More and more Lund University researchers have international collaborations with researchers from new strong research countries such as China. This leads to more opportunities, but also the risk of missteps. Important advice for researchers regarding this, is given a new pamphlet from STINT.
“Researchers collaborate with individuals, not regimes. But researchers need more knowledge concerning the contexts in which individuals are embedded,” says Tommy Shih, policy and analysis manager at STINT.
Together with Lund University, the Royal Institute of Technology and the Karolinska Institute, STINT has recently produced a pamphlet about responsible internationalisation.
Defining boundaries is hard
Tommy Shih is an associate professor at LUSEM and works at the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education (STINT) on situation analysis primarily concerning China, but also other parts of the world.
As part of the work for the pamphlet, he interviewed about 200 people – including members of university managements, researchers and research funders – about their thoughts on international cooperation. Most agreed that internationalisation strengthens basic research and is needed to meet global challenges. The research also shows this to be true.
“However, many people hold on to the idea that it is the USA, the UK and Germany that publish most high-quality research. But, that’s not true any longer: for several years China has been among the leaders in many areas of research,” he says.
China has overtaken the USA and is now the world’s largest producer of research articles. At Lund University, the number of research articles co-published with researchers at Chinese higher education institutions has grown steadily – there were as many as 545 in 2019.
This is also part of a larger trend in which researchers in “new countries” have become increasingly important research partners. Many of these countries are very different from Sweden politically and culturally, and in international cooperation, it is important to find the right balance and not to be naive or paranoid, argues Tommy Shih.
“Today, we must balance the benefits of research with other aspects such as democracy, export controls, human rights and national security. Defining boundaries is harder than you think, it is rarely black and white,” he says.
Differentiate between project and country
Important factors in international cooperation are mutual value creation, academic freedom, transparency and integrity. If funding is altogether too unequal, it can create unsound dependent relations. In Sweden, we have found it hard to relate to the increasingly complex research landscape. Even though the number of international research collaborations has increased, few universities have been proactive.
In Tommy Shih’s interviews, there were some who considered that you could quite simply avoid ethical problems by not cooperating with some countries at all. But that is not an alternative, according to Tommy Shih.
“The point is to differentiate between what is happening in the country and in the project. If we don’t cooperate there is a considerable risk that research will suffer and it will be more difficult to find solutions for global challenges.”
Tommy Shih thinks that researchers have a responsibility to be more informed about the wider world, but also considers that support functions at Lund University could be better at helping researchers with certain issues such as strategy, law and ethics. Discussions with other researchers who have had collaborations with researchers in a specific country can also be of help.
There are also cases of ethical dumping, in which researchers from a country with more stringent requirements for research ethics, for example in experiments involving animal or human subjects, have chosen to place experiments in a country with less stringent requirements. For Swedish researchers, the ethical standard should apply both in Sweden and abroad.
“However, in practice it is not always clear what applies – it is most often the individual researcher who is in the frontline and must take a decision on when a limit is reached.”