EU research collaboration: Success or failure?
The pros and cons of international collaboration; from the researchers’ perspective.
The message was devastating: A whole pallet of food items on its way to our research partner in central Europe had to be discarded due to a broken cool chain. Unfortunately, this was not the first time we saw a whole experiment going down the drain.
The authors currently collaborate in the research project InProVe, which aims at reducing food waste and energy consumption in the potato and vegetable industries, using novel processing techniques.
More info on the project website: https://inproveproject.eu/
The following text present some thoughts on international research collaboration based on our experience in partnership and coordination of EU funded projects in the programs ERA-net and COST Action. Firstly, a brief introduction to the European research funding system.
The European research system
From the start in 1957, the EU has now grown to include 27 member states. In 1983, the first of a series of cooperative EU Framework Programs (FP) was agreed upon, in order to support and foster research in the European Research Area (ERA). The first FP had a budget of 3.8 billion €, whereas the current program, named Horizon 2020, has a budget of 77 billion €. Participants from EU member states and countries associated (among them, Norway) are automatically funded once a joint research and innovation project proposal has won in the competition for grants and found eligible for funding.
Collaboration with friends and neighbors
Until the late 1980s, international collaboration was largely defined by geographical and political togetherness, and language, history and cultural similarity (Luukonen, Persson, & Sivertsen, 1992). In Europe, the East-European scientists collaborated mostly with other ‘Eastern bloc’ countries and the former Soviet Union. The Nordic countries collaborated tightly, and Central and Southern Europe also formed slightly less interconnected groups. Strong historical, political and cultural relationships between the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand led them to be important collaborative partners. The ten most important partners for the United States were the countries that are loosely scattered around USA on the map, and Japanese scientists tended to cooperate mostly with their big Asian neighbors China and India.
Change of research focus
The EU FP series marked a paradigm shift in the European scientific collaboration pattern. The strong competition for FP funding soon revealed that international collaboration was popular and became a political objective. With the growth of the EU, the research focus was changed from securing national or regional competitiveness and technological development as the most important aspect, towards enhancing the scientific and technological basis within ERA. Research activities in the EU should also support political goals like environment, health, food and energy. Better integration between research and innovation was a main objective when the EU laid forward their strategy for growth and employment for the 21st century. The strategy aims to combat the big, common societal challenges through joint and directed international research and innovation activities.
ERA’s vision is to create an inner market for research that complements and strengthens the inner economic market by facilitating free transfer of scientists, ideas and technology in Europe. Such an area should provide better opportunities for collaboration, competition, and shared knowledge and technology across national borders. The work should, not least, facilitate researchers to work anywhere in Europe. Increased cooperation between national R&D programs and increased competition is also part of the ERA. The ERA is under development both through the FP and various activities outside of it.
EU projects enable a significant number of truly multidisciplinary researchers and stakeholders from research and industry across Europe to come together. The sharing of expertise and infrastructure is a great benefit that enables the costs related to research and innovation to be held low.
The joint research based on shared knowledge and technology transfer, research infrastructure and facilities, access to an arsenal of analytical methods and modelling platforms is probably the most important added values of EU projects.
The combination of the different fields of research and expertise also helps to reach a wider audience in form of technology transfer and outreach measures. The possibility to arrange joint field trials, sharing of data, joint publications, student exchange and mobility for researchers, for industry to conduct lab- or pilot-scale experiments at the facilities of the research institutions, etc., facilitates and harnesses research to the most advanced level of European and international research. SME and industrial partners’ involvement enhance the penetration of processes and products into the market.
Mobility – a convenient tool
Mobility is the cornerstone in scientific networking. The European Cooperation in Science & Technology (COST) Actions enables activities such as short-term scientific missions (STSM), summer schools for students and facilitating internships for especially early-stage researchers. Mobility is a convenient tool to overcome compartmentalization in international projects.
Networking and participation in international projects open up for continued collaboration and joint proposal writing on new calls. Sometimes projects lead to decade-long fruitful collaboration between researchers and institutions.
However, when organizing EU projects, one should try to avoid the traditional “vertical” approaches that are characterized by isolated fields of research and expertise. Such traditional vertical approaches may be hampered by a lack of innovation potential and applicability because the results of the research are ineffectively communicated to the end users. Compartmentalization may happen more easily when geographical and cultural distances increases; when it becomes easier to “hide away” in one’s own field of expertise. It is therefore important to create projects that integrates the partners to a high degree and stimulates the collaboration between different groups of researchers. As mentioned above, mobility may be used as a tool to avoid compartmentalization, e.g. by giving internships and travel grants to PhD-students at partnering institutions.
Different yearly schedules for students and researchers may be problematic both for mobility and research activities. For example, partners from the Nordic countries tend to have summer holidays earlier in the summer than their colleagues in the south of Europe, and this also follows with the terms in universities, etc. Something as simple as different time zones across Europe may complicate the organization of meetings. Even the difference in social and working habits; work schedule, mealtimes and family duties may be listed as cultural barriers. An example could be the lunch break. In northern countries it is made earlier and shorter than in the southern countries. The hours in which you may have to take care of the children could change from one country to the other, making it more difficult to organize a meeting. There is also a significant effect of the VISA application and the procedure which might be different for each European country. Some students are facing significant challenges in addition to the VISA fee due to the bureaucracy and required time.
