By Downing Thomas
Do international collaborations make for better science, or better scientists? This was one of the key questions raised at an event I attended this week, the first “Global Research Funding Forum,” hosted jointly by International Affairs and the Office of Research and Economic Development at the University of North Texas. An impressive group of presenters from around the country and several from as far away as Thailand and South Africa were in attendance, including David Stoner from the Office of International and Integrative Affairs at the National Science Foundation, and Donald Dingwell, the Secretary General of the European Research Council. In addition to thought-provoking sessions, representatives from governmental and non-governmental research funding agencies were present to discuss their programs and priorities, ranging from the German government’s DAAD to the Indo-U.S. Science and Technology Forum.
I didn’t hear a complete or definitive answer to the question with which I began the previous paragraph; yet I came away convinced that international connections do support the research missions of our universities both here and abroad. Preema Arasu, Vice Provost and Associate Vice President for International Programs at Washington State University, noted that 31% of faculty at her institution were actively engaged with international partners, as measured by their publications. With the development of research activities and facilities in other countries, it is likely that this figure will only grow in the coming decade. However, researchers are not always taking advantage of the resources available for international research. David Stoner noted that while supplements are available to current NSF grantees to involve researcher partners from abroad in funded projects, U.S. awardees rarely take advantage of this additional funding. One obstacle has been the perception among researchers that involving colleagues at institutions that are not highly ranked (however questionable the methodologies of those rankings) will cause peer reviewers or administrators at their institutions to question the value of their work. A vibrant discussion of the need to include international activities in promotion and tenure policies ensued.
The final plenary session was devoted to the research on the nature and limitations of disciplinary peer review taking place at the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of North Texas. In tone, the session felt a bit like a religious revival (“if only you relinquish the shackles of disciplinarity, you will be saved"). Despite seeming to have forgotten that interdisciplinarity does not exist without disciplines, the Center’s director, Professor Robert Frodeman and assistant director, Dr. Britt Holbrook, raised good, provocative questions about the nature of peer review, in which the value of some truly groundbreaking interdisciplinary proposals may be overlooked because reviewers are looking more to the intrinsic value of the research to the discipline rather than to its potential for solving problems in the world.
International connections are crucial to the research and creative work being done here at the University of Iowa. Writers from dozens of countries produce new poems and stories here in Iowa City each fall during the International Writing Program’s annual residency; and the IWP brings writers together all over the world to collaborate and translate. Several of Professor David Gompper’s musical compositions came about as a result of connections to the Moscow Conservatory and his works have been premiered in Russia. Professor Bernd Fritzsch works on genes that are considered as regulators of hearing organ development and, if better understood, could aid in improved therapies for people with hearing loss. Dr. Fritsch’s work would not be possible without the collaboration of his colleagues at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Lucio Tolentino, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Computer Science, received a Fulbright award to work with the South Africa Center for Epidemiological Modeling and Analysis in the Western Cape. His research explores the ways in which computer modeling of various methods of HIV prevention and intervention can minimize the spread of the disease. These are only a few examples of the ways in which global connections are part and parcel of the research and creative work being done by University of Iowa faculty and students.
While it would be useful to examine the question more in depth with data, for the moment I am convinced that international collaborations do enhance the research profile of our faculty and students. I would like to hear your thoughts about how we can use global connections to further our missions.