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Three ways institutions can support research partnerships

Guest Blogger4 November 2021

By Sam Mardell, UCL Strategic Partnership Manager (AHRI); Amit Khandelwal, UCL Senior Partnership Manager (South Asia); and Monica Lakhanpaul, UCL Pro-Vice-Provost (South Asia)

Human chain paper stock imageThe increasing globalisation of people and economies, the devastating impact of COVID-19 on societies across the world, the multifaceted problems caused by climate change and the ongoing global commitments to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) make this a crucial time to generate discussion on strengthening partnerships underpinned by first-class research.

Some of the highest profile scientific and research achievements have been accomplished through partnerships between UK universities and other institutions worldwide. The UCL Ventura-CPAP breathing aid and the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine are just two recent high-profile examples of what can be achieved through collaboration of this kind.

Yet, these partnerships are the exception — generated at a time of crisis — rather than the rule. We undertake partnerships, with all the additional effort and time that these involve, because they generate better outputs and outcomes. How can we create an environment in our institution where collaborations are encouraged and can flourish?

A successful research collaboration harnesses the strengths of each partner for greater impact. For example, academics can provide the evidence base for decision-making, but without industry partners to take ideas through to production, or the involvement of the third sector to ensure that solutions really meet societal needs, then good ideas remain just that — ideas.

For the purposes of this discussion, we define a positive partnership as one that achieves the explicitly stated goals of the research, while allowing all partners to learn and advance throughout the period of collaboration and beyond.

Research partnerships invariably work because of interpersonal relations. There is a great deal of literature on how to nurture these partnerships; frequently these are based simply on two individual academics who get along with one another.

Institutions do also play a role in generating an environment that supports and values academic collaborations. Here we outline the three key areas of institutional support to the creation and successful implementation of research partnerships.

1. Train academics in partnership building:

Academics are experts in their field — but that does not automatically generate the soft skills or knowledge needed to create a successful collaboration. There has been much discussion over the past few years about the need to recognise systemic and structural power inequalities and ensure that they do not feature in research relationships. Assume that you will provide the skills without learning from your collaborators, and you both miss the additional benefits collaboration can bring and belittle your partners’ contribution to the success of the project.

Institutions can provide a basic understanding of the dynamics and sensitivities that might influence how collaborators view the UK through provision of a basic history of the country and any historical inter-country linkages. This is particularly relevant when working with partners in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where unequal and lop-sided benefits frequently advantage the more powerful partners in a collaboration.

Signposting on how to navigate working intercultural collaborations can support academics in developing contacts who can advise on cultural sensitivities and expected behaviours. This can be immensely helpful in developing early relationships. Awareness that different cultures will approach a problem in a distinct way is essential, with differences in approach often generating better outcomes. This is equally valid for collaborations across the public-private-people-policy sectors and between larger and small universities as it is for national-international collaborations.

University policy can help to avoid the obviously exploitative activities — such as using in-country staff only for fieldwork, denying shared authorship opportunities, or ethics dumping — that characterised the relationship of a fair proportion of academics from the richer nations working in low-resource settings in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

For a truly positive partnership, thought should be given to addressing how academic partners ensure that local or traditional knowledge and expertise is a recognised, valued and rewarded part of collaboration. Good partnerships also have leaders with a suite of skills additional to their individual scientific expertise; this requires training on working collaboratively to help ensure partnerships work well and generate innovative and impactful results.

2. Provide resources to nurture nascent partnerships

Open communication is one element of a partnership that has been radically reconstituted and reformed over the past year during the COVID-19 pandemic, with Zoom and Teams calls now the norm. Whilst academics have been denied the opportunity to hold face-to-face conversations with partners overseas over the past year, virtual communication has put overseas partners on an equal footing with local colleagues. The provision of small travel grants and seed corn funding — such as those provided by UCL’s Global Engagement and Grand Challenges funds — can facilitate the initial conversations needed to begin building the trust and mutual respect that are so vital to positive partnerships.

3. Create an enabling institutional environment

Longer-term collaborations, which span multiple projects and years, require time, patience and understanding of the priorities and constraints of another organisation or individual. Copious amount of coffee, tea and food — sprinkled with an appreciation of another culture and sharing personal experiences — are the building blocks of relationships. Yet the current academic system generates rewards for being a Principal Investigator: for individuality and being first author or lead institution. Institutional recognition of the time investment needed to develop partnerships — listening to partners, respecting their challenges, and understanding the context within which they are working — is needed when assessing academics’ achievements at appraisals or promotion boards. This requires a shift from a quantitative review of academic achievement based on impact factors and grant income to one that recognises that nurturing partnerships can pay dividends in co-creating and delivering appropriate solutions and enhanced positive impact.

Partnerships are all about relationships: equitability, having a flexible mind-set and trust. If you get this right, you have the key ingredients to ensure that your project or activity will be a successful and impactful one.

