Global research, local benefit

A recent edition of Times Higher Education has a thought-provoking piece by Thomas Docherty on globalisation and the response by universities. He argues that, rather than embracing globalisation in their activities, universities should be institutions that lead the critique of the ideas behind globalisation. I am not sure that I agree with everything in the piece, but it is well worth reading.

One interesting point that Docherty makes is to point out an inconsistency in the discourse about globalisation:

…the contemporary formulation of globalisation […] is disturbingly marked by a fundamental self-contradiction. On one hand, it praises the idea of the post-national world in which we live; at the same time, globalisation is important if the UK is to “compete” against other nations worldwide.

If the world is so interconnected, surely the very notion of competition between nation states is undermined. The prosperity of one is linked to the prosperity of all.

I see a similar inconsistency in some of the ways we talk about the benefits that investment in research brings. Arguments in favour of that investment are largely based around suggested benefits to our own economy while at the same time it is acknowledged that research and the knowledge it produces is both international and freely available to other nations. The recent interest in the exploitation of graphene research illustrates acutely the dilemma. The UK has made a strategic decision to invest in research but there is a suggestion that exploitation, and the associated economic benefit may be going on elsewhere.

This dilemma arises because of a narrow view of the benefits of research investment, especially during a time of austerity. Why should a nation investment money in research if the benefits are going to be realised elsewhere? This puts pressure on us all to over–stress the potential local benefit and downplay the inevitable uncertainties associated with deriving that benefit.

There is a way through this though. First it is important to remember that as well as ‘loosing’ the benefits from research that is carried out here, we also can exploit the research that other nations carry out. The knowledge produced from research is (and should be) a global commons that we are all free to exploit. Secondly, we need to recognise that to be able to exploit any of the knowledge in that global commons we need skilled and knowledgeable people. Funding research supports people to develop knowledge and skills, an outcome that is at least as important as the knowledge generated itself. Those skilled people and the capacity to exploit research knowledge are, provided attention is paid to the conditions and culture within which they operate, much more locally rooted.

Finally, it is also important to recognise that economic benefits are not the only, or perhaps even the most important reasons for investing in research. We need that investment to tackle problems and challenges, some of which currently face us, some of which we have yet to identify. These challenges need all the effort that we can muster globally, and will only be addressed when we work together and relentlessly share what we know..