Producing the knowledge needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and deal with other complex challenges of today's world is a task that requires multilateral cooperation. But this is not something trivial. If in a globalized and digital world scientific knowledge easily crosses national borders, the same is not true for the public resources that fund science.
In order to find mechanisms to enable collaboration between scientists from different countries, the Global Research Council (GRC)—an entity that brings together the world's main public funding agencies—has created the Working Group on Multilateral Engagement, which met for the first time Thursday (June 1, 2023) in The Hague, Netherlands.
"The GRC was conceived as a platform for sharing best practices and networking among the leaders of funding agencies. And that's quite important, because when we agree on a set of principles, it's easier to launch a joint call for proposals, for example. Still, there was a feeling among the members that we needed to go further, to do something broader than bilateral agreements. But nobody knows for sure how to do it. That's why this group was created," says Euclides de Mesquita Neto, a member of FAPESP's Coordination for Special Programs and Research Collaborations and executive secretary of the GRC.
The initiative began to be articulated about two years ago by representatives of FAPESP, JST (Japan Science and Technology Agency), RCN (Research Council of Norway), and DFG (German Research Foundation), having received official approval by the GRC Governing Board in March 2023. The working group's first mission will be to map funding mechanisms that already exist at a global level. Next, it will assess what kind of multilateral engagement opportunity the GRC could promote that is not already offered by other international entities. "And lastly we have to figure out how you implement that," Mesquita Neto tells Agência FAPESP.
The DFG's Director of International Affairs, Marcus Wilms, explains that legal barriers prevent the money used to promote research from crossing national borders.
"Bilateral collaborations [in which each country funds its own researchers in collaborative projects] have been one way of dealing with this problem. But it becomes much more complicated when there are many partners involved."
One of the main difficulties, according to Wilms, is managing the different expectations that entities have regarding the results of a research project.
"Agencies like the DFG seek impact in terms of knowledge. We believe the other impacts [social and economic, for example] derive from this. But there are other organizations whose activities must necessarily be tied to national priorities, they are very mission-oriented [they seek to fulfill a specific goal]. So the idea of the working group is to create new mechanisms to facilitate all this articulation," he explains.
Think globally, act locally
The importance of international institutions and funding agencies in promoting sustainable science, development, and innovation was the theme of the last panel held as part of the Annual Meeting of the GRC. The session began with a talk by Salvatore Aricò, who presented the work done by the International Science Council (ISC). The entity works to catalyze and gather scientific knowledge related to issues of great interest to science and society.
"I believe this is the biggest platform for science. It's about connecting national efforts on a global level," he said.
Marc Schiltz said that Science Europe—an association that brings together both funding agencies and research institutions—has been trying for several years to develop simple mechanisms by which funders can encourage transnational and cross-border collaborations, such as having proposals evaluated by only one agency, although all those involved contribute to the funding.
Also participating in the debate was Thelma Krug, vice-president of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and member of FAPESP's Superior Council. She highlighted in her speech the need to strengthen scientific cooperation between the Global North and the Global South.
"At the IPCC we look at the scientific literature produced around the world and we see big knowledge gaps in the Global South. Let me give you an example: one of the technologies that's being studied to mitigate the effects of climate change is the modification of solar radiation [solar geoengineering]. The IPCC has pointed out potential risks to human health, to the ozone layer, and to the ecosystem as a whole, but these studies are being developed without the participation of countries of the South, which will be widely impacted if this technology is implemented on a global scale. Research funders need to keep in mind that a little more fairness is needed in this regard," she said.
In Krug's assessment, funding agencies could help reduce these knowledge gaps by building the capacity of local research groups.
This has been one of the activities carried out by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), said Julie Shouldice, president of the entity. In addition to providing funding for projects, the IDRC fosters think tank initiatives in 20 countries with the aim of strengthening the local science system.
"Because, ultimately, the view is that people who are closest to the challenges are best able to solve them," she said.
Yaya Sangare, executive secretary of the Programme d'Appui Stratégique à la Recherche Scientifique (PASRES), a major research support entity in Ivory Coast, also highlighted in his speech the need for international institutions to involve local actors. "Often they come with solutions that are elaborated outside Africa and without [the participation of] Africa. And often they're not even received," he commented.
"We've heard throughout this meeting that we need to think globally but act locally and that understanding local problems is key to providing effective solutions. This requires equitable partnerships and a deep understanding of the problems so that effective and feasible solutions can be found locally. And this is really an extraordinary multi-scale problem. You can think about it in the context of the Global North and South, but also between individual communities in individual countries," said Ottoline Leyser, Executive Director of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).
- This press release was originally published on the Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo website