Human Connections Across Nations Charting the Future of Academia

Map of Global Scientific Collaboration 2008-2012. Data from Elsevier, Scopus synthesized and processed by Olivier H. Beauchesne (Creative Commons Licensing)

Economists tend to agree that knowledge is the quintessential “non-rival good” – meaning it does not diminish by sharing, and in fact increases with greater connectivity. Among the greatest collective triumphs of globalization and the internet has been the speed and span of research collaboration. The value of such international exchanges cannot be underestimated for various reasons. First, such exchange promotes the flow of ideas between epistemic traditions which has the potential for harnessing synergies between different research methods, and a constant questioning of entrenched biases in particular knowledge geographies.  Second, cognizance of research activities across universities worldwide ensures that redundancies and inefficiencies that occurred in times like the Cold War can be avoided. Most significantly academic collaborations create a higher purpose for cross-cultural communication that can be the most potent antidote to global distrust and conflict through “science diplomacy.” Yet knowledge transfer has a human element that cannot be neglected. The most efficacious messengers and manifestations of such knowledge exchange are migrant students who traverse the globe far more freely today.

I had an opportunity reflect on the virtue of the migrant academic’s experience this week when I attended the valedictory celebration of our Provost at the University of Queensland, Professor Gao Qing Max Lu who will be joining the University of Surrey as Vice Chancellor. This move marks a particular milestone in academic history since he will be the first Chinese-born and educated academic to lead a university in an Western Country.    The personal journey of Professor Lu as an immigrant from an impoverished region in China to take on his doctoral studies in Australia more than 25 years ago exemplifies the path to collective opportunities that a knowledge economy can provide. Professor Lu noted that he struggled with English communication when he arrived for his doctoral studies but through the welcoming camaraderie of colleagues and persistence he rose through the ranks of academia to be granted two Australian Federation (Laureate) Fellowships (the highest achievement within the Australian Research Council’s accolades).

Along this journey, Professor Lu remained connected with his homeland and facilitated the human connections with industry and academia that have benefited both China and Australia. The Vice Chancellor of the University of Queensland, Professor Peter Høj noted in his tribute that through such connections, the University was able to form myriad relationships for research such as the multimillion dollar BaoSteel Australia Joint Research and Development Centre. Students and scholars gained from the research partnerships that Professor Lu and his team forged globally, culminating in over 500 articles and 35,000 citations. It is also noteworthy that the opportunities for diaspora created by the Chinese government facilitated interactions that were not “one-way,” thus mitigating the “brain drain” phenomenon that has befallen many collaborations between developed and developing countries. For example, one of the early collaborators with Professor Lu’s nanotechnology research was Professor Chunli Bai who spent considerable research time in Australia but then returned to China and is now the President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

As international borders become more difficult to traverse for academics, Professor Lu’s career path shows us the essential value of human connections in academia across countries and cultures.  How international connections can be meaningful and not merely superficial needs to be better appreciated.  Some universities are being criticized for opening campuses in high-growth countries only for commercial tuition considerations rather than for meaningful research collaboration.  If used as a purely commercial strategy, the opening of such campuses can diminish the kind of student migrant experiences that Professor Lu experienced.  There are ways to move beyond stale “memoranda of understanding” between universities or a vacuous litany of adjunct affiliations to gain citation credit. Prestigious international journals such as Nature are now keeping track of international collaborations in their evaluative metrics of articles, similar to the ones that emanated from Professor Lu’s lab. The surest way to ensure that the collaborations are meaningful is to encourage flow of personnel between universities worldwide at the highest level. Other strategies for encouraging knowledge transfer across nations such as opening of campuses in developing economies and online learning and can have their value. However, the value of a human connections that Professor Lu has exemplified in his career, must remain salient. Migration for imparting, sharing or managing knowledge is a noble pursuit that will make our society, and indeed our planet, more resilient.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.