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Interview

Eduardo da Motta e Albuquerque: Cross-border knowledge flows

The expansion of international scientific collaborations is forming an innovation ecosystem that knows no borders, says a Brazilian economist

Raíssa César Albuquerque believes Brazil’s science links with 171 nations in 2015 are an important asset in expanding the country’s global presenceRaíssa César

A group led by economist Eduardo da Motta e Albuquerque, a researcher at the Center for Development and Regional Planning at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (CEDEPLAR-UFMG), tracked recent growth in international scientific collaborations in a study published in January in Scientometrics. The researchers found that the number of globally published articles indexed in the Web of Science database rose from 1.2 million in 2000 to 2 million in 2015, while the share of papers coauthored by researchers in different countries more than doubled, rising from 10% of total papers in 2000 to 21% 15 years later.

But the group’s research interests go deeper than just measuring growth in collaborations. Albuquerque has extensively investigated the development of innovation networks and especially university-company links at the national level (see Pesquisa FAPESP, issue no. 234) and was now looking to broaden the scope of his research to a global scale. He wanted to assess the potential implications from the emergence of international networks of research groups in different countries working in collaboration with local or transnational companies. His survey measured growth in cross-border links between pairs of authors in papers published between 2000 and 2015—every paper with authors of several nationalities contains many such connections. What he saw was remarkable: these bilateral links had grown 13-fold, rising from 545,000 in 2000 to over 7 million in 2015. In the following interview, Albuquerque looks at the benefits and challenges created by these expanding interactions and discusses one of the conclusions from the article: that increasing collaboration is forming the rudiments of an international innovation ecosystem that operates in parallel to, and is creating tensions with, local research systems.

IBM has subsidiaries in 62 countries. It interacts with companies and universities globally. It has become a global knowledge-crunching machine

Why is it important to study the knowledge flows generated by international collaborations?
A while back we did research on interactions between universities and companies on a national scale, but this line of investigation failed to see the forest for the trees. Our research was oblivious to international knowledge flows involving, for example, multinational corporations and their subsidiaries or universities. We wanted to understand the nature of the hub-and-spoke networks that are forming between central and peripheral countries as cross-border knowledge flows continue to grow. In 2014 we published a paper that investigated the relationship between multinational corporations and universities in several countries. We looked at the patents these companies held in which they cited articles produced by universities in multiple countries, as a proxy indicator of transnational knowledge flows. Next we looked at how international collaborations generated local impact. A São Paulo company interacting with a research group at the University of São Paulo will benefit from the international links that this group has created, for example, with partners at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. Then came our 2018 paper. Our research shows that local innovation systems are being stressed by transnational knowledge flows of many types. We suggest that the scale of these research flows is such that we may be at the threshold of a new, global system of innovation.

What evidence is there that such a system is forming?
One of the coauthors of the article, economist Leandro Alves Silva, suggested in his PhD thesis in 2014 that national systems are interconnected and that those connections create tensions. Evidence of this is found in a case study he authored on IBM. More than just a US-based corporation, IBM is an international network. It has 1,800 subsidiaries in 62 countries. It has a world-wide footprint and an innovative business model to match. It is, as it were, a global knowledge-crunching machine. It interacts with companies, universities, and research institutes globally. In a structure such as IBM’s, the international element appears to be almost a core microeconomic component. Silva investigated the networks formed by the Global 500 and discovered a vast ecosystem of knowledge flows—not only codified knowledge, but also the kind of tacit knowledge that corporations impart to individuals working with them. IBM has become a learning machine that exerts an influence on local innovation systems. Our group is currently working on a paper about the Global 500 and their research output. Other evidence is found in the data from our survey of scientific publishing. We found that in 2015 some 418,000 research papers were produced through international collaborations—as many as the entirety of articles published in 1993.

Your paper shows that, although international collaborations are multiplying, they are constrained by a hierarchy. What is this hierarchy?
Few universities—in general only the most prestigious ones—have links to a large number of other institutions. Researchers at the University of Oxford, in the UK, had more than 50,000 links with colleagues in other countries in 2015. Researchers at Harvard had 47,000. At the other end of the spectrum are vast numbers of institutions with very few links. Hub universities with extensive, global links tend to monopolize the agendas of research networks. See, for example, the Chinese Academy of Sciences. While it produced the largest number of papers in 2015, it ranks only 13th in number of connections. It is a robust, stable, and well organized system, but one that is very difficult to change.

What are the implications of this?
That research networks are growing and becoming increasingly global is positive for all players. For developed countries, it is an opportunity to engage in research that would not be possible without researchers based in multiple locations. For developing countries, it provides an opportunity to engage in global networks and to boost knowledge transfers. Because research networks are highly hierarchical, there is a risk that institutions with few research links will be subordinate to the interests of hub countries. But this is more of a challenge than a problem. Being part of the network provides a greater opportunity to influence the agenda than if we were not.

What kinds of problems are these knowledge networks addressing?
There are fields of research that are naturally globalized, such as astronomy. An observatory in one country will typically involve scientists from many countries. There are also complex fields that require international collaborations, as is the case with particle physics and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), in Switzerland. Science is naturally an international enterprise. Perhaps what has changed is the speed at which knowledge flows. One benefit is that there are problems that can only be solved by international teams. Doing climate research is difficult from one country alone. The same is true for research on neglected diseases. For developed countries, networks provide a means to address vaster questions than those contained within their borders. For intermediate countries like Brazil the impact can be even more valuable as they can create productive links and absorb knowledge from abroad. Our research stopped short of evaluating the quality of internationally coauthored papers, but this will be measured in a subsequent study based on citation metrics. An interesting case study would be to review research done on the Zika virus and how being connected helped researchers quickly characterize the disease. Opportunities for interaction between universities and companies are also increasing. Imagine a physicist at UFMG who is coauthoring a paper on nanotechnology with someone at MIT. If a company then interacts with that researcher, it will thereby become part of an international network.

Some industries in Brazil invest heavily in research and development (R&D) while others, such as the pharmaceutical industry, produce very little. Doesn’t this heterogeneity disrupt knowledge flows?
R&D investment by multinational pharmaceutical companies is largely concentrated in hub countries, but I believe life sciences R&D in Brazil will grow as the domestic pharma industry continues to develop. And networks can be beneficial in this respect. In one test we did in our research on university-company interactions, we selected a biochemist at UFMG to interview. He said he was interacting with a multinational company, Merck. I asked: “Merck Brazil?” He replied: “No, Merck in the US.” He had been to a conference to present a paper and was later contacted by delegates from the company who had attended. It was a direct cooperation: a researcher in Brazil connected to a company in another country. An international framework is forming that is multiplying opportunities for interaction.

How is Brazil placed in these knowledge flows?
In our research we discovered two things. The first was that in 2015 Brazil was among the group of nations with around 20% of scientific output done through international collaboration, which is reasonable. In 2000 this percentage was just 14.7%. These metrics measure the number of internationally coauthored papers in which the lead author is Brazilian. Another finding is that our research connects us to 171 countries. We rank 15th in number of links. We are not at the same level of internationalization as countries like Sweden or the Netherlands, but being connected to 171 countries is a very important asset. Growth in Brazil’s research output, while consistent, has only been enough to prevent the gap from the international frontier from widening. We have to think about ways to become more actively engaged in the international arena, and science and technology can lead the way. We would need to build a system of innovation designed for this phase of growing internationalization, and which can also help to strengthen the international system.

Scientific article
RIBEIRO, L. C. et al. Growth patterns of the network of international collaboration in science. Scientometrics. Vol. 114, pp. 159–79. Jan. 2018.