If there is one salient benefit of research collaboration to science and the society apart from efficiency, it is achieving understanding from different angles and perspectives.
A major barrier however to this beautiful concept is the fact that many of the recognition and reward structures are still on an individual basis—the naming of labs and the awarding of national academy fellowships and Nobel prizes favour individual efforts over collective works. Scientific and technological collaborations are seldom awarded with Nobel prizes.
Generally, collaborations are vital for the progress of scientific research but due to a number of factors, the most prominent being geopolitical tensions, the incidence of international collaboration has waned. A good example is the steady dwindling of international collaboration between China and the United States since 2017, which is as a result of such tensions that exist between them.
Interestingly, there has been a number of stories of scientists teaming up with one another across borders and disciplines—as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic—regarding the sequencing of genomes, the description of the features of the virus and/or the designing of antiviral drugs. However, this is in no way better than previous years as the bulk of the COVID-19 literature includes papers in which all the authors are within the same country.
In fact, analyses of bibliometric data reveal that these research collaborations in 2020 were less common compared to those on other coronaviruses in previous years. Successful collaboration requires trust and relationships that stand the test of time. Hence, the unfortunate trend between China and the U.S. is likely to continue if the geographical tensions between them keep worsening. On the contrary, a very good relationship exists between China and the United Kingdom despite the fact that they have different principles. Researchers at Dunhuang Academy in China and the University of Oxford, UK, for example, are carrying out a study on ancient structures at cultural heritage sites on the Silk Road route in northwest China. They are motivated by the fact that they share the same goal—protecting the cultural heritages of the human race. As a result of this, they are able to reach consensus in the face of differences of opinion.
Collaborations are not just intercountry or interdisciplinary, there are examples of such teamwork between communities and university researchers. Such partnerships promise absolute efficiency and all-encompassing conclusions and solutions.
While it is no news that collaborations are waning, if we will successfully tackle global problems like pandemics, we must recognize the true value of working across borders, disciplines, and cultures. There are so many benefits attached to this and the recent COVID-19 pandemic has brought back memories and has provided a timely reminder that such teamwork can be achieved. Our global progress lies fallow in the hands of many researchers; collaboration is the way to let it loose.