Skip to main content
photo
 
Executive Summary

Globalization presents important opportunities and diffi cult challenges that demand internationally-trained, culturally-aware researchers to collaborate on topics that cross borders, political systems, and cultures. International research collaborations on topics such as livability of cities, regulation of world fi nancial markets, political participation, or the health of civil society offer potentially great benefi t, but such work generally remains sporadic and informal because it is logistically and fi nancially impractical. Traditional research training and funding structures are insuffi cient to nurture or encourage this kind of scholarship. Existing approaches tend to be formal and expensive, focused on separate rather integrated teams, and stymied by uncoordinated requirements of multiple sponsors. As one consequence, scholars who want to work on international problems have few realistic opportunities to turn their interest into capabilities and relationships that support rigorous collaborative work..

In response to this problem, from 2007 through 2010, we experimented with two low-cost innovative approaches or “on-ramps” to international collaboration in our fi eld of digital government research. The fi rst approach was a set of three international working groups composed of scholars from a variety of countries and disciplines focused on essential questions of public governance, North American cooperation, and early crisis detection. The second was an annual, residential research institute for PhD students designed to encourage young scholars to develop an early appreciation for the global impact of information and communication technologies on the public sector.

Globalization demands internationally-trained, culturallyaware scholars who can collaborate across borders, political systems, and cultures.

The working groups had three aims:
  • To encourage interest in international research topics.
  • To do so through self-organizing teams of scholars from different countries who would have enough time and opportunity to build a strong network of relationships.
  • To support this team-building process through a very limited package of incentives and requirements.
The package required each competitively selected group to work together over three years on a topic or problem of their choice. The groups were required to have US and non-US co-chairs, include senior and junior members, hold periodic face to face meetings, and give public reports of their progress. Each group was provided about $70,000 in travel funds for participants from US institutions, but no funding was provided for salaries or research costs. Non-US participants covered all their own expenses.

By contrast to the working groups in which the same people met repeatedly, the second approach was an immersive experience in international engagement for four successive cohorts of doctoral students at an infl uential point in their academic and professional development. Called the iGov Research Institute, its main goals were:
  • To create social and intellectual ties among the students and faculty as the basis for long-term professional relationships.
  • To simulate the challenges and benefi ts of multidisciplinary international research through small group projects.
  • To emphasize the importance of social, political, and cultural context in digital government research.
Key design features included involving students and faculty from different countries and disciplines and conducting the institute in locales where a host institution and a local government were willing to participate actively in the program. Academic lectures and discussion groups led by senior faculty laid the groundwork for integrative small group projects supported by junior faculty mentors. Through these features, the program created a microcosm of international engagement in a realistic problem setting, with strong faculty encouragement for student creativity. Once designed and tested, cost per student averaged about $4000.

Using surveys, observations, and interviews, we evaluated the two experiments (1) to assess their effectiveness in creating or enhancing long-term international research relationships, (2) to determine their effect on individual careers, international and cultural awareness, and scholarly development; and (3) to identify replicable practices and strategies.

Students at iGov
Students at iGov Research Institute in The Hague and Delft, The Netherlands, July 18-25, 2010.
Evaluation Results for the Working Groups

Each working group accomplished substantive results in its chosen area. These included a multi-authored book on citizen consultation, several successful international grant proposals, and direct impact on watershed management in India. The groups also produced conference and journal papers, case studies, and software. In addition, the participants reported hundreds of instances of collaborative scholarly work including articles, scholarly visits, dissertation committees, and conference panels.

Cholula, Mexico working group
Members of the North American Digital Working in Cholula, Mexico at their December 2007 Working Group meeting
Survey results indicated high satisfaction with the overall working group experience (4.58 on a 5 point scale), and with 20 separate measures of benefi t associated with scholarly development, international awareness and competence, and community-building (all above 4.0 on the scale). The evaluation findings confi rm that the package of requirements that shaped the working group experience was highly effective. Regression models account for roughly 70 percent of the variation in the three dependent variables (overall experience, career effects, and international awareness). Moreover, one variable, face-to-face meetings, was the most important factor in the strategy. The value of meetings was positive and statistically significant in all three models, indicating its substantial contribution to all three desired outcomes: positive working group experiences, positive career effects, and growth in international awareness.

