Effective Collaboration, Even in Hard Times
Large centralized economic areas – the U.S., Russia/Siberia (and certainly the former USSR) and now China – can usually arrange for the essential critical mass to happen in the context of R&D projects, especially those involving a range of skills and knowledge and/or data generation and processing on a large scale. Whatever the political and social reasons for European integration, the EU was certainly in origin an “economic” community, and the gradual development of funding structures for collaborative actions had the effect of making it easier to achieve a critical mass in science and technology projects through cross-border collaboration.
Most people will be familiar with the “Framework” series, the “Leonardo” program and so on. At a period of discontent and financial crisis in (at least parts of) the EU, one wonders if the medium-term future for funding R&D and education and training projects will continue in its existing form. The whole grant system is very complex and expensive to operate. While the euro-for-euro value of the expenditure may be debatable, what the EU programs have shown is that the problems associated with multi-body and multinational collaboration – commercial confidentiality, intellectual-property ownership, productive communication among real or apparent competitors – can actually be overcome.
Many universities and associations have benefited from funds supplied for collaborative effort. Successful applications for funding have of course been based on the following collaboration rationale: To achieve critical mass, one organization does not have all the expertise or facilities; collaboration spreads the workload; and one organization cannot raise all the money.
IFHTSE has provided the administrative and coordinating base for a couple of collaborative education and training products, partially funded by programs of the EU, and we know it can work. So, whether or not the postulated “European Research Area” ever becomes a reality, it will be a pity to lose the enabling system for the critical mass.
Nonetheless, there is a downside to the EU system. The areas of availability, the themes and the subjects of priority and emphasis are all dictated (all top down). Therefore, the situation is very often that a “good idea” has had to be modified to retrofit a funding program. Further, it is not always clear in a top-down system that politically inspired “priorities” really match perceived or expressed demand.
I recently heard of a proposal for the collaborative development of an online course “Corrosion Engineering” designed to be offered in four countries on four continents. A corrosion engineering course has been offered every third semester in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Texas A&M University (TAMU). Not only has it been popular among senior and graduate students, it has been unable to meet demand because of space constraints in the classroom environment. A new plan sees a significant expansion of the course in two ways: to increase capacity at TAMU (campuses at College Station and in Qatar) and to spread it globally to Africa, Asia, South America and North America with a potential for several hundred students. This second expansion is based on online format for delivery, and it involves partner universities in Brazil (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte), China (University of Science and Technology Beijing) and Mauritius (University of Mauritius in Reduit). This mix delivers specific local knowledge of the challenges posed by wet atmospheres and by industrial pollution and poor air quality.
Naturally, we wish this project well. It looks like a good example of response to perceived need, it has a clear and defined focus, it looks achievable, and it should be simple enough to assess success or failure. The selection of collaborators seems straightforward. It could well serve as a model for other projects.
Collaborating in a competitive environment is less easy to do. In education and training, especially in an online context, and using an approach such as that being taken by Texas A&M and its partners, the competitive element is more or less removed. Not so easy in industrial R&D, but even there, bottom-up demand can be satisfied by a collaborative approach that exploits the sharing of expertise. Obviously, this is more likely to be achieved in a vertical collaboration along the science-technology-production chain than horizontally across production units, but some EU projects have demonstrated the workability of endeavors involving direct competitors in industry.
In the present, quite widespread, straightened economic circumstances it makes even more sense to spend time and effort on development and on looking for collaborators. IFHTSE, as a materials engineering/mechanical engineering network, continues to offer a good facility for exploration of the possibilities. The Liquid Quenchants Database Project is a current example. IH