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.


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.

Based on collaborations across institutions and continents, the nPlug and SocketWatch devices were developed. Both assist in ensuring more reliable and e­cient use of electricity and thus contribute to the quality of everyday life.Based on collaborations across institutions and continents, the nPlug and SocketWatch devices were developed. Both assist in ensuring more reliable and e­cient use of electricity and thus contribute to the quality of everyday life.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.

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