“The last five years have seen a sea change in how research is done,” said Professor John Wood, secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, or ACU. Major trends include clustering, international engagement and a move towards ‘open science for open innovation’.
Wood has been an advisor to the European Commission on research for many years, and said a key current activity was looking at the ways international research will change. “Funding streams in the next two or three years will start to reflect that,” he said.
Wood was speaking during the opening session of a conference on “Research and Innovation for Global Challenges”, co-hosted by the ACU and the Southern African Research and Innovation Management Association, SARIMA, and held in Johannesburg from 10-14 May.
The event drew 470 delegates from 44 countries – including 24 African countries – to a full week of sessions and 11 associated meetings, workshops and training.
The ‘open’ movement
Open science is one of five key themes that the European Commission has prioritised, and Wood is leading an advisory group that is taking the theme forward. What would the implications be to have all scientific information publicly available?
“The commission study is investigating what the new ecosystems will look like, what the business systems will look like and what it will mean for researchers and their individual promotion prospects as [science] is opened up.”
Donors, international organisations and some governments have been at the vanguard of the ‘open’ movement, and in July 2013 the G8 produced an Open Data Charter committing signatory countries to advance the open data agenda.
“There will be more and more pressure to make information that is publicly funded available,” said Wood. “The up-and-coming Research Data Alliance, which I co-chair, has been the fastest movement I’ve ever been involved in – people in 99 countries at the last count were in this open data movement.
“How are we going to do this? How are we going to deal with the upsurgence of citizen cyber science, especially in areas such as ecology and environmental studies? It is totally anarchic and yet I’m meant to be managing it!”
Wood stressed the growing importance of assessment, in a world fixated on impact. Britain’s Research and Excellence Framework, for instance, “in many ways has changed the culture of how we do research” and is also influencing research elsewhere across the world.
In scholarly communication, there are questions over the continued relevance of impact factors and citation indexes in a changing world of science. “When you have 200 people on a paper, how do you assess that?” Wood asked. “You do not divide by 200.”
Professor Aldo Stroebel – president of conference co-host SARIMA – said the event was being held at a critical time for research management and the wider research community. There is pressure worldwide for research to have impact, and for impact to be measurable.
“Governments and international funding organisations are increasingly aware of the importance of research to social and economic needs, with the concomitant expectation from research and innovation managers to deliver and be held accountable on a variety of fronts.”
“The Global Research Council, a virtual organisation of the heads of all research science councils in the world, is taking a new approach to how investment is done and can achieve greater impact.”
Europe’s massive Horizon 2020 research programme has become much more directed towards impact, Stroebel pointed out.
One change trajectory is the growing use of bibliometrics, a relatively new approach that is influencing and guiding research and innovation management. Another is a plethora of institutional consortia. “Networks are not new, but strategic networks are relatively novel. That strategy and that novelty should be harnessed.”
Funding modalities are changing. “We don’t facilitate innovation and technology transfer directly anymore. It is complicated and integrated,” said Stroebel. “We’re looking at concepts of cluster funding, thematic funding, and truly borderless engagements in research. We work towards challenges in other countries to address challenges within our own country.”
One challenge is to stay innovative in addressing problems while still playing the role of research managers. “We strive towards impact and socio-economic prosperity way beyond the management component of research itself,” Stroebel pointed out.
In the coming years, he concluded, “movement from the Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals will to a very large extent determine the way we do business, and the way we influence our environment as research and innovation managers”.
Global challenges, global perspectives
Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom – one of the world’s major foundations, with £20 billion (US$31 billion) in invested assets – identified a number of global challenges that are exercising the minds of researchers and the budgets of funders.
In the area of health, for example, life expectancy is increasing dramatically and globally, and the ability to cope with people in the last years of their lives presents profound problems.
Migration and a massive increase in urbanisation is another profound challenge. “Inequalities between urban and rural areas is driving tremendous migration globally, which will challenge the way we operate,” he said. “To think that we can meet that challenge by stopping migration is a fallacy; we can only do that by addressing inequalities.”
It is up to researchers to figure out how.
The world is changing and the university sector globally is absolutely critical to the way that the world is changing, said Farrar. “Universities need to be at the vanguard of innovation. We must make sure universities are not the impediment to impact, but the facilitators of impact.”
Farrar was born in Asia, educated in the UK at Oxford University and spent 18 years working in Vietnam in the field of tropical diseases. There is good synergy between the Wellcome Trust and the British government, he said, but as the new director he is on a mission to ensure that the trust is a truly global organisation.
“We are shifting the agenda so that it is not set on Euston Road but where the questions are most pressing and answers will be most innovative. It really irritated me in Vietnam when decisions were made in London. We will not do that.”
“For me, in the first 18 months, that shift in the centre of gravity is absolutely critical for what the Wellcome Trust as global organisation stands for.”
At the high end of internationalisation, huge organisations like CERN – the European Organization for Nuclear Research – “are starting to really take part in global research. They’re looking at new business models and new approaches to technology transfer at some of these vanguard international facilities”, said John Wood.
“It is going to be extremely exciting. There are students and researchers from all around the world not looking at particle physics but at new technologies. Looking at how you can keep vaccines safe in regions where there is conflict going on, for example.”
Stroebel stressed the growing importance of internationalisation in the way research is approached and the way partnerships are formed to tackle – in an integrated way – the challenges faced by both developed and developing countries.
“Funders’ approaches are also changing and their investment horizons are expanding,” he said. For instance, South Africa’s National Research Foundation – where Stroebel is executive director of international relations and cooperation – has “broad-based, extensive investment scenarios on the continent and beyond that move away from only national focus”.
“We need to learn how to work truly borderlessly,” said Stroebel. “Although this is a sine qua non in our heads and we acknowledge its importance, our systems do not usually allow it. But we forget that we are the system, people are the system.
“We need a fundamental reorientation of how we address a borderless, international environment.”