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COVID-19 and global collaboration in science

International collaboration and travel are integral to the life of researchers and biotechnology professionals. But coronavirus has made travel impossible. 

We look back over two decades of growth in international scientific collaboration to understand the extent of the effects of reduced mobility and consider what collaboration will look like in the foreseeable future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made us critically aware of our global interdependence, especially in the tragic loss of human life and economic strain. Globalisation is widely assumed in every sector in 2020. Science will be no less affected.

Remarkable Growth

Advances in scientific knowledge systems have always moved fastest and furthest when there is cross-fertilization across specialisms and localities. Science has never been more internationally inter-connected that in our era of technology-enabled globalisation. 

International collaboration in science has grown at a remarkable rate since 1990, particularly in the last 15 years. In 1990 internationally co-authored papers accounted for 10% of Web of Science records. By 2010 they accounted for 25%. The same study showed that international collaborations had tripled since 2000.1 

Why the growth?

Part of the answer is simply because it is possible. 

Digital production and international gathering have made data more accessible and therefore made global collaborations increasingly possible in ‘Small Science’.2 Comfortable, low-cost international travel, the internet, and new communication and information technologies have made building collaborations which traverse the boundaries of physical location routine. Physical distance and location have ceased to be factors.

But there’s also the human factor. International collaboration enables researchers to access additional, often specialist, skills and expertise, and gain new perspectives on research. Both often prove to be central to innovation.

For early-stage researchers, international collaboration can be key to career development because of the expertise gleaned and enhanced visibility. Generally, papers resulting from international collaboration appear more in high profile journals and are cited more often than papers disseminating local research.3

For senior researchers, international collaboration is essential because the problems that they are trying to solve are global in scale and therefore need global co-operation to understand and solve them.4 

The COVID-19 pandemic is a glaring example. 

Building global food security in the face of climate change is another. Pathogens, health conditions and changing climates are not constrained by borders. Even islands are not really islands anymore.

The key to international collaboration?

Mobility is a crucial factor in international collaboration which in turn is central to research. A recent study examining the experiences of 1286 Fellows and grant recipients from the National Academies in Britain found that mobility was very important to the careers of 91% of respondents, and international travel was essential for 86%.5 The study found a positive correlation between researchers’ mobility and their involvement in multiple international collaborations.6

International events provide spaces where scientists’ expertise and working style can be demonstrated to each other. International events therefore provide researchers with a host of potential collaborators and co-authors who can make advances possible. 

The study of National Academies in Britain found that developing networks was one of the main reasons for researchers’ short-term international travel.7 The study also found that 62% of participants’ international collaborations had come about from meeting at a conference or event.8 

International conferences and events provide that crucial opportunity for showcasing expertise and building the connections which result in international collaboration and innovative research and applications. 

Will the COVID-19 crisis make collaboration more difficult than ever?

With international travel near impossible and disruption anticipated for the forseable future, collaboration in science is certainly going to be affected. 

We are seeing a huge number of the international events being postponed, and many events have simply had to be cancelled without alternative arrangements. 

Cancellation means saying goodbye to the new ideas and directions the meeting would undoubtedly have facilitated. It means the world never benefits from the partnerships and collaborative projects which could have developed. Postponing is clearly better, but not everything can be squeezed into a packed autumn. 

Moreover, is now really the time to put scientific collaboration on hold?

‘Face-to-face interaction is vital’ because it’s so often where the collaboration begins and what also sustains collaboration in the long-term.9 But in the current unprecedented situation every sector is facing, with up to half of the world’s population estimated to have been under lock-down type restrictions to slow the contagion at one time over the last few months and uncertainty over exit strategies, instead of putting collaboration on hold, now is the time to take advantage of the advances in information and communications technologies that have been supporting international projects over the last two decades.

These technologies make it possible for meetings to still go ahead online. Via any device, and from the safety of an office or home, scientific communities can come together in virtual auditoriums for presentations and interactive workshop spaces; at virtual poster presentations; in networking areas for formal and informal chat; and at solution providers’ virtual booths.

Scientists and biotech professionals will still share expertise, discoveries, solutions, interdisciplinary perspectives, new trends and directions. They will still forge new connections and establish new multi-institutional, cross-sector collaborations. Researchers will still meet with hundreds of potential international co-authors and collaborators and build relationships. Solution providers will still showcase the latest technologies. Leaders in the field will still exchange knowledge and refine approaches to solve the world’s biggest challenges.

The COVID-moment: challenges and opportunities

Challenges

Operating in a new format presents conference organisers and delegates with a number of challenges: the technicalities of the online experience; the speaker panel and delegates may be unfamiliar with online conferencing; etiquette for online discussions could prove to be inconsistent; and speakers and delegates will be less practiced at knowledge sharing and relationship building with reduced non-verbal communication. 

Overcoming the key challenges:

The unfamiliar: Scientists, industry leaders, solution providers, investors are all innovators by nature, terra incognita is their natural environment so we can reasonably anticipate that the scientific community will be flexible enough to make going digital work. 

The technical: There are now a number of platforms specifically delivering virtual conference experiences with the capacity to make the experience technically seamless. This delivery will always need to include technical support for delegates. 

On etiquette: Because events will be attended from peoples’ offices, sofas and makeshift-kitchen-offices, every conference will need to publish detailed etiquette guidelines ahead of time to ensure the meeting retains its quality – covering everything from questions and muting, to dress code and food. 

Opportunities

More than just making virtual conferences work, going digital presents significant benefits:

  • Huge economic and environmental advantages
  • No difficult decisions between concurrent presentations because all content will be recorded and available after the live event
  • Delegates will therefore be able to engage with many ideas they might have otherwise, and come away with a fuller picture of their field
  • Virtual events often attract larger, more global audiences, facilitating new and previously unlikely connections and collaborations
  • The added value of the data that will be gathered during the meeting
Science exists to respond to challenges – it can’t be constrained

Virtual events won’t replace face-to-face international meetings. But out of necessity, 2020 will be the year that some major international conferences happen online. Impact on collaboration is inevitable but it won’t all be bad. For now, we are corona-captives, and we will be spending the coming months working from home. However, that doesn’t mean international collaboration in science has to be put on hold or constrained. 

Moving conferences online means that collaboration is, quite literally, at our fingertips and we can still exchange ideas and strengthen partnerships, even while it feels like the world has stopped. It’s a way to keep the river of knowledge flowing, the lifeblood of international projects circulating and the ball of innovation bouncing.

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References

[1] Ribeiro, L.C., Rapini, M.S., Silva, L.A. et al. Growth patterns of the network of international collaboration in science. Scientometrics 114, 159–179 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-017-2573-x. Singh Chawla, Dalmeet. International collaborations growing fast. Nature Index19/01/2018. Available at https://www.natureindex.com/news-blog/international-collaborations-growing-exponentially(accessed 25/03/2020). 

[2] Rapini et al. Growth patterns of the network of international collaboration in science. Scientometrics

[3] Ibid.

[4] Singh Chawla. International collaborations. Nature Index

[5] ‘The role of international collaboration and mobility in research: Findings from a qualitative and quantitative study with Fellows and grant recipients of the Royal Society, British Academy, Royal Academy of Engineering and the Academy of Medical Sciences. (2017), p. 2. Available at https://acmedsci.ac.uk/file-download/96518966(accessed 25/03/2020).

[6] Ibid., p. 3. 

[7] Ibid., p. 2. 

[8] Ibid., p. 17. 

[9] Ibid., p. 11.

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