14 mai 2008
* Institutional support
* Concrete benefits
* Practical and
* Potential obstacles
Today, scientific and technological research
is an international endeavour. In many ways, globalisation of science and
technology has preceded the trend of economic and cultural globalisation.
Information technology and the Internet — which started as an academic
and scientific network — has catalysed communication and collaboration,
allowing researchers from around the world to work together.
Scientific collaboration between developed
countries, such as members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation
and Development (OECD), and to a lesser extent between developed and developing
countries (often referred to as North–North and North–South collaboration
respectively) has become increasingly popular since the 1970s and ‘80s.
But South–South collaboration between developing countries has only recently
Such collaboration is now growing in scientific
and economic importance. South–South research collaboration can promote
research on problems that have low priorities in the North, and can provide
shared opportunities for capacity building. It also fosters social and
economic links between countries, potentially helping them strengthen their
position in the global economy.
But South–South collaboration, however politically
attractive, should not be pursued uncritically. It is unlikely to overcome
the many substantial hurdles without a properly supportive environment.
And it may not be the best way of addressing particular challenges. So
proposals for South–South collaboration need close examination — and then
the best should be vigorously pursued.
Growing international trend
We know that international collaboration can
improve the quality and impact of scientific research. For example, a study
commissioned by the UK’s Office of Science and Innovation, carried out
by Evidence Ltd., looked at scientific collaboration between Australia,
China, India, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States and Western
Europe. It found that international collaboration was growing faster than
the overall scientific outputs of these countries.
The study also found that scientific papers
co-authored by researchers from different countries were cited more often
(an indicator of scientific impact) than those from within a single country.
The US National Science Foundation (NSF) has
also studied this broad trend towards international collaboration. For
example, it found that between 1988 and 2005 articles written by American
scientists with at least one international co-author increased from 9 to
26 per cent of all peer-reviewed papers.
The strength of the trend varies between countries.
Another NSF study estimates that the proportion of internationally co-authored
articles by scientists from Brazil, China and Taiwan remained roughly constant
between 1993 and 2003. But those by scientists from India increased from
13 to 21 per cent. Some countries may have a greater propensity for such
collaborations, or perhaps their scientific systems are better able to
benefit from them.
Collaboration gathers steam
Since 2000, South–South research collaboration
has begun to gather steam, and countries are beginning to feel the need
for formal institutional capacity and a logical framework.
There appear to be several reasons for this
First, the forces that fuel other forms of
collaboration — such as the Internet, communication technologies and ease
of travel — are also making South–South research collaboration easier.
Second, an emerging scientific hierarchy
within developing countries is creating classes of leaders and followers,
making it possible for some of these countries to ’give’, and others to
’gain’, through scientific collaboration.
Third, improving economic circumstances in
certain developing countries have brought greater scientific spending,
which itself creates opportunities and an impetus for greater collaboration.
Finally, while globalisation has opened up
much of the world, some countries — particularly the United States — have
been closing down, primarily because of anti-immigration sentiments and
the security challenges of the post-9/11 era. This has shifted the attention
of some developing countries towards the South rather than the North.
Several international scientific organisations,
such as the Academy of Sciences of the Developing world (TWAS), Consortium
on Science, Technology and Innovation for the South (formerly the Third
World Network of Scientific Organizations), the African Union (AU) and
the OIC’s Standing Committee on Science and Technology (COMSTECH), have
started promoting South–South research collaboration through a series of
declarations, announcements, policy interventions and initiatives.
In addition, bilateral aid agencies and private
foundations are encouraging South–South research collaboration. These include
DANIDA (Denmark), KPFE (Switzerland) and the Volkswagen Foundation (Germany).
These efforts build on and refine the development
focus of earlier international initiatives such as the Consultative Group
on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR, established in 1971 with
15 linked research centres) and the Iberian–American Program of Science
and Technology for Development (CYTED, established in 1984 and which once
involved over 10,000 scientists from 21 countries).
Developing countries of similar economic standing
are also increasingly building bilateral and multilateral collaborations,
such as the Brazil–China Agricultural Collaboration and India–Brazil–South
Many of these arrangements have political
origins, spurred as much by the agendas of political leaders as by demand
from the scientific community. Nevertheless, they can become important
sources of funds for South–South research collaboration, producing scientific
and technical — as well as political — benefits.
North–North and North–South research collaboration
has many well-recognised benefits. In contrast, the value of South–South
research collaboration is still much debated. Its advocates usually put
forward three main arguments:
* South–South collaboration lets countries work
together on shared problems such as tropical diseases, agricultural needs
or threats from climate change;
* it broadens opportunities for researchers working
in developing countries;
* collaborating countries help each other develop
their indigenous capacity to generate, manage and use science and technology
to address their needs.