But partnerships also require institutional incentives and structures that do not penalise academics for collaborative activity. Harnessing a variety of intellect and expertise, innovation and skills focussed on clearly defined goals can ensure that, through the power of partnerships, research generates positive outcomes and impact for all involved.


About the authors

If you would like to know more about developing partnerships and how we can help you, please contact us:

Sam Mardell is the Strategic Partnership Manager for UCL’s relationship with the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI), South Africa. She also co-Chairs the UCL LMIC Research Operations Group.

Professor Monica Lakhanpaul is Professor of Integrated Community Child Health at the UCL GOS Institute of Child Health and Pro Vice Provost for South Asia. Her research promotes citizen science using structured and participatory methods to co-design interventions for the advancement of population science.

Dr Amit Khandelwal is Senior Partnership Manager (South Asia) within the Office of the UCL Vice-Provost (Research, Innovation & Global Engagement).

This piece was originally posted on the UCL Disruptive Voices blog

Global Engagement Funds: diversifying UCL’s collaborations

Rachel P Corcoran7 September 2016

LargeImagev3The launch of the 2016/17 Global Engagement Funds builds on a successful pilot year, which offered support to 75 academics developing partnerships with colleagues at 93 different institutions.

Looking at the picture to the left, what quickly becomes clear is the diverse nature of UCL’s partnerships that were initiated or strengthened through these funds.

The funds are open to staff from all 11 UCL faculties – last year colleagues worked with partners in 34 countries. You can see in which region each faculty spent funds last year below.

Colleagues can apply for funds to support a range of activities:

  • to further research activity with colleagues in other countries (funds to cover travel and accommodation for inward/outbound visits, for example);
  • to facilitate the drafting of publications and/or collaborative research bids;
  • to organise workshops, symposia and festivals (inviting world-class speakers, covering the cost of venue hire, catering );
  • to carry out field visits;
  • to create new, or widen the range of, opportunities available through partner institutions to the benefit of students (for example, student exchange).

GEF by Faculty 800x500_with wordingApplicants may involve colleagues based in different countries – for example last year researchers at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (Brain Sciences) used the funds to finance travel and accommodation for a unique brain tumour research project in partnership with colleagues at the Humboldt University, Berlin, and the University of California, San Francisco.

The global partner – that is, the colleague(s) with whom applicants intend to collaborate – is not limited to another higher education or research institute, but can be from a charity, NGO or public/corporate body. So in this way the funds are encouraging innovative collaborations to deliver global impact.

Colleagues from UCL Institute of Education (Social Science) were awarded Global Engagement Funds to carry out explorative research on the situation of the 500+ unaccompanied children at ‘the Jungle’ migrant camp in Calais, France.  They strengthened relationships with a group of NGOs/charities with whom they will write a collaborative research bid in future.

Over in UCL Laws, an academic travelled to the USA to initiate research into the International Law Commission with colleagues at the United Nations in New York.

Mapv2Global Engagement Funds can also be used to create more international opportunities for UCL students.

A researcher from Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering received funding to visit the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore to develop a programme of student exchange alongside collaborative research in geotechnical engineering.

Shortly after the UK referendum result, Dame Nicola Brewer, Vice Provost (International), reinforced UCL’s commitment to intensifying our global engagement activity.

The Global Engagement Funds are enabling academics across the university to engage in such work.

Rachel Corcoran is GEO’s Programme Manager.

Applications for the Global Engagement Funds close on 28 October 2016 – find out more and apply here.

Ask GEO: Conor Rickford, Partnerships Manager (Europe)

Sophie Vinter20 July 2016

Conor Rickford, Partnerships Manager for EuropeConor is GEO’s Partnerships Manager for the Europe region. We asked him to share some key insights around Brexit.

Q: How many European partnerships does UCL have? How is UCL taking forward its collaborations with European partners at the moment?

A: UCL has an exceptionally large number of partnerships across Europe. In terms of Erasmus+ alone, we have more than 450 agreements with over 250 institutions. If we also consider the, less formal, academic-to-academic, researcher-to-researcher partnerships there are simply too many to count.

Quite simply, following Dame Nicola’s unequivocal statement, we are taking things forward with a renewed vigour. In practical terms, this means being more active in researching opportunities and fostering warm relations with potential partners; making sure that the wider world knows that UCL remains open and receptive to creative ideas from top partners, new and old.

The fact that the Faculty of Engineering signed the Alliance4Tech partnership agreement with the Politecnico di Milano, TU Berlin and CentraleSupélec on the day of the Referendum result gives me reason to believe that, whilst the structures around our engagement might change, UCL’s reputation for excellence and drive to collaborate will endure.

Q: What support can UCL academics get from GEO around Brexit?

A: The Europe Regional Network remains GEO’s primary channel for support around all matters European and I would encourage anyone with an interest to sign up. Through this group, we disseminate information about the regional funding streams from GEO, as well as information on new developments.

