International collaboration 'crucial' for universities

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Universities need to expand international engagement to remain competitive, according to a report by Digital Science.

The London-based company, along with the UK Higher Education International Unit, have produced a report focusing on international academic collaboration across the UK research base and on the implications of EU and global collaboration for universities, research assessment and the economy.

The report highlights the rapid growth of EU and global collaboration, from less than 10 per cent to more than half of all academic research. Today, the majority of the UK's international collaborative partners in research are in other EU member states and this is the fastest growing part of the research base. Collaborative research also has a far greater impact than other research activity.

The main findings of the report highlight how:

  • Knowledge capacity is compromised by a failure to be active internationally. The emergence of international knowledge networks (a ‘Fourth Age’ of research) means that UK universities need to develop strategies to expand international engagement to remain competitive in accessing resources.
  • Research rankings will be unable to provide proper comparisons. International collaboration is now so common, and covers so much of the most highly-cited output, that no analysis or profile can be exclusively attributable to any single country or university.
  • Owning knowledge assets is less important than having the right skills to use them. If research is shared then its content and IP is shared.The agility to exploit knowledge ahead of competitors is critically important. A flourishing university research base provides an ideal environment for developing knowledge-competent people with the skills that our European competitive economies require.

Jonathan Adams, chief scientist at Digital Science, said of the report: 'Universities must recognise the implications of the ‘Fourth Age’ of research - where knowledge is generated by international teams, and international collaboration is the only way to be part of this.

'Research funders also have to recognise the fact that knowledge is shared so agility in use of this knowledge, not ownership of it, is the route to exploiting assets – this is a key priority for higher education. Governments need to acknowledge that they can no longer get simple numbers on their research ‘performance’, when this performance is truly international.'

Vivienne Stern, director of the UK Higher Education International Unit added: 'Universities bring together researchers from across the world, pooling expertise, data and resource, and enabling them to achieve more together than they could alone.

'In a world where many of the challenges we face are global – from cancer to climate change – it is more important than ever that we work alongside our international partners. For the UK to sustain its international reputation, we need to maintain and increase our global research collaboration.'