Global collaborations introduce great possibilities

Scientific and technological collaborations across countries and cultures can offer more than exciting breakthroughs — as significant as those may be — by making inclusion a priority. When women’s contributions are acknowledged, and developing countries have access to adequate resources, such collaborations also offer hope to create the greatest global good.

By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor November 13, 2014

IBM research engineer Tanuja Ganu jumped at the chance to work with partners throughout the world to create a more reliable electricity system in her native India. After all, the 32-year-old grew up studying for exams by candlelight and enduring hot, humid summers with no cooling fans.

“The voltage was often so low that the lights would dim and the refrigerator would burn out a few times a month, specifically during evening peak-demand times,” she said in an interview by email, describing the situation in her native village of Miraj, 400 kilometers south of Mumbai. “To deal with this as children, we learned to time-shift critical things we needed electricity for — like cooking and cleaning.”

Ganu, who earned her undergraduate degree in engineering and computer science from Walchand College of Engineering in Sangli, India, works for IBM’s Smarter Energy Group in Bangalore. She collaborated with researchers at the University of Brunei Darussalam and at the UBD-IBM Centre — the latter a technology hub aimed at creating a “sustainable Earth” — and has won acclaim for creating simple devices that begin to solve the challenges of scarce electricity. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recognized Ganu as a “2014 Innovator Under 35” for building the solutions.

Those solutions include devices such as the SocketWatch, the nPlug, and the iPlug. Here’s what they do:

  • The SocketWatch is a smart plug that fits between a wall socket and an appliance, such as a refrigerator, and “learns” the appliance’s power-consumption patterns. Using machine-learning algorithms, the SocketWatch picks up on malfunctions or other ways that the appliance is gulping electricity.
  • Sensors inside the nPlug detect voltage and frequency of incoming electricity and figure out peak power demand. With that information, the box can schedule when to run dishwashers, water heaters, and other appliances at the most efficient times.
  • The iPlug autonomously decides how to route electricity from solar panels back to the grid on the most loaded phase during peak times, or to store or use the energy locally, based on the home’s usage needs.

These energy solutions are crucial not just to homeowners wondering when to wash dishes, but to people performing critical functions, such as hospital workers in developing countries, said Ganu, who completed her graduate studies in data mining and machine learning at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. “The situation is more alarming, with increased numbers of hours of power cut, as we go to rural and remote areas,” she said.

Ganu credits her father and elder brother, both engineers, and her mother, who taught her math and science, with being important influences in her decision to become an engineer.

“From my father, being a brilliant engineer and very fond of fixing and repairing things, I learned a lot of practical aspects of problem solving and handling various appliances while assisting him,” she said. “This got me interested in pursuing engineering, and particularly influenced my thinking for inventing and applying knowledge to solve real-world problems.”

She foresees the energy-saving devices becoming excellent candidates for commercial applications, and, eventually, integrated into appliances.

Throughout her research, Ganu collaborated with IBM colleagues in Africa and Australia, as well as a host of academic partners throughout the world, including Monash University and the University of Melbourne in Australia; RWTH Aachen University (RWTH) in Germany; Athens University of Economics and Business, Research Center, in Greece; Lulea Tekniska Universitet (CDT) in Sweden; and Ecole Polytechnique Federale De Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland.

Ganu embodies just one example of a growing, fast-changing global research landscape that gives experts hope for breakthrough innovations, but only if care is taken to be inclusive, especially in acknowledging women’s contributions and ensuring those in developing countries have access to adequate resources.

Changing dynamics

“We’ve moved beyond the concept of ‘nation-against-nation’ that drove much of 20th century research and Cold War science, and toward much more of a collaborative system,” says Caroline S. Wagner, Ph.D., author of The New Invisible College: Science for Development (Brookings Institution Press) and a forthcoming book on international collaboration in science with the working title, Global Science, Open Innovation (Stanford University Press).

“The real question is how to bring along the poor and those formerly excluded,” said Dr. Wagner, who holds the Wolf Chair in International Affairs at The Ohio State University, serves as director of the Battelle Center for Science and Technology Policy, and is the North American editor of the Science and Public Policy journal at Oxford University.

“We need to make global research more equitable and fair so we have ways to bring the talents of women and those from developing countries into the system,” she said.

Another concern is that women become a more active force on the international scene, because more women than men who publish in peer-reviewed journals confine their research to the United States, surveys show.

Dr. Wagner’s research revealed that the topics, partnerships, and dynamics of global research have changed as the numbers of collaborative projects skyrocket. The number of research articles with at least two authors from different countries more than tripled in the 21- year period from 1990 to 2011 — from 52,000 in 1990 to 195,000 in 2011.

The numbers of authors jumped, too, from 1.9 million in 1990 to 4.7 million in 2011. “Scientists and engineers have created a global network that operates beyond the power of any one nation to influence,” Dr. Wagner said. “The researchers find one another — they are self-organizing. The global network is increasingly dominating the agenda at nations’ levels.”

A major shift occurred in 2012 when China surpassed the United Kingdom as the top partner of the United States in cooperative research journal articles. “For the past 25 to 30 years, the U.S.’s top partner in international cooperation had been the U.K.,” Dr. Wagner said. The change wasn’t the result of a formal U.S. policy. “It emerged from lots of individual actions,” she said. “The Chinese government has put a great deal of emphasis on international cooperation in science.”

Chinese researchers are taking the lead on one-third more first authorships than their peers in the United States, according to survey findings by Dr. Wagner and fellow researcher Loet Leydesdorff, Ph.D., a Dutch sociologist, cyberneticist, and professor in the dynamics of scientific communication and technological innovation at the University of Amsterdam.

The lead is the first author named in the byline of a published article. In the year 2000, about 3,600 articles were published with U.S. and China authors. They were split 50-50: Half were U.S. first authorship and half were first authorship by Chinese researchers. By 2012, along with a huge increase in the number of articles, 11,000 articles were first authored by Chinese nationals and 7,000 by U.S. researchers — what Dr. Wagner calls a significant change.

The research forecasts that Chinese researchers, who in the 1990s had a 2% to 4% share of published scientific and technological articles, will represent 18% of such authorship by 2015; U.S. researchers, who had a 35% share in 2000, will drop to 28% by 2015, and researchers from the European Union, who had 38% representation in 2000, will see their share edge down to 36%. “The pie is growing, however,” Dr. Wagner said.

Among the journals Drs. Wagner and Leydesdorff studied were Computers & Chemical Engineering; Power Engineering Journal; Chemical Engineering News, Journal of Software Engineering; and many others.

Dr. Wagner said much of the shift has emerged from students coming to the United States to study. “They retain their relationships with their U.S. partners — so they continue to collaborate and co-publish after they leave the United States,” she said. There’s also a shift in content with China, from industrialbased topics such as chemistry and materials science to cutting-edge topics such as nanomaterials and synthetic biotechnology.

Rise in international students increases connections

Students are proving to be a powerful link in the global networking chain. A Brookings Institution report published Aug. 29 said a record 21% of the world’s students who went abroad for their education came to the United States in 2013. The report, “The Geography of Foreign Students in U.S. Higher Education: Origins and Destinations,” indicated that the number of international students studying in the U.S. totaled 819,644 in the 2012-13 academic year.
Over a five-year period from 2008 to 2012, foreign-born students attending U.S. colleges and universities contributed $21.8 billion in tuition and $12.8 billion in living costs to 118 metro areas, the report revealed. The metro areas in the survey were home to at least 1,500 foreign students.

“These students provide connections to some of the biggest and hottest markets abroad, such as China, India, and South Korea, and they provide valuable networks back to their home communities,” said study author Neil G. Ruiz, Ph.D., an associate fellow of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, based in Washington, D.C. The networking can open up new sources of trade, knowledge transfer, and foreign direct investment for U.S. metro areas, Dr. Ruiz said. The foreign students also provided a valuable source of workers, especially in areas with information technology work force shortages.

Pros and cons of global reach

Dr. Wagner acknowledged that some researchers see global cooperation’s rise as a threat. “If you look at it as competition, some people see it as a threat,” she said. “Others say there’s more knowledge and information from which we can draw. That’s a benefit. I think it’s a net benefit,” she said, noting that China is nowhere near bypassing the United States in terms of quality measures.
“The Chinese establishment is known to offer incentives to scientists who publish in international journals,” she said. “They have seminars at universities on how to get published in international journals. It’s a prestige thing, for one. You’re considered to be doing worldclass science and engineering.”

Secondly, some Chinese research articles are believed to be plagiarized, Dr. Wagner said. “The pressure to put out these articles and get into these journals is so strong, and most researchers are not (native) English speaking,” she said. “An editor at an engineering journal recently said that as much as one-third of the material coming from China appears to be plagiarized. The Chinese Academy of Sciences has identified originality as a real problem for China.”

On the positive side, Dr. Wagner sees the growth of self-organized research networks as “an untold story of incredible success” for the United States. By seeding science around the world, U.S. grant funding has “done tremendous service” in enabling capacity building and problem-solving capabilities. Here’s how:

  • U.S. research funding is largely limited to U.S.-based researchers. But many of these people come from foreign countries. In her research at the Rand Corporation, Dr. Wagner identified that as many as one-third of those working internationally are cooperating with their country of origin. This provides the United States with access to key knowledge.
  • The United States has encouraged international research of enormous magnitude and import, such as the Global Seismographic Network, the International Space Station, and the Human Genome Project.
  • The United States has created the capacity for other countries’ researchers to deal with crises “on the ground,” such as earthquakes in Mexico and the Ebola virus in Africa. The United States has done so by working with institutions such as the Smithsonian, the United Nations, the World Bank, and by funding a limited amount of science at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

“Together with our philanthropic institutions, we have enabled U.S. researchers to share knowledge face-to-face with colleagues around the globe. In recent years, these cooperative efforts have been furthered by the Internet and a drop in transportation costs,” Dr. Wagner said.

“We’re increasingly living in a knowledge-based economy,” she said. “The United States has helped build scientific capacity in poorer countries. We have taught them how to do engineering and science for themselves. That creates greater political stability and a basis for the other countries to build better economies, and eventually to join in the knowledge-based economy. This is a global good.”

Gender bias rears its head again

Despite the progress, research shows that a new type of gender disparity is emerging in the age of porous global boundaries. Dr. Wagner pointed out the research when she noted that the emerging global network needs policy to guide it toward greater inclusion and higher quality standards. “There’s no Global Ministry of Science,” she said. “What will it take? Get more women involved.”

Cassidy R. Sugimoto, Ph.D., assistant professor of library and information science at the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University Bloomington, has conducted extensive research showing gender disparities persisting across nearly all countries and disciplines.

Dr. Sugimoto said her research stemmed from noticing that citations and other academic capital and rewards flowed to rich countries that put solid support into their research infrastructures. She gleaned that men had access to these infrastructures and other resources to a greater extent than did women.

“So I asked, ‘What are we doing about women in countries lacking the infrastructure?’” said Dr. Sugimoto, who earned her undergraduate degree in music performance before obtaining a master’s in library science and a Ph.D. in information science, all from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“We were looking at their research output — of their research publications (and) how many collaborated with people within their country and internationally,” Dr. Sugimoto said. “One academic reward is citation, and when one person is cited more than another, they’re seen as more valuable,” she noted. “Across countries, even in rich countries, women who were single authors were cited less than men. If women were the first listed author, those also were less cited. Yes, women working in the United States are cited more highly than women in poor countries. But they are less cited than men.

“These things hold across countries — women receive less capital for their work than men do,” she said.

At the same time, collaborative work with more than one author on the byline is cited more often than noncollaborative work, Dr. Sugimoto’s research found.
The bottom line is that, throughout the globe, women aren’t gaining access to star-powered networks because their work doesn’t get cited and circulated to the same extent as men’s, she said.

“I would argue that we’re a global research community, yet if one set of the population doesn’t have access to the full domain, it will hamper their ability to be productive, innovative, and to reap the rewards,” Dr. Sugimoto said. She said her theory is that the results reflect the makeup of academe: People who are older are more likely to get awards and be connected. And the “high end” of academe is still held by a small minority of men who’ve been around for a long time.

Yet, Dr. Sugimoto said she is hopeful the situation is improving, especially as more women are engaging in academic entrepreneurship. For example, women in Taiwan and Korea have the highest participation rate in applying for patents among any countries. “I’d argue all countries can achieve gender parity,” she said.

IBM’s Tanuja Ganu said she encourages young women to speak up, voice their opinions, seek out positive mentors, and focus on meaningful work issues despite any short-term failures or challenges. “It is important to find a good mentor early in one’s career and use opportunities and forums such as the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.”

Dr. Sugimoto said she is excited by the role of international funding by projects such as the “Digging into Data Challenge.” It’s a competition to develop new insights, tools, and skills in innovative humanities and social science research using large-scale data analysis, and sponsored in part by the digital humanities section of the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

These programs are important because they emphasize students’ meeting one another, face-to-face, where they can then build informal social networks online, she said. “We say we have a competitive scientific work force. We need to start thinking about how we give everyone a voice in this conversation,” Dr. Sugimoto said. “That will be a more productive way forward — for racial, class, and gender disparity alleviation — rather than fighting another country.”

Filling the global pipeline

What programs are working to bolster the global network? One is Seeding Labs, a Boston-based not-for-profit that invests in “exceptional” scientists in developing countries by supporting their vital research, primarily in the sciences of biology, agriculture, and the environment. The initiative started nearly 10 years ago when Seeding Labs CEO Nina Dudnik, Ph.D., and her fellow graduate students at Harvard Medical School sought to improve the conditions they had seen in laboratories in Africa and Latin America.

“There was limited access to the resources to do research — the funding, the lab equipment, and the peer-reviewed journals,” Dr. Dudnik said. Part of the problem stems from affordability. Engineers, scientists, medical and other researchers from the developing world find it difficult to afford traveling to international conferences where peer-reviewed research is read and where people make influential connections, Dr. Dudnik said.

