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.
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.
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 Research Institute in The Hague and Delft, The Netherlands, July 18-25, 2010.
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.
Members of the North American Digital Working in Cholula, Mexico at their December 2007 Working Group meeting
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.
Members of the Digital Governance and Hotspot Geoinformatics Working Group
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 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.
Students from the iGov Research Institute that took place in Manchester,UK July 13-20, 2008 at the University at Salford.
Students at the 2007 iGov Institute in New York City
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.
- 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.
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