The Role of Research Conferences in Developing European Collaboration in Science and Technology
Dr Peter Collins
From the perspectives of European conference, organisers, participants and funders, to study:
Participants considered that all four objectives for attending conferences were important: seeking new collaborations, keeping up with contacts, learning about new areas and keeping up with developments in their own field. Overall, keeping up with developments was considered the most important and new collaborations the least important on average, but individual responses varied widely and this order was reversed for women.
The clearly stated priority of conference chairmen in organising conferences was scientific quality. Chairmen generally sought to invite top speakers and to bring together a group that would not normally meet to ensure good and novel scientific exchange. It was often felt that such an environment would naturally engender new collaborations. The perceived importance of bringing together different nationalities and age groups varied widely, but always took second place to scientific quality.
The aims of organisations that support conferences or individuals to attend them varied. All sought to enhance research through exchange of information or ideas. The main difference was their focus: some were concerned with benefiting the individual researcher, some aimed to benefit a particular research community and some sought to strengthen the European scientific community. Thus the latter group tried to balance scientific quality with concern about the national spread of participants.
The likelihood of forming a collaboration through a conference varied considerably between nationalities, the small number of Americans in the sample being most likely to form a new linkage as a result of an European Research Conference (64%) (ERC) and the French the least likely (31%). Amongst the ERC group the 35-50 year olds, probably the most active in research, were most likely to establish a collaboration, although this was not clear in the Royal Society (RS) travel grant group. Employment status, role in the conference and gender had no impact on the probability of a new research linkage forming.
Collaborations were somewhat more likely to form through smaller meetings. Participants felt strongly that small size had to be combined with plenty of time and opportunities for informal discussion if linkages were to occur, chairmen pointing out that this would only work on the back of positive and open scientific discussion. Another factor necessary to maximise the chances of collaborations was thought to be a mix of interests, backgrounds, nationalities and ages of participants.
Collaborations initiated via an ERC were most likely to be with another EU partner, whilst collaborations formed by the RS supported group were more likely to be with Americans. This is partly to do with the fact that 40% of the RS group attended conferences in the USA. The size of the conference was also relevant , with very large events tending to favour collaborations with Americans.
Of collaborations formed through conferences, 80% involved only one research group other than the respondent's, although a significant number of EU collaborations involved three or more groups. The number of individuals involved varied widely, particularly on the partner's side, but was balanced on average between the respondent's group and that of the partner(s), at just over two people from each side.
The majority of collaborations (over 85%) were either open ended or expected to continue beyond the initial project, regardless of the nationality of the partners.
Specialist knowledge and methodological expertise were what was most often sought in a collaboration, although the objectives of each partner did not always coincide. Common collaborative activities (more than 50% of cases) were visits, joint experiments/fieldwork (particularly the ERC group) and data exchanges (particularly the RS group). Joint papers were produced in less than half the collaborations, and sharing of staff or students was rare.
About 90% of collaborations were considered to be of benefit to the respondents and their partners. The nature of the benefit could differ between the sides. Collaboration was thought to allow research that otherwise could not happen in individual laboratories, or speed it up, and to enhance efficiency and cross-fertilisation in a field or in Europe.
Negative impact of collaboration was rare; it was pointed out that mutual benefit was necessary for a collaboration to get started in the first place. Some collaborations did fail to materialise or had problems getting started. Most difficulties related to winning funding, particularly for travel, lack of time and occasional personal and cultural differences.
Attending conferences and visiting other research groups were seen by researchers as the most important means of developing new collaborations. Meeting potential collaborators speeded up the development and increased the chance of a successful partnership, as it gave better opportunity to assess the scientific and personal priorities of potential partners. A single meeting was generally thought to be insufficient to lead to a collaboration: rather, it would be an important part of an evolution in which other mechanisms could play a part. Partnerships formed through different routes were not thought to differ fundamentally in nature, although they might be more open, interactive and fruitful if the partners had met. Conferences were also more likely to lead to international or interdisciplinary linkages.
Implications for policy and practice
A number of features of conferences were identified that enhanced the chances of new collaborative linkages:
Pam Waddell, The role of research conferences in developing European collaboration in science and technology. SEPSU Policy Study no. 9, March 1994, ISBN 0 85403 485 4. Available from the Royal Society.
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