronted and an opportunity for professional knowledge production. They are further compounded by dynamic and constantly evolving models of partnerships that both address and obscure inequalities, which nevertheless occasionally breed tension and conflicts.” (2015: 506)

Future blog entries will take these observations as a starting point and discuss elements of collaborative research agendas and funding initiatives within African-European science partnerships. I will draw examples mostly from the fields of infectious diseases/neglected tropical diseases and renewable energy for three reasons: both fields are among the core global issues of our times and require a high degree of scientific cooperation. At the same time, both disciplines are affected by economic competition for research results and production. Finally, both fields differ in age. While tropical medicine has a long history which roots in colonial empires, engineering and renewable energies are a rather new field of cooperation, facilitated by the need to find alternative sources of energy in countries with sometimes only rudimentary energy infrastructures. Moreover, both fields are influenced by different disciplinary cultures, although both belong to the realm of the natural sciences. These commonalities and differences should somehow affect the design of projects and the expectations of funders, intermediary institutions and researchers.

This does not mean that I want to leave out the social sciences and humanities. Interdisciplinary projects are becoming the norm in collaborative research, as a researcher from a British development funder just recently pointed out to me. The social sciences and humanities are included by large projects with their expertise to critically accompany, monitor and evaluate the implementation of activities such as the development and transfer of technologies or the planning of clinical trial studies. Moreover, public health and energy research and planning are essentially interdisciplinary undertakings, depending not only on the technicalities of biochemistry and engineering of efficient solar cells but also on the understanding of local social processes of communally deciding about priorities and their effective implementation. However, I would find it even more interesting – than simply noting interdisciplinary contributions of social sciences – to follow genuine collaborations in the social science or humanities, as they are often not very visible but equally influential. If there are resources, I will try to include such projects and their experiences with cooperation in my blog entries as well.

In my analysis of private and public funding instruments and aims of five West European countries and the EU I will shed light on the expectations and funding strategies for scientific collaboration as well as their changes during the last decades. So far, I have found few meta-studies and comparative project evaluations. Evaluators of single often rightly point to the time constrain and the lack of appropriate databases to compare experiences across research projects.

Over the course of my blog entries, I will not only present recent developments in the field of funding but also discuss some of the hypotheses and topics in the field of sociology of science in a comparative and explorative manner. I hope my approach will over time be used to inform scientists, funding agencies, policy-makers and a wider audience about the trends, patterns and the self-understanding in a growing field of global partnerships.

Don’t hesitate to join this discussion yourself through the comment function or by writing me an email. Over time, I will invite colleagues for guest articles and will try to share short interviews with you. Additionally, I will collect links to projects, events and call for papers and publish them as “News and Links”.