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Why informal grass-root collaboration matters for European research?

Inga Ulnicane

For the last 30 years European research landscape has been significantly shaped by the EU Framework Programme. At the same time, informal collaboration among researchers outside externally funded projects remains important for creativity and vitality of European research.

Increased role of projects: opportunities and threats

Since the early professionalisation of the scientific community in the 17th and 18th century, researchers have collaborated across organisational and national borders, forming informal networks known also as ‘invisible colleges’[i]. Such collaborations among researchers at the grass-root level typically have been motivated by interest in exchanging ideas, combining complementary skills, expertise and resources in novel and relevant research lines and increasing efficiency and visibility of research. Today international research collaboration is growing due to a number of reasons, for example, need to find solutions for global problems, use of information and communication technologies and easier travel.

Collaboration nowadays is affected by major changes in research governance including the increased role of competitive project funding, partly replacing institutional funding. Since the 1970s, there has been a considerable increase in the share of project funding in total research and development (R&D) funding, and today in the OECD countries the national project funding constitutes from around one fourth to more than half of the total public R&D funding.[ii] While most of the research funding is allocated nationally, there are a number of funding programmes for international research collaboration, most notably the EU Framework Programme, launched in 1984.

How the increased role of project funding affects international research collaboration? In essence, joint research activities undertaken within formal externally funded projects and informally outside the common projects can be largely the same, i.e. combination of different research methods or integration of experimental and theoretical results that can lead to novel findings. The externally funded projects can facilitate collaborations by providing resources to undertake ambitious and larger-scale initiatives and creating opportunities for new international links.

But the shift from institutional funding towards the increased role of externally funded projects brings with it also a number of well-known challenges. Already in the 1960s concerns were raised that changing organisation of research, such as dependence on grant-giving agencies and short-term projects, can inhibit freedom of scientists to choose their research topics and collaborators, discourage risk-taking and long-term research.[iii] Moreover, external project funding can come with heavy administrative burdens that demand considerable time and effort for preparing project applications and reports. Focus on projects when analysing research has been criticised as misleading and conflicting with actual work practices of researchers who use multiple funding sources and social networks to solve scientific problems and who do not conceptualise their work in terms of externally funded projects, which many of them view as chiefly bureaucratic artifice.[iv]

Short-term projects, long-term collaborations

While a typical externally funded research project lasts for a fixed period of, e.g., four years, the evidence[v] suggests that international scientific networks can be long-term, lasting over 20 years and combining several externally funded projects and informal interactions outside the common projects. Such networks typically start informally – at conferences or when visiting another research institute – and only later lead to common projects. Both modes of research collaboration – formal projects as well as informal interactions – are important for productive and creative research. Externally funded projects provide necessary resources and visibility, while informal collaboration allows trying out new ideas and provides flexibility to respond to novel scientific developments. Such informal collaboration can be financed by institutional funds, individual grants and income from contract research. As institutional funding is decreasing in many academic institutions, a number of researchers experience that there are less opportunities for informal collaboration.

As mentioned above, there have been concerns that increased role of project funding will limit freedom to choose research topics and collaborators, hamper a long-term perspective and risk-taking necessary for research. The research findings here suggest that there is a lot of continuity in terms or research topics and partners in successful long-term scientific networks. Productive collaborators pick and choose funding schemes according to their research interests and needs. Their collaborative projects typically build on common scientific interests, trust and mutual knowledge developed over time. Findings and ideas from earlier formal and informal collaboration are advanced in follow-up projects. Long-term collaborators speak about “memory” and “history of projects” and refer to their core partners as “family” and “club”. Such networks continuously build on earlier results such as knowledge and findings generated or joint publications, patents, follow-up projects and training. At the same time, they recognise the need to avoid inertia and renew their networks by “reinventing themselves” for follow-up projects and bringing in new collaborators with novel ideas and complementary expertise.

Long-term successful international collaborations combine self-organisation of the research community based on common interests and complementary expertise with facilitating institutional and organisational conditions such as autonomy, active communicative environment, open organisational culture, support for international mobility and recruitment and availability of multiple – institutional funds, individual grants, diverse projects (e.g., large and small, applied and fundamental) – funding sources.

When designing policy for excellent and relevant research that contributes to solving pressing problems of the 21st century, it is useful to keep in mind that informal interactions and flexibility are crucial for creativity and novelty in research.

This blog entry is based on some of the findings from my PhD Thesis, which was successfully defended in June 2013; the findings are under preparation for submission to peer-reviewed journals.

[i] Price, D.J.D. & Beaver D.D. (1966) “Collaboration in an Invisible College”, American Psychologist, 21(11), 1011-1018.

[ii] Steen, J.v. (2012) “Modes of Public Funding of Research and Development: Towards Internationally Comparable Indicators”, OECD Science, Technology and Industry Working Papers, No. 2012/04, OECD

[iii] Hagstrom, W.O. (1965) “The Scientific Community”, New York/London: Basic Books.

[iv] Rogers, J.D. & Bozeman, B. (2001) ““Knowledge value alliances”: An alternative to the R&D project focus in evaluation”, Science, Technology & Human Values, 26 (1), 23-55.; Bozeman, B., Fay, D. & Slade, C.P. (2013) “Research collaboration in universities and academic entrepreneurship: the-state-of-the-art”, Journal of Technology Transfer, 38(1), 1-67.

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