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Benefits of academic and research collaboration

December 06, 2009

Academic and research collaboration is a very valuable tool that not only accelerates the progress but also enhances the quality of the work and extends the repertoire of the partners. Academic collaboration is beneficial to the faculty in learning new teaching tools, and to the students in increasing the breadth of their knowledge and learning different approaches to solving a problem.

This tool is being increasingly utilised with success in developed countries. Unfortunately, in Pakistan institutions and faculty by and large have neglected this valuable tool. It is time that policy makers and the academic leadership in Pakistan address this weakness speedily and in a well-planned manner. Both intra- and interinstitutional collaboration must be emphasised, encouraged and brought to a level where it can impact and improve the quality, resources and capabilities of both researchers and institutions involved. An academic culture that fosters partnerships and cooperation instead of individualism must be embraced to improve quality as well as accelerate progress.

Collaboration pays off

In the scientific world, scientists depend and survive on their extensive collaborations with colleagues. Sharing specialised reagents, techniques and expertise is the engine that speeds up their projects, and gives life to new ideas and scientific breakthroughs. The presence of established channels that allow effective communication, stable partnerships and large networks between academics enables the flow of critical information among them. Such networking and cooperation are extremely valuable for sharing information on new approaches and resources but also acquiring specialised and new expertise.

The inter-institutional collaborations are of imperative importance for the development of higher education institutions in developing countries.

Even when universities and colleges are up and running, they need to consolidate their academic environment and attract and maintain world-class faculty to improve the quality of their teaching and learning. Any research and educational institution can be only as good as the quality of faculty that it attracts.

With limited funding from the government, institutions of higher education would have to exhaust every potential source for financial support. Their most valuable assets, the faculty and their research work, can be very beneficial and influential in receiving grants from other sources such as industries, foundations, and international organisations. Other sources of funding may become available by exploring and sharing information about local businesses, product development and applied research fields.

Modern science makes collaboration necessary

Sharing specialised reagents, techniques, equipment and expertise among scientists is needed not only to improve the quality and enhance the progress of the work, but it is often a necessity because of the extremely high cost of scientific research equipment. Development of technology in recent decades has made possible the production of very specialized and complex pieces of equipment that are expensive to purchase and require highly specialised professionals to operate them correctly.

Thus, equipping a modern laboratory with the proper instrumentation is a financially challenging task for many scientific institutions. In addition to common facilities such as computers and access to the Internet, specific and complex laboratory equipment is essential for conducting scientific research. In many cases, such as in the case of the Higher Education Commissions purchase of a Van de Graaf accelerator for the Quaid-e-Azam University Physics Department, the cost is impressive, in this case nearly 400 million rupees, and the equipment is easily outdated. But that is not the only bill associated with such equipment.

These scientific investments require long-term planning for additional funding to cover the cost of operating, maintaining, repairing, and updating the equipment. Most importantly much specialised equipment requires a team of specialists who not only should have expertise in operating it successfully but also have the scientific abilities to achieve answers to significant questions that advance the field.

Furthermore, even in situations where the equipment might not be needed immediately, there are many factors to be taken into consideration for conducting science successfully. Even in a simple experiment, specialists of different skills need to work together. For instance, lab technicians, leading scientists, software and computer engineers, and administrative supporters are among some of the human resources that are required to complete a project. Thus, it is absolutely necessary to make the best use of resources for as many research teams as possible as well as to join forces and collaborate together. There is no benefit achieved from purchasing expensive scientific equipment for research, only to have it locked away and forgotten.

The advantage of technological progress is that it has facilitated collaboration. Easy access to the Internet has enabled new communication tools such as video teleconferencing, electronic mail, and vast online libraries. All these methods have broadened cooperation opportunities available to researchers. Volumes of information can be accessed, transmitted and discussed at the same time despite the different geographic location of participants. These giant steps in technology create and require closer relationships as well as plenty of opportunities. The availability of the Pakistan Education Research Network (PERN) which connects researchers and scientists from 60 universities and institutes within Pakistan provides an excellent means to this purpose.

The attitude of scientists and researchers must change to accommodate a culture of cooperation. Partnership among researchers ensures that their knowledge, skills and techniques are made available to everyone interested and mutually benefit the participants. The more researchers collaborate, the greater are the chances for success and problem solving. In developing countries, where world-class resources are extremely limited, collaboration becomes particularly valuable as a means to acquire knowledge and experience. Thus, it is imperative to have a collaborative approach, not only in sharing knowledge but also in making equipment, facilities, and laboratories available to other researchers even if they belong to another institution.

Only collaboration among people and institutions will promote research and development. Institutional territorialism and being possessive of technical skills and material property not only prevents progress but also harms the overall higher education development structure in the country. One approach to encourage this culture is that the Higher Education Commission and other funding agencies practice a policy that requires both intra- and inter-institutional collaboration as a requirement for grant awardees. A new category of grants called collaboration grants may be established. Such grants could also include those where a graduate student would spend 6-12 months in another appropriate lab in Pakistan or abroad to carry out one or more scientific aims of his/her dissertation. Such a grant programme could also include short working visits of an expert to a grant awardees lab.

Improving institutional quality

Academic and research collaboration is primarily a relationship between people; the researchers or administrators of different institutions. Thus, to create a new type of working culture that supports team-work and partnerships, and encourages innovations and knowledge creation, it is important to have these values embedded in people. Researchers, scientists, students and administrators must realize the importance of their partnership efforts. Encouraging academic and research cooperation among various institutions makes the team network approach more effective in sharing knowledge, resources and innovations.

In addition, collaboration with world-class education institutions can raise the standards of universities in developing countries through exposure to teaching, research, services and management methods. International cooperation, experience and exposure enables new researchers and educationists to expand their work, publish it in recognised professional journals, and present it at professional meetings. At the student level, institutional collaboration allows for an exchange of students that benefit both from the faculty exposure as well as academic culture and environment.

Educational institutions that subscribe to a partnership approach have better relations with industries, local businesses and local communities. Close ties with communities make them more responsive to their needs, such as identifying their most-needed areas of education, expanding programmes that will benefit them and researching solutions for local concerns. Collaboration with other research teams makes these processes easier both by sharing information on similar situations with others and using their most successful techniques and experiences.

Reaching out

Institutions of higher education in Pakistan can benefit immensely from participating in effective collaborations with others, both within the country and internationally. However, the main priority of institutions when deciding on such cooperation must be the advancement of teaching and research quality. While any type of reaching out is significant, scientific collaborative efforts are more effective to institutions and their faculty than a superficial agreement or affiliation with US or other foreign institutions for the sake of publicity.

In addition, scientists and researchers must take advantage of the new technological developments to share information, experiences and assist their colleagues despite their affiliations and locations. Many bright students and professionals that originally hail from Pakistan and contribute to science from renowned institutions worldwide can lend a helping hand to their colleagues in Pakistan.

However, for this partnership to work well institutions and individuals in Pakistan must create an academic environment conducive to cooperation, assisting each other with initiatives, projects, and innovations. In addition, they must go beyond territoriality and encourage fruitful collaborations and use of facilities, equipment and other resources as often as possible.

The writers work for the Promotion of Education in Pakistan Foundation, Inc., USA