Using our international research collaboration to market Wales

Welsh universities recently won 4 international competitive partnership awards from a new highly competitive and prestigious initiative set by the US and UK governments in response to a shared call by David Cameron and Barack Obama in 2011 that encouraged multilateral research collaboration.

The Global Innovation Initiative awards, using two parallel but separate grant competitions, were designed to address global challenges in the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This initiative, formally launched in the UK by David Willetts in October 2013, aims to strengthen research collaborations between universities in the UK and US, while also involving universities from emerging economies such as Brazil, China, India and Indonesia.

Administered and funded in the UK by the Department of Business, Industry and Skills and the British Council, 23 Global Innovation Initiative awards were announced this April. Each collaborating UK/US partnership receives up to £150,000 to fund new research activities, including faculty and researcher exchange, joint publications and symposia. The total funding for partnership grants is £3 million, but with partner universities also agreeing to support from their own resources, the total funding available rises to over £7 million.

The 3 Welsh universities leading collaborative projects were:

Bangor University who will be working with the University of California, Los Angeles and Udayana University in Indonesia. This project aims to use environmental DNA (eDNA) detection to aid the rapid assessment of biodiversity and inform conservation priorities in Indonesia. The results of the marine and freshwater aquatic monitoring will be used to inform policy-based decisions such as suggesting protected areas and setting fisheries quotas.

Cardiff University will be working with the University of California, Davis, and the China Medical University, to develop innovative vaccination protocols that increase the compliance and efficacy of existing vaccination programs using a novel method of micro-needle based vaccination.

The partnership organized by Swansea University in collaboration with the University of Maine, Sichuan and Hohai Universities in China, the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, and the Bandung Institute of Technology in Indonesia, aims to develop innovative and resilient flood risk assessment methodologies. This builds on previous international collaboration and is intended to enable novel flood-related enterprises to succeed in a changing climate.

While not leading one of the partnerships, Aberystwyth University in association with Northern Arizona University and the University of Mataram in Indonesia, also secured one of the 23 competitive grantsTheir research project aims to address the needs of local Indonesian universities and policy makers by creating stronger links between research and policy to ensure sustainable forest management.

The number of Welsh universities receiving these awards was greater than that achieved by either Scotland or Northern Ireland and demonstrates the global reach and dividend that Welsh universities, through international research collaboration, can return for the nation.

According to a recent independent report produced by Elsevier and published earlier this year, Wales’s collaboration is truly international and growing. Indeed, Welsh researchers collaborate internationally more frequently than any of the other 3 UK constituent countries and the percentage of Welsh articles resulting from international collaboration has increased from 44.7% in 1997-2001 to 60.5% in 2007-2011.

The main European collaborating countries for Wales are the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark and Belgium, but internationally it is the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan and emerging research nations such as China and India. The subject areas producing the highest levels of International collaboration for Wales are in the medical, engineering, natural and agricultural sciences, all areas that feature prominently in the recent Global Innovation Initiative awards.

Such international collaboration brings academic, economic and reputational benefits. Research stemming from international collaborations receive more recognition and often tend to be published in high-impact journals. The international country that provides Wales with the largest proportion of citations comes from the US, followed by Germany. In the case of Wales, international collaboration not only accounts for the largest proportion of Wales’s published articles, it also results in the highest field-weighted citation impact – which is more than twice the world average. Moreover, one of the attractions for researchers from other countries considering publishing with Welsh co-authors, is that such collaboration attracts above average citation impact for them – making Wales an attractive research base to collaborate with.

In addition to these academic advantages, research collaboration represents one of the most effective forms of ‘soft power”, with strong international links essential for establishing Wales’s research base and enhancing the attraction of it’s higher education provision. Universities have a growing export role, with international research income, fees and transnational education a developing business for most successful HE sectors. Such collaboration and networking is also important for smaller countries, as the quality of the research base is increasingly employed as an indication of a country’s ability to compete successfully in the global economy.

As a smaller nation, it is important that Wales makes better use of these public “soft power” indicators to attract the best students (and staff) and provide levers to facilitate international engagement, thereby increasing export education and generating greater economic return. With this in mind, later this month Welsh universities will be attending a major international education conference in the US, and the following month will be visiting Indonesia to explore future partnership working, including joint research, research collaboration, dual degrees, teaching collaboration, student mobility and scholarships.

Prof Peter W Halligan Head of Strategic Futures, Higher Education Wales