Logistics and sharing of resources
Having the possibilities of sharing research facilities is of course a great benefit associated with EU projects. In our Era-net project SUNNIVA (2014-2017), Italian physics researchers took advantage of joint field trials in Poland and Norway for the validation of novel spectroscopic instruments (Ciaccheri et al., 2018). This was undoubtedly very cost and time efficient compared to setting up own, dedicated trials. The specific study also demonstrates fruitful international, multidisciplinary research collaboration involving scientists from Italy, Poland and Norway in the fields of physics, horticulture and chemistry. In addition, the experimental studies on an innovative emerging retort processing were shared with the Turkish partners, and this collaboration led to a rather significant study to possibly originate the second Era-net project InProVe (2018 -2021).
Industry partners can test new and innovative technologies that are not available in their own countries. This enables quicker and more qualified decision making and a platform to gain knowledge and insight in the technologies, and thus speeds up innovation and implementation rates. Within the activities of the current Era-net project, the experimental and computational data, for an innovative canning process, are expected to demonstrate a significant insight of the industrial process and perspective.
Despite the benefits, the researchers might run into obstacles when trying to share resources in a project.
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemics is leaving a profound impact on the scientific community. Never before in our hyper-connected age have we experienced such disruptive effects on so many levels. Travel bans, workplace and school closure, cancellations of all kind of events, and compulsory confinement to home office have affected the whole community. The ResearchGate network conducted a survey in the middle of March among 3.000 international researchers. The results showed that research was, – at that point -, not in decline but merely shifting to new activities.
Roughly half of the respondents reported that they were spending more time reading scientific literature and writing and submitting papers. Interestingly, nearly half of the researchers report that they are collaborating more with other scientists, – digitally of course.
Although hands-on research activities are temporarily substituted with more focused writing, planning and publishing, researchers are certainly struggling with the lack of access to their facilities. For EU-projects, we are experiencing delays in the practical implementation of the research activities. In our own institute, and in most of our partnering labs, this came to a total stand-still of variable length, but typically 2 to 3 months. Many have not yet come back to their normal routines, and the further development of the pandemic is uncertain. Travel bans have put a stop to all kinds of mobility, significantly delaying the progress for many students. Obviously, physical project meeting and conferences are put on hold, but these can be substituted with digital solutions. Covid-19 has certainly led to delays in EU-projects and will shape the scientific community for a long time still.
However, also apart from the Covid-19 situation, collaboration across borders encounters various obstacles.
Sharing of e.g. biological material may be problematic due to the fear of spreading plant and animal pests. We have experienced this when sending potatoes for analysis abroad, and when transferring pathological microorganisms between laboratories. Obviously, we acknowledge the strict regulations for such procedures because the consequences of neglect and wrongdoing are potentially devastating for both agriculture and human health. However, the information received from the authorities on how to go forward in these instances when transportation is required is sometimes lacking, and the paperwork associated to such procedures may be overwhelming and time consuming.
The transportation of fresh material over long distances may be very costly and a jeopardy. Either the samples must be prepared in a certain way, e.g. freeze dried, or frozen/cooled transportation may be needed. We have numerous examples of experiments going down the drain; once a whole pallet of food items had to be discarded when sent for analysis from north to central Europe because of a broken cool chain.
Results from one region of Europe may not be directly extrapolated to another. This may be due to cultural habits or trends. In food and agricultural science, the different regions may have specific varieties of crop plants, meaning that results may not be directly transferrable across the borders. This sets extra requirements towards experimental design.
Economical or intellectual dependence?
Several tools to include the new EU countries and the less empowered member states are implemented in e.g. the COST system. This includes a cut-off ratio of COST Inclusiveness Target Countries (ITC) in proposals to get eligible for funding. This may lead to a seemingly constructed competition for ITC institutions as partners in these proposals. However, the goal is to increase the research capacity, enhance performance of ITCs and strengthening their R&I capacities, and it supports other bilateral funding programs aimed at levelling out the economical differences between countries. For ITCs it is important to demonstrate that public investment in research has benefits to consumers, and to learn how to identify potential barriers to implementation as well as develop strategies to overcome them. And one must hope that collaboration between institutes of (the once) less empowered states and nations higher on the R&D scale will also lead to longer term collaboration.
In summary, we the researchers, find that the pros of international collaboration overwhelmingly outweigh the cons. EU projects enable innovative and inspiring groundbreaking research to be performed, with less limitations towards resources and facilities, and a high standard of knowledge sharing, that would otherwise not be possible on a national level. There should be no doubt that EU and ERA projects function as a catalysator for R&I activities, and that the best way to combat our common challenges is through international collaboration.
Ciaccheri, L., Tuccio, L., Mencaglia, A. A., Mignani, A. G., Hallmann, E., Sikorska-Zimny, K., . . . Agati, G. (2018). Directional versus total reflectance spectroscopy for the in situ determination of lycopene in tomato fruits. Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jfca.2018.01.023 .
Luukonen, T., Persson, O., & Sivertsen, G. (1992). Understanding patterns of international scientific collaboration. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 17(1), 101-126. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/016224399201700106