As we look to reconsider our strategic approach to European partnerships, Professor Jan Kubik (Pro-Vice-Provost, Europe) and I are welcoming contributions from members. They can email me directly.

UCL's ERASMUS+ Agreements in Europe by city

UCL’s ERASMUS+ Agreements in Europe by city

Q: How do you think Brexit might impact on UCL’s involvement in the Erasmus scheme?

A: At the moment, we are reviewing and renewing over 300 of our Erasmus agreements and that work will carry on. We will continue to host students from around Europe and will continue to offer excellent opportunities for our students to study abroad. It is clear to me that partners across Europe remain fully committed to working with us.

For our continued participation in the Erasmus scheme, I would hope that we are granted with non-EU programme status, like Norway. Some will look at the Swiss situation for a precedent, where they were suspended from full engagement in the Erasmus scheme following a 2014 referendum on free movement of people, but I think this might be a pessimistic comparison. The scale is completely different; in 2013/14, the UK received over 27,000 students, compared to around 4,000 to Switzerland and, in light of that, I suspect that there will be pressure, from both the UK and remaining EU states, to retain the UK as a full member.

Q: UCL is the most successful university in Europe for attracting Horizon 2020 funding. What impact do you think Brexit might have on this?

A: UCL’s researchers, supported by the ERIO team, have been incredibly successful and ensuring this continues has got to be a key consideration. It is too early to speak of the impact of Brexit on H2020; we are full members and the judging criteria have not changed. Post-Brexit, given the incredible depth and breadth of research capability in the UK, we may yet remain as an associated member of H2020, in a similar model to Norway.

The lack of clarity around our future engagement in H2020 is a risk that precedes Brexit and will not be resolved until well into the exit negotiations. That lack of clarity might make some colleagues in Europe slightly hesitant to involve UK academics in a joint bid but our proven success record in attracting H2020 funding should mean that is a very rare occurrence.

Q: How is UCL currently working with the wider sector?

A: As one would expect, UCL is working in concert with the key voices in sector. Our key European affiliation, the League of European Research Universities, has just published a very welcome statement, reaffirming its intentions to work with UK universities. Likewise, we will continue lobbying Government through the Russell Group and UUK. The Vice-Provost (Research)’s office have been co-ordinating contributions back to the Science and Technology Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee.

As Partnership Manager for Europe, Conor helps develop collaborative projects from inception through to delivery. He can also provide strategic guidance for ERASMUS+ activities, including student mobility and funding bids.

Contact Conor on:

c.rickford@ucl.ac.uk
+44 (0)20 3108 7785 / internal 57785 

UCL at Going Global 2016, South Africa: exploring the impact of international university partnerships

Sophie Vinter5 May 2016

Dame Nicola Brewer with Professor Zeblon VilakaziDame Nicola Brewer, UCL’s Vice-Provost (International), joined a panel of higher education leaders from around the world at the British Council’s Going Global conference in Cape Town this week.

Speaking at the session ‘University partnerships: delivering international impact?’, Dame Nicola – who was formerly British High Commissioner to South Africa – presented UCL’s Global Engagement Strategy and our collaborative approach to partnership working with the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

She outlined how both institutions have been taking forward a number of initiatives as part of their emerging partnership. These range from classic forms of international activity (visits and lectures by faculty in each university, exploring funding opportunities to support student mobility) to more ambitious plans for joint appointments, as well as an idea for a co-designed and co-hosted conference about ‘equal partnerships in an unequal world’.

Dr Peter Clayton, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University, chaired the session, and fellow speakers represented Brazil’s University of Campinas, The University of Tokyo and Heriot-Watt University.

Wits University Vice-Chancellor Professor Adam Habib and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Zeblon Vilakazi (pictured above with Dame Nicola) also attended the session.

Dame Nicola Brewer addressing delegates at Going Global 2016 in South Africa“As London’s Global University, UCL is looking to build reciprocal relationships of mutual trust and respect with partners around the world to co-create fair solutions to some of the most pressing global challenges,” said Dame Nicola.

“Our Global Engagement Strategy provides the framework and the focus for this approach. UCL’s partnership with the University of the Witwatersrand is a great example of how diverse and geographically distant universities can work together and learn from each other to deliver greater impact together than they could apart.”

Professor Vilakazi said the partnership is a perfect fit for Wits, adding: “Wits is located at the heart of a large metropolis that is grappling with a set of dynamics that are often characterised as a collision between the challenges of the ‘developed global north’ and the ‘developing global south’. This makes Wits and UCL ideal partners, as Global City Universities, to share expertise and make a unique contribution in addressing some of these challenges.”

Going Global is an annual conference offering an open forum for global leaders of tertiary education to discuss issues facing the international education community. This year’s theme was “Building nations and connecting cultures: education policy, economic development and engagement.”