More international research collaboration key for South Asia

29 January 2015

A new report launched today by the British Council examines the lack of international research collaboration in South Asia. The report, based on interviews with education leaders across the region, has found that while research capacity has been increasing, international collaborations between authors need to be supported by government and industry in order to flourish, and the region to then reap the consequent social and economic benefits. Otherwise the region will continue to lag behind its East Asian neighbours in terms of economic development.

In 2013, China produced 71,003 documents with international collaborations, compared to India, 17,484, Pakistan with 4,278, and Bangladesh with 1,566.

The report, ‘A mighty web: How research collaborations can foster growth in South Asia.’ prepared by the Economist Intelligence Unit on behalf of the British Council, states that “South Asian countries need to take serious steps to enhance their technological readiness and innovation. Universities, institutes and local research and development (R&D) agencies in the region lag behind their counterparts in the rest of Asia in terms of R&D and technological enhancement activities, confirming the need for governments and firms to rethink their policies and strategies in this regard.”

According to Dr Vivek Kumar Singh, assistant professor of Computer Science at South Asian University in New Delhi, the proportion of South Asia’s research output compared to the rest of the world is extremely low. “If you consider the last 50 years, the total research output from South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries is about 2.86 per cent of the total global output,” Dr Singh said.

The benefits of international collaboration in research are clear; an estimated one-fifth of the world’s scientific papers are co-authored internationally, reflecting how much researchers value being able to partner with experts in other countries.

Collaborative research across borders and disciplines can help drive economic development and productivity in developing countries through the discovery of scientific breakthroughs and innovations, as well as raise awareness of social issues. Information sharing among researchers is also crucial to acquiring essential knowledge and skills, and drawing on different perspectives to solve a shared problem. In turn, it can lead to capacity building in developing countries. This is especially important for South Asia, which has significantly fewer high-quality universities compared with countries such as the US, Australia and the UK.

In the report, Professor Wahiddin Mahmud, chairman of the South Asian Network of Economic Research Institutes, is quoted saying that South Asia has a “huge reservoir of data” and much of it is underutilised. “This is where the academics and top universities have an interest; they want to collaborate with institutions in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh because we have so much accumulated data here,” he said. But there is also a lack of coordination of information in the region, with a lot of overlap and replication of research data. 

Furthermore, although more countries from outside the region are looking to collaborate on research with South Asian countries, just 2.2 per cent of all international collaborations involve countries within the region, despite all the benefits available through collaborating on projects that address common, region-specific challenges. 

The lack of funding is identified as a significant barrier to greater international collaboration. Professor Raghbendr Jha, Head of the Arndt-Corden Department of Economics at Australian National University and Executive Director of the Australia South Asia Research Centre, describes private and public spending on research and education in South Asia as “extremely low” in the report. “This is ironic, because these countries have such high percentages of young people, but they are being denied proper education and job opportunities,” Professor Jha said. “It should be compulsory for governments to match, dollar for dollar, any contribution coming from abroad for research projects.”

Low education standards have been identified as another barrier to setting up successful research networks with South Asia. The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are recognised globally as top engineering schools; Pakistan’s Lahore University of Management Sciences is considered world-class. However, enrolment in tertiary education is still extremely low, especially when compared with Australia, the UK and the US, contributing to the lack of talent in South Asia.

Consequently, the ‘brain drain’ of top talent contributes to a self-perpetuating negative cycle in the region that prevents greater academic achievement.

However, Industry also has a role to play in stimulating research networks. Tarun Khanna, director of the South Asia Institute at Harvard, said that for many companies, it’s not a lack of interest or wanting to get involved; it’s a question of knowing how to do it. “In fact, if anything, industry is quite hungry to get involved. It just doesn’t know how. And the researchers on the other hand, don’t know where to start either,” he said.

The report recommends that “[If] South Asia wants to achieve sustainable economic growth, governments and industry representatives need to pay greater attention to education and invest greater amounts of funding into R&D. There’s also a role for the international community to play in facilitating conferences and forums that bring governments, academics and industries together to network and build the basis for potential collaborations. A range of government tax incentives and legal mandates need to also increase to help companies increase their involvement in research outcomes.”