In practice, these reasons are not necessarily
all equally valid. Countries support South–South research collaboration
for various reasons. It is important to understand the reasons and their
validity if we are to develop a solid, evidence-based case for these kinds
The first argument is the strongest. Certain
scientific problems — particularly those of shared social or geographical
environments — can benefit from collaboration between countries of similar
socio-economic circumstances and scientific standing. Examples include
co-development of a malaria vaccine or low-cost HIV/AIDS treatments, tackling
problems associated with water-borne diseases, or those relevant to certain
However valid in itself, the second argument
may not be enough to ensure collaboration. Certainly, South–South collaboration
can open avenues for professional advancement and growth to researchers
who cannot pursue other international collaboration, perhaps because of
limited resources or poor international relations.
But if such collaborations are to be worthwhile
there must be concrete benefits for all parties as incentives to ensure
a productive outcome.
The capacity-building argument carries more
weight. Collaborating with scientists from similar socio-economic and scientific
backgrounds can help attune research to a particular country’s needs. These
collaborations can also create a critical mass of scientists (sectorally
or regionally) with the necessary momentum to solve challenging problems.
Nevertheless, there can be a downside. Working
with scientists with similar institutional backgrounds may deprive collaborating
scientists of opportunities to learn from international best practices
and professional norms.
So where South–South collaboration is proposed,
careful evaluation is needed to ensure maximum usefulness, benefits
Practical and pragmatic
Considering the following questions may offer
a practical and pragmatic way to develop valid (and effective) South–South
* Are there particular topical avenues or research
areas that are better suited for countries of the South alone?
* Should the topics for collaboration be specific
to the South, or should there be a broad-based effort to promote South–South
* What is the most appropriate level for the collaboration
(for example, between countries, between institutions or between individuals)?
* How can incentives (for both institutions and
individuals) be provided that promote South–South collaboration?
* What types of hurdles prevent effective South–South
collaboration and how can they best be overcome?
* What kinds of policy interventions and initiatives
can be taken to promote South–South research collaboration?
* Are there any particular institutional arrangements
between countries that improve the likelihood of success? Do the optimal
institutional arrangements vary between different scientific sectors?
* How important is funding in promoting and sustaining
South–South research collaboration? Can collaboration be effective with
funding that is tens of times less than that available for North–North
and North–South collaboration?
Clearly, there are many important issues to
reflect on as South–South research collaboration matures. In some instances,
collaboration, however attractive, may not be appropriate. In other circumstances
major hurdles may significantly reduce its chances of success.
One major hurdle facing South–South research
collaboration is that it is the availability of funding that often drives
research agendas. But science and technology funding is often a political
issue, decided on the basis of an established (or perceived) social contract
between the people, political leadership and the scientific community.
Indeed, North–South collaboration is often
a vehicle for development assistance from the developed to developing partners.
Financial support for scientific research
is considerably limited, if not lacking completely, in many countries in
the South, so this model for collaboration is weak. Nonetheless, visiting
fellowships or collaborative research programmes between developing countries
may be considerably cheaper within South–South compared with North–South
However, experience suggests that many South–South
initiatives remain critically under-funded, and often fail to go beyond
mere political slogans.
Organisations and incentives
Getting the right institutional mix to make
South–South collaboration work is also important. For example, it may be:
* a hub-and-spoke type arrangement (that is, with
one ’core’ country collaborating with several smaller countries);
* a senior-junior partner type arrangement (a large
country collaborating with a small country);
* an equal-partners type arrangement (two or more
countries of equal standing collaborating);
* regional arrangements; or
* dispersed arrangements.
Each of these arrangements has its own challenges
and constraints. Experience of trying to promote research collaboration
among existing regional blocks, such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation
forum or the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, highlights
the importance of finding complementarities, aligning strategy with interests
and supporting appropriate institutional structures.
An equally important dimension of South–South
research collaboration, as in any kind of scientific collaboration, is
the motivations and incentives of individual researchers. Mismatching what
is expected of individuals and what they are rewarded for — financially,
professionally and institutionally — can undermine effective collaboration.
For example, a primary motivation for developing-country
scientists engaging in North–South collaboration is the opportunity to
work alongside colleagues from the developed world. They can gain knowledge,
learn international best practice and improve their chances of getting
published in high-quality journals.
Working with other scientists of the same
level of international standing may not generate this motivation.
It is therefore important to understand what
drives people to collaborate, and develop ways to align the overall objectives
with individual incentives and motivations.
South–South research collaboration is a new
and emerging field. It is a trend that needs to be encouraged and promoted
by the global scientific community and by policymakers. Creating the political
will and financial support for such initiatives is a high priority, and
designing these initiatives requires careful thought and reflection.
But their true success will best be demonstrated
by continued collaboration beyond the initial period of enthusiasm (and
often guaranteed funding) that delivers high-quality and high-impact research,
solving challenging scientific problems of the South.
Such success stories may emerge only through
experience with a large number of experiments.
Making South–South research collaboration
succeed is one of the biggest organisational and political challenges facing
the scientific community in the South.
Athar Osama holds a PhD in science and innovation
policy from Pardee – RAND Graduate School in Santa Monica, California,
USA. He works as a senior consultant at ANGLE plc in the United Kingdom.