Though the Internet has made it easier for people to connect throughout the world, the online social-networking platforms suffer from “underutilization” by researchers from the developed countries, she said. Those developed countries have many more ways to access networking, such as going to Conferences.
Yet, Dr. Dudnik remains hopeful that scientists globally will become more active in the social networks. “I’d like to see scientists from both the developed and developing countries make better use of the tools we already have — Web, video, and voice — to enable them to do more globally connected experiments,” Dr. Dudnik said.

Seeding Labs’ goal is to grow from funding research and equipment for 15,000 people to 45,000 in developing countries in the next three years. Dr. Dudnik cited as one of the organization’s biggest success stories Seeding Labs Fellow Ibok Oduro, Ph.D., a professor and chair of the department of food science at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana. Dr. Oduro is leading and mentoring students in researching how to make yam production a means of economic security in Ghana.

Dr. Dudnik said she wants to see global cooperation “become a movement by scientists for scientists — to help influence scientists to think differently about who their colleagues are, where they might be, and what research might be interesting. You don’t know where the next game-changing idea will come from that will have the potential to produce discoveries that will change the whole
field,” she said.

The U.S. State Department’s leaders have said they believe science is a tide that lifts all boats, and it’s vital to the U.S. economy and security that Americans are deeply involved at the genesis of innovation throughout the globe.

Of course, private companies have long set up outposts in countries they identify as sporting a new consumer class, but the most recent trend is using machine intelligence and big data to find answers to the problems of communities overseas.

IBM Corp. sets up “collaboratories” that pop up quickly based on a research division member or executive’s identification of a “hot topic” that needs a solution, said Bernard Meyerson, Ph.D., IBM’s chief innovation officer based in New York. “We don’t know the answer. But we have advanced technologies that might provide the answer,” he said, noting that some of the topics under exploration include water quality and energy efficiency.

Dr. Meyerson also noted “a remarkable trend toward the use of machine intelligence to foster results otherwise thought to be unobtainable.”
“We’re building the Watson Center in southern Manhattan, in what’s known as Silicon Alley, which will bring entrepreneurs from all over the world to use the machine intelligence to attack problems as diverse as medicine, farming, and social media optimizing,” he said.

“We can run data to quantify the expected benefit and access the success in real time,” Dr. Meyerson said of the research. “When feedback times between learning (a topic), tuning, or growing it can be reduced to hours and days, it changes quality. It enables extraordinarily rapid progress against historically intractable problems,” he said.

The examples seem otherworldly. “Because we have supercomputers that can predict the weather in a square kilometer or two instead of hundreds of kilometers, researchers can tell when it’s going to rain and where emergency responders had better get people out of the way — instead of responding to the disaster after the fact,” Dr. Meyerson said.

IBM’s intelligent operations center in Rio de Janeiro is doing just that to help avoid catastrophes from landslides. “We map local rainfall based on knowledge of local topography, and we proactively get people out of the way before the landslides occur,” Dr. Meyerson said. “It’s about preserving human life.” More examples are popping up.

InCommon, which serves the U.S. education and research communities by supporting a common framework for shared management of access to online resources, announced Sept. 2 that it will introduce a pilot program to let astronomers throughout the world log into research at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The pilot will let astronomers worldwide use their local campus credentials to log into three UWM-based services, including astronomers from Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO). This project detects and studies gravitational waves from astrophysical objects such as black holes and supernovae, according to an InCommon press release.

InCommon and the Leonard E. Parker Center for Gravitation, Cosmology and Astrophysics (CGCA) at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee are involved in the pilot. The CGCA plays a key role in LIGO, which was the impetus for creating the collaboration services for gravitational wave and other astronomers. By participating in the pilot, CGCA identity management staff are streamlining the access process to these important tools, while simultaneously saving time and effort by not having to create and maintain separate (duplicate) user IDs and passwords for hundreds of researchers worldwide, according to InConnect.

Where do we go from here?

Dr. Wagner hopes that scientists and engineers, together with policymakers, will tap the new-found global connections to address the world’s biggest problems, such as health care, sustainability, and access to food and water. “Dialogue will help us figure out a way to fairly and equitably share these resources,” she said.

Her theme stems from the philosophy of the late Elinor Ostrom, Ph.D., the Nobel Prize winner whose later work focused on global public goods — common resources such as forests, fisheries, oil fields, grazing lands, irrigation systems, and “included” knowledge.

“The more we see these resources belonging to ‘nations,’ the harder it is to share them,” Dr. Wagner said. “If we could look at them more as a global public good, we then believe that people should be able to use science and technology to make their lives better and improve the lives of many more people around the world.

“We should be saying, what among science and engineering will help the poorest among us?” she emphasized. “There is so much suffering still going on in the world.”