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The Rise and Rise of Scientific Research Collaboration

Fostering the link of self-interest to shared interest while capitalizing on research collaboration can catalyze innovation and, ultimately, help science and technology grow.

By Piyushi Nautiyal, India-UK ISCC

With science becoming increasingly more complex over time and researchers still striving to answer this complexity, it has become imperative to build a collaborative ecosystem. The answers to many of these mysteries, in many cases, are beyond the individual research capabilities of even the largest of organizations. Hence, linking self-interest to shared interest can catalyze innovation and growth by encouraging creativity, pooling resources, and leverage on experience/expertise. When collaboration is well-orchestrated, it admittedly accelerates development and creates a quick win.

Of late, the collaborative scientific research has become ever more strikingly international- "melting pot" ideas transcending borders now. A recent phenomenal example of cross-industry international collaboration is the rapid development and roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccines. This clearly showed how the global scientific community together with WHOs, governments, and policy regulators were able to work hand in hand to provide solutions with no corners cut in the rush. Francis Collins, American physician-geneticist and the 16th director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), the largest public funder of biomedical research in the world, is in his all admiration for this. In his words, "I have never seen anything like this. It has been all hands-on deck." COVAX, the only global initiative, co-led by CEPI, Gavi, and WHO, alongside key delivery partner UNICEF, is working with governments and manufacturers to ensure COVID-19 vaccines were available worldwide to both higher-income and lower-income countries.

Along the same lines, one such initiative has been undertaken by a group of scientists from two nations –India and the United Kingdom – from different disciplines, to identify mutual areas of interest and harness scientific and technological innovations to create a smart sustainable future. A multi-disciplinary virtual platform – The Innovation and Sustainability Chemistry Consortium (ISCC) – was formally launched on February 26th 2021, with a strategic vision of fixing global issues with sustainable chemistry solutions. This initiative is supported and funded by the UK's Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). 13 Scientists from 12 different universities spread across the various parts of India and the UK and covering different individual expertise are leading the consortium. In a press release after the launch, Professor Tom Welton, President of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: "Chemistry is at the heart of solutions to the world's biggest sustainability challenges. We're proud to help the chemical science community make the world a better place, by bringing world-class institutions from India and the UK together to collaborate on those solutions." One of the founding members and India coordinator of the consortium, Dr. Anant Kapdi, added: "The aim of the consortium is to establish research collaborations to tackle fundamental questions with potential commercial applications; promote academia-industry partnerships to solve key problems associated with current chemical process developments, optimizations and environmental remediations, as well as the proliferation of future technologies and conduct outreach programs using virtual reality to spread scientific awareness, encourage mentorship and training of early-career scientists and wider audiences." It would be remarkable to witness how the different minds from two different countries and backgrounds would click together and bring ground-breaking solutions to the global sustainability challenges.

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As investments into R&D surge across academia and industry, commercial product innovation is becoming a key differentiator for their survival and sustainability. Partnerships between the two undisputed pillars of the economy, industry and academia, will be highly instrumental for advancing research. Innumerable breakthrough discoveries are the results of this association. One such recent example is the development of Yervoy for melanoma treatment by James P. Allison, a cancer immunotherapy pioneer and the 2018 Nobel prize winner in medicine, who discovered the precursor of the drug, and Medarex, a biotech company in partnership with Bristol-Myers Squibb. As industry recognizes the importance of longer-term innovation in business, apart from the near-term commercial goals of an organization, a large amount of funding is being directed towards joint R&D with leading universities. While it provides work-ready talent to the industry with specialized knowledge skills and practical training, it opens up funding avenues for academia which can use it to set up top-notch research facilities for the students. Scientists in industry have expressed the fact that while they are involved in groundbreaking discoveries, they wish for closer alliances with academic researchers to get a better scientific understanding that corroborates the discovery.

The contemporary societal and scientific challenges seldom regard disciplinary boundaries. It is predicted that the future of research will be entirely interdisciplinary ruled. Adopting collaborations sets a defensible research boundary and gives a new lens to the researchers to evaluate the problems and bring the appropriate solutions. To cite an example of the current advances in string theory, where math meets physics, the crossing of traditional boundaries where mathematical tools are used to relate physical theories, gives new insights to mathematicians and physicists. In addition, interdisciplinary research also provides a means to increase the reach and visibility and ultimately improve the chances of attracting funding. For example, as we all witness an inevitable shift towards electric vehicles globally, battery technology is the hotly discussed subject these days as it forms the crux of this transformation. Whether it is the more popular lithium-ion batteries for EVs or hydrogen fuel cells, it requires the collaboration between chemical, electrical, mechanical, computer science as well as basic science scientific communities to not only bring in their expertise but also the creative thinking that leads to a more efficient solution.

While for some, research collaboration is a "choice", for others it is a "way of life", says Michael Roney, a Physics Professor at the University of Victoria, Canada. "We need to collaborate to afford the science" he adds. Sometimes, independent research becomes stranded due to the huge expenses associated and cannot be afforded alone. Some projects like in the field of astronomy demand large-scale capital-intensive research infrastructures and here the international collaboration comes to their rescue. Scientific research is not an individual sport and scientific collaborations have been identified to play a pivotal role in transformative innovations- an effective means to exchange ideas, staying abreast with the developments across the respective disciplines, learning new skills, developing a global perspective, and attract funding avenues.

15th July 2021
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