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Views and opinions on International collaboration

 

  • Mr Alessandro Damiani (Head of Unit, European Commission DG RTD), Mr Stephen Godwin (Director, Studies and Special Programs of the TRB) and Dr George Kotsikos (Newrail, Newcastle University, HERMES project coordinator) share their views on the importance of International collaboration in Transport research and the way forward.

 

International collaboration in transportation research - The HERMES Project

In an increasingly interconnected world resulting from massively increased trade and cultural exchange, the way we produce, share and use knowledge must change. Major global challenges such as climate change, energy supply, security of the citizen, etc., highlight the need for effective global scientific and technological cooperation.  

Nowhere is this more important than in the area of Transportation R&D, as the challenges faced by transportation systems, such as congestion, safety, security, energy efficiency and environmental-friendly designs, are global concerns. Furthermore, the Transport Industry is one of the major drivers for economic growth, the impact of which into society cannot be overstated. An efficient and effective transportation system supports the economy, allowing global flow and exchange of goods, as well as transportation of citizens, but clearly its influence is much deeper. Most activities in scientific disciplines such as chemistry, physics, computing, economics, psychology, logistics, as well as engineering, such as mechanical, civil, electrical, electronic, are directly or indirectly associated with applications in transport.

In recognition to the above, the HERMES project was launched in 2011, supported by the European Commission's FP7 programme, in response to the EC's call for "providing the means of enacting productive international transport research cooperation in the future", and "encouraging participation and dissemination of research results".

The project aims to create the conditions for closer international collaboration in transportation research by: 

  • facilitating access to information on past and current transportation research, carried out internationally through the creation of a "transport research database access portal"
  • engaging researchers internationally to address the issues that inhibit a closer collaboration in transportation research and provide decision makers with a list of enabling policies for enhancing  international  collaboration in transportation research

 

One of the most important elements for encouraging international collaboration in research is access to international knowledge, in other words, it is important to know what other regions of the world are doing, learning from those results and either taking this work further or establishing a dialogue between researchers to find solutions to common problems. 

As the project Coordinator, Dr George Kotsikos, explains: "As a researcher, I have often found that accessing transport research information from other regions of the world is a time consuming and laborious task. Finding who does what and where, learning from their experiences and establishing a dialogue with other researchers in other parts of the world can be very difficult. This is why we have undertaken as part of the HERMES project, the creation of a 'Transport Research Database Access Portal', aiming to be a single entry point where researchers can access titles of research projects and publications from around the world".

The importance of information access has long been recognised across the Atlantic, with the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies (TRB) in the US leading the field. 

Mr Stephen Godwin, (Director, Studies and Special Programs of the TRB) says: "The  TRB has been fairly extensively involved in disseminating and sharing information about research world-wide for many years through participation on committees of internationally-oriented transportation organizations; memoranda of understanding with other research organizations; dissemination of international transportation bibliographic records world-wide; sponsoring and co-sponsoring international workshops and conferences on transportation research topics; hosting loaned personnel from other national research organizations to participate in TRB research; broadening its 200 standing technical committees to include as members experts from other nations, and expanding TRB's Annual Meeting to encourage more participation by international transportation professionals and researchers".

The EU has for a long time been aware of the importance of maintaining a database for transport research. For this reason the European Commission established the Transport Research Knowledge Centre (TRKC) database which has now been reviewed and undergoing substantial improvements and is now known as the "Transport Research Innovation Portal" (TRIP) database. The TRIP database provides details of all transport related projects funded by the European Commission as well as other information on national transport research projects.

More recently, Japan recognised the importance of the availability of a centralised source for past and present transportation research project activities carried out nationally, and has established the "J-Stage" research database, available in the English language for broader reach.

The second aspect of the HERMES project is to encourage a closer and sustained international collaboration in transport research, as this is recognised to be the best means for creating fertile conditions for research innovations, understanding, and finding common solutions to common problems. 

Informal collaborations between researchers do take place through student exchanges, or visiting professorships but these are based on personal contacts and are not sustained. It remains that achieving a successful sustained collaboration across national borders is a task that has to cross linguistic, cultural and political divides in order to yield productive outcomes. 

It is not an impossible task though; international collaboration in research within the EU is now the norm. In fact, one of the successes of the European Union has been the establishment of the "collaborative research programs". Over a relatively short period, Europe has become recognised as the leading region for research and innovation excellence in the world.  One of the reasons for this success is also due to the dialogue that has been established between researchers within Europe.