The findings also point out the intangible but significant value of NSF’s reputation for supporting high quality research, and the value of access to research venues, such as the leadership levels of government, that are often closed to individual scholars. In addition, our findings show that online collaboration tools, even in combination with personal interaction, contributed little to relationship building and group productivity.

Geoinformatics working group
Members of the Digital Governance and Hotspot Geoinformatics Working Group
We also identified effective practices that were present in all three groups regardless of their focus, size, or goals. These included optimizing face-to-face time, remaining open and flexible regarding goals and strategies for reaching them, recognizing the different costs and benefits to members at different career stages, and making room for multiple forms of leadership. We believe these practices promote success and are readily replicable.

Evaluation Results for the iGov Institute

Exit surveys and one- and two-year follow up surveys indicate the iGov experience was highly positive and has a sustained positive influence over time. In the exit survey for all four cohorts, students strongly agreed that the institute’s design and content fostered a sense of intellectual community, improved their understanding of substantive international challenges, and introduced them to useful ideas outside of their main fields. All programmatic elements received high positive ratings, including:
  • making good use of the host city as an integral part of the program
  • engaging in practitioner sessions and site visits;
  • structuring time to discuss individual student research;
  • participating in small research groups;
  • having junior faculty as mentors; and
  • encouraging student–faculty interaction.
The small group assignments were particularly effective. The three-day assignment at the end of the program was designed to introduce students to the challenges and opportunities of a cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural research team. By working with a diverse group on a problem or question that emerged during the first few days of the institute, the assignment fostered awareness of cultural factors in research, highlighted differences in language and terms used, and enhanced students’ ability to work across cultural and disciplinary lines. Students also gained an appreciation for the difficulty of designing and executing international research.

The year-to-year exit ratings show that the program design continuously improved with a generally upward trend in student opinions on all items. Students also appreciated that the program was relatively short; they could fully engage with it despite competing academic, employment, and family obligations.

Manchester Students from iGov
Students from the iGov Research Institute that took place in Manchester,UK July 13-20, 2008 at the University at Salford.
The one- and two-year follow up surveys showed that iGov’s reported positive impact on students’ career development, interest in international research, and international awareness actually increased over time. In addition, the institute’s impact on participants’ research or professional goals, inclination to do future comparative or transnational research and ability to work across cultures continued to be positive and generally showed a continuing upward trend. Moreover, even at this very early career stage, students reported many instances of collaboration with others in their cohorts including scholarly visits, conference panels and joint preparation of journal articles, conference papers, research proposals and book chapters.

NYC Students from iGov
Students at the 2007 iGov Institute in New York City
Lessons and Recommendations

The literature on international research collaborations usually measures success solely in terms of tangible scholarly outputs such as papers, articles and research grants. These experiments show that carefully designed, low-cost initiatives can produce similar results, but they can also forge lasting networks of relationships as well as long-term career benefi ts. In short, with modest funding and a careful set of incentives and design features, these two approaches create effective, accessible pipelines into international research collaboration.

From the working groups:
  • Modest structural requirements create a supportive framework for both scholarly productivity and professional development. All requirements we tested (including multiple countries and disciplines, senior and junior scholars, and in-kind contributions from all participants) contributed to success, but face-to-face engagement appears to be the essential element.
  • Modest funding from a prestigious source can generate substantial scholarly results and network effects. The limited funds provided enough resources to lay a foundation. The NSF ‘brand’ was instrumental in bringing both leading scholars and other institutions to the table.
  • Scholars at all career stages benefi t from working groups. Junior scholars reaped special rewards but also confronted special risks.
  • The basic international working group strategy is readily replicable as a way to build international research communities but it is not a substitute for direct research funding for international investigations.
From the iGov Institute:
  • Brief but intensive immersion in a realistic setting introduces students to novel approaches to international scholarship. Key elements include international participants and faculty, immersion in the complexities of a local setting, and active engagement among students, faculty, and local leaders.
  • Learning-by-doing in small but diverse research teams teaches students the challenges and the benefits of cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary collaboration.
  • Increased awareness of multicultural aspects of their work, increased interest in international research, and other positive career effects hold steady or increase over time.