‘Hotspots’ and international scientific collaboration

The OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2011: Innovation and Growth in Knowledge Economies report was released on 20 September.  While I’ve only seen the summary (which is the source for the first three images below) and an informative entry (‘A Changing Landscape: University hotspots for science and technology‘) in the OECD’s Education Today weblog, it is interesting to see a now common pattern and message emerging in these types of reports, and in a series of like-minded conferences, workshops, and associated reports (e.g. the Royal Society’s excellent Knowledge, Networks and Nations: Global Scientific collaboration in the 21st century, March 2011):

(a) relative stasis or decline in the OECD member countries (though they still do dominate, and will for decades to come);

(b) relatively fast growth within the so-called BRIC countries; and

(c) increased international collaboration, both as outcome and as aspiration.

And it is the aspiration for international collaboration that is particularly fascinating to ponder, for these types of scoreboards — analytical benchmarking cum geostrategic reframing exercises really — help produce insights on the evolving ‘lie of the land,’ while also flagging the ideal target spaces (countries, regions, institutions) for prospective future collaboration. National development processes and patterns thus drive change, but they interact in fascinating ways with the international collaborative process, which drives more international collaboration, and on it goes. As Alessandra Colecchia of the OECD puts it:

What does this [the changing landscape, and emerging 'hotspots'] mean and why is it important? As students and researchers become more mobile, new sets of elite universities outside of the US could materialize. Whether or not we call it the “Banyan” or “Bonsai” League is yet to be determined, but it is clear that OECD countries may no longer have the monopoly on scientific excellence in higher education.

Luckily for us, education is generally not a zero-sum game. When others gain important insights and breakthroughs in science and technology, the entire field benefits. So wherever you are in the world, you can wear your college sweatshirt with pride.

True, though questions remain about the principles/missions/agendas driving international collaboration. For example, there is an ongoing scramble in Europe and North America to link up with research-active Brazilian institutions of higher education; an issue nicely summarized in today’s OBHE story titled ‘Brazil leads the charge from Latin America.’

As noted in the fourth image below (which was extracted from the Royal Society’s Knowledge, Networks and Nations: Global Scientific collaboration in the 21st century), the nature of coauthor-based collaboration with Brazil is changing, with some countries edging closer because scholar-to-scholar ties are deepening or thinning. The reconfiguration is most likely deepening from 2008 on as a slew of new policies, programs and projects get promoted and funded in both Brazil and actual or potential partner countries.

Some of the questions that come to my mind, after participating in some workshops where relations with Brazil are discussed include:

  • What values drive these new initiatives to reach out across space into and out of Brazil?
  • What disciplines are factored in (or not), and what types of researchers (junior? senior? elite? emerging?) get supported?
  • What languages are they dependent upon, and what languages will they indirectly promote?
  • Are these international collaboration drives built on the principle of ‘you are only as strong as your weakest link’ (i.e. an exclusive one), or are they attendant to the need for capacity building and longer time horizons for knowledge development?
  • Are these international collaboration drives built upon implicit and explicit principles of reciprocity, or otherwise?
  • What about the territorial dimensions of the development process? Will we see hotspot to ‘emerging hotspot’ linkages deepen, or will hotspots be linked up with non-hotspots and if so how, and why? Can an archipelago-like landscape of linked up hotspots ‘serve’ nations/regions/the world, or is it generative of exclusionary developmental tendencies?

These are but a few of many questions to ponder as we observe, and jointly construct, emerging ‘hotspots’ in the global higher education and research landscape.

Kris Olds

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Note: the first three images were extracted from the OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2011: Innovation and Growth in Knowledge Economies (Sept 2011). The fourth image was extracted from the Royal Society’s Knowledge, Networks and Nations: Global Scientific collaboration in the 21st century (March 2011).

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