Dr Kotsikos says: "One fact of human behaviour often overlooked by scientists and engineers is that our thought process and our approach to problem solving are strongly influenced by the environment and culture we grow up in. Working on a task with other cultures allows individuals to approach problem solving in ways they would not normally consider. The dialogues that are developed during this process can often lead to true innovations".

However, at the start of the European collaborative programmes there was scepticism and concerns in individual states over the loss or dilution of the status of their research centres. The same concern has also been posed today by some researchers when the issue of international collaboration is mentioned, namely the dilution of the EU's position as a centre of excellence in research. 

Mr Alessandro Damiani (Head of Unit, European Commission DG RTD) says: "The assumption that 'engagement of the EU in international collaborative research activities may dilute the EU's claim for "scientific and technological excellence" in transport research' is not well founded.  It's a statement that seems to be rooted in the belief that excellence is the exclusive prerogative of Europe: a vision of the S&T world that may have been valid a century ago but certainly is not today.  On the contrary, in the growingly globalised multi-polar transport R&D stage, there is a lot of knowledge, excellence, competences and capabilities outside of Europe that can complement the European ones and can be tapped into with great benefit for Europe and its transport researchers and stakeholders, industry and academia.  That is why we welcome international participation in the Transport theme in particular and in the whole Framework Programme, which is broadly open and accessible to non-European partners, on a spontaneous bottom-up basis.  It goes without saying that when a non-European partner joins-in with European ones in a project consortium, that happens only if and when the European partners find that presence useful for the successful conduct and outcome of their project: hence there is always an added value to be gained for the European participants from this 'openness'".   

Mr Damiani continues: "In addition to the general openness evoked above, we see international cooperation as a potential added value to be encouraged selectively in carefully targeted cases (in some areas, with some parts of the world), through ad-hoc measures, for the common benefit of Europe and of the partner countries involved.  There can be various drivers for targeting international cooperation in Transport R&D, including access to knowledge, complementarity of know-how, need to address common problems/global challenges, interoperability of technologies and systems, international standardization issues, access to markets. Of course in the European Commission we keep them in mind when we define objectives and topics in our Transport work programmes, and more particularly when we identify the few priorities for targeted international cooperation; and we make sure that we have the support of the European stakeholders and the Member States on the choice of those priorities".

The European Union has sought to establish collaborative actions in Science & Technology with various other regions of the world. For example, research collaboration between the European Union and Australia was formalised in 1994 with the Science & Technology Agreement, the first ever such agreement that the EU had concluded with a third country. The Agreement allows for European and Australian researchers to take part in each other's programs primarily on a self funding basis.  In 1997, the Agreement was further expanded to include all areas of research but little, if anything, has been done on transportation research. Similar actions have also taken place between the European Union and Japan, such as the EU-Japan Cooperation Forum on ICT Research, 2008 and the EU-Japan "J-BILAT" agreement in 2010.  

Furthermore, the European Commission's collaborative programmes do encourage the participation of non-EU countries.

Mr Damiani explains:  "Identified 'targeted' topics only in rare cases contemplate the mandatory participation of partners from one or more identified countries: it's the case of the so-called 'coordinated calls' (only four of them in FP7/Transport, all of them in aviation, with Russia, China and Japan); in other 'targeted' cases the cooperation with non-European partners is evoked or recommended but typically remains optional: this is what we do through the so-called 'synchronised' or calls (there was one such topic, for example, in the last call of FP7, agreed with the U.S. DoT, on road infrastructure).  Both these implementation modalities reflect some form of agreement with the relevant authorities in the partner countries concerned; both are co-funded (each side paying for its own participants); both normally generate distinct but closely complementary projects engaged in addressing a common issue.  And most importantly, in each case the partners enjoy the broadest possible latitude in deciding the forms of cooperation, the distribution of tasks and the internal arrangements for any sharing of results".

Mr Damiani concludes: "Whether it is the product of a targeted call or of the effect of the openness of the Framework Programme, international cooperation has to live up to the high quality standards of the programme.  S&T excellence in fact is always the paramount selection criterion, and each proposal is evaluated on the basis of its quality and pertinence, both as a whole and in all its components".

Japan has also initiated actions to encourage international collaboration with the establishment of centres for the promotion of Science around the world, such as, the Japan Science & Technology Agency (JST) with offices in Paris, Washington, Singapore, Beijing and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) with offices in many EU and non EU countries. 

Japan has over the years been the source of many innovative products and processes. In fact one could argue that they are self-sufficient in R&D, well affording the "go it alone" approach instead of engaging in collaborative research actions. It is therefore rather interesting that Japan has put an emphasis in the importance of international collaboration. 

Dr Toshiyasu ICHIOKA of the EU-Japan Centre for Industrial Cooperation explains:  "Just like Europe uses international cooperation as a strategic tool to stay competitive and realize sustainable development, Japan also needs it. Japanese RTD and Innovation has been largely supported by ample expenditure at large companies (close to 80% of total R&D expenditure), but the economical situation, which has been sluggish over the past 20 years requires certain structural change in the way we promote Innovation and tackle societal challenges of global nature. International collaborative RTD should be an integral part of our STI strategy. Especially, we think there is a lot to be learnt from European experiences with Framework Programmes and planning for the more ambitious Horizon2020". 

With regards to the US position, close and sustained collaborations in research between the US, EU and other parts of the world have indeed been rare, but there are important exceptions. 

Mr Godwin explains: "The US Department of Transportation is involved in the Joint Transport Research Center (JTRC), a combined effort of the Organization for Economic and Community Development (OECD) and the International Transport Forum (ITF).  This collaboration has been in place for many years, although the institutional arrangements on the European side have changed over time.  It is essentially a pooled fund research organization, where member countries contribute staff time and resources and a committee made up of member countries determines which projects are funded and how the work is done, via roundtable or working group. Currently, an Associate Administrator of the USDOT's Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) is the co-vice chair of that committee.  The projects that result from these collaborations tend to produce research reports on areas of policy and practice that are of interest to the many different nations involved. TRB's long-standing collaboration with the OECD/JTRF's International Transportation Research Documentation (ITRD) service regarding the pooling and distribution of bibliographic records is another element of this ongoing, sustained relationship between USDOT and OECD". 

"Other examples include TRB's two Strategic Highway Research Programs (SHRP) that US states and USDOT have funded.  Both SHRP programs have included international loaned staff, and both have spawned parallel activities in other nations, such as long-term pavement performance experiments and naturalistic driving experiments that are modeled on the SHRP research".

"More recently, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has instituted a research collaboration with the Forum of European National Highway Research Laboratories (FEHRL) that includes a joint call for research proposals.  In addition, the EU, RITA, and TRB, are collaborating on a series of international symposia as a first step in building longer-term and more substantive collaborations.  There are also other examples of collaboration in areas of intelligent transportation systems (ITS) and aviation research".

The benefits of international collaboration in transportation research are well understood by all stakeholders and there is support by institutions to create a framework for closer and more sustained international research collaboration. However, a number of problems do exist. 

A joint report by the TRB and the European Conference of Transportation Research Institutes (ECTRI) (TRB-ECTRI 2009) lists several important barriers to research collaboration,  including:

  • High Information Costs.  Very often the formation of collaborative activities is stymied by a lack of information on collaborative opportunities and converging interests.  Searching for potential collaborations at the international level may require time and effort that are simply not available to researchers or organizations, especially when domestic partners and collaborators are readily available.
  • Transaction Hurdles.  What may appear as simple to establish from afar may turn out to be very complicated from the standpoint of gaining the necessary approvals from the respective partners' governments to enter into a collaborative relationship.
  • Differences in Intellectual Property Rules.  The sharing of intellectual property, publication rights, and credits can be a serious sticking point in partnerships.  For instance, the United States operates under a first-to-file system, whereas European countries operate under a first-to-invent system.
  • Cultural Differences.  As with any interactions that involve crossing cultural boundaries, partners should also recognize the cultural differences in communication protocols and patterns.
  • Capacity to "Go It Alone". Governments, especially the U.S. government, with a large scientific research community, need powerful reasons to collaborate outside of their borders, since international collaboration is usually a more complex undertaking than national partnerships.
  • Institutional Inertia. Each collaborative activity that a government or organization enters into involves what economists call "opportunity costs."  Because resources are always finite, when governments enter into one or more partnerships, the amount of time and capital that can be used in other collaborations is limited.
  • Differences in Institutional Cultures.  Partnerships between institutions that possess different organizational cultures, missions and goals may be a challenge.  

 

The HERMES project is therefore organising an International Workshop that aims to bring together researchers from around the world to discuss all issues raised above and explore ways of facilitating the creation of a framework for sustained international collaboration in transportation research. 

The workshop will take place on 25th & 26th of April 2013, in Paris. Attendance to the Workshop is free.

For further information: www.hermes-project.net   

Date posted: March 11, 2013, 12:57 pm

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