ERCs and International Collaboration Rationale

Executive Summary

Governments around the world are promoting scientific collaboration and mobility by implementing policies and designing programs to foster international cooperation  (OECD 2012; European Commission 2012; Jacob and Meek 2013; Wagner et al. 2018). This trend can be attributed to the significant benefits that accrue from international collaboration at the research system, institutional, and individual level (Royal Society, 2011). Examples of such benefits include:

  • Access to talent, research expertise and resources around a particular topic
  • Effective tackling of global societal challenges
  • Cost sharing, risk reduction in infrastructure investments, and greater research scale
  • Establishment of new opportunities for industry through participation in global value chains and access to new and emerging markets
  • Increase in reach and impact of research funding
  • Having a voice in global debates and developments around research and innovation
  • Enhance workforce development through the formation of global networks of mobile, interculturally competent engineers

Brief rationale statements (and associated resources where appropriate) have been collected to show how international collaborations could add value to an NSF-supported ERC across its foundational components, including (link to each longer text):

Convergent Research and Team Science: The deeply collaborative, team-based approach of convergent research, partnered with the trend of internationalization in science, means a necessary intensification of international communication and exchange among scientists. For the U.S. to remain a center of innovation as centers of academic production spread throughout the world, scientists and engineers must develop the team science capabilities necessary to work across differences towards solving the greatest engineering challenges of the 21st century and beyond. International collaborations build the experience and capabilities ERCs need to stay on the cutting edge of innovation. (learn more)
Engineering Workforce Development: Through international collaborations, the ERC program enables the formation of global networks of interculturally competent and academically mobile engineers. The rich experiences that both ERC faculty and students gain from experience working across international boundaries, then bring back to the ERC to share their learnings with others, represent a significant opportunity to improve workforce development outcomes for ERCs. (learn more)
Diversity and Culture of Inclusion: The relationships and intercultural skills developed through international collaborations, as well as the opportunities these collaborations represent to reconstruct existing paradigms of access to prestigious research experiences, help to foster the development of an inclusive engineering workforce. This workforce will be necessary to address the complex problems with worldwide societal impacts facing today’s engineers, while maintaining US competitive, and collaborative, advantage. (learn more)
Innovation Ecosystem: Each ERC has a network of partners that work together to create and enhance the capacity for innovation and develop new ways for delivering value with positive societal impact. Bringing international collaborators into the ERC’s innovation ecosystem provides access to globally dispersed knowledge networks, expertise, capital, customers, and shared challenges to solve. (learn more)


Context: The Internationalization of S&E Research (top)

Research is becoming increasingly internationalized. Data on articles in peer-reviewed S&E journals and conference papers reflect the rapidly expanding volume of research activity, the growing involvement and scientific capabilities of an increasing number of countries, and the expanding research ecosystem demonstrated through international collaborations (Adams, 2013; Wagner et al., 2015).

Based on findings from the Scopus database of global S&E publications, the National Science Board report Science and Engineering Indicators 2020 provides the following insights:

  • Worldwide S&E output, measured by global S&E publications, continues to grow on average at nearly 4% per year
  • From 2008 to 2018, worldwide S&E output grew from a total of 1.8 million to 2.6 million articles
  • In 2018, slightly more than one out of five global science and engineering publications had coauthors from multiple countries
  • The collaboration base has grown as countries that were small producers of scientific publications 10 to 20 years ago have accelerated their global publication output
  • The US impact in S&E publications has remained steady over the past 20 years

Due to the internationalization of research, there is a growing pressure on engineering research grantees to demonstrate the economic and societal value created by international collaborations (O’Sullivan, 2016). It is widely accepted that integrating international collaborations into center models provides an opportunity for centers to achieve significant added value. Beyond publication metrics, there is no single evaluatory framework to capture or substantiate these added values; the following rationale outlines what is known about how international collaborations can benefit each of an ERC’s foundational components, and provides tools where applicable to help ERCs recognize and build the added value of international collaborations.

The foundational components of an ERC are:

  • Convergent Research
  • Workforce Development
  • Diversity and Culture of Inclusion
  • Innovation Ecosystem
Convergent Research and Team Science (top)

Solutions to the greatest challenges facing the 21st century engineer (see NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering; NSF’s 10 Big Ideas) will require multidisciplinary research teams capable of bridging their expertise and combining discipline-specific approaches to address all facets of the challenges in front of them (NAE 2016; Growing Convergence Research). Through international collaborations, researchers develop the team-research and value-creation capacity they need to practice convergent research and produce valuable solutions for society.

Convergent research is a deeply collaborative, team-based approach for defining and solving important, complex societal problems (NRC 2014). Convergent research is distinct from other forms of multidisciplinary research in that it intentionally brings together intellectually diverse researchers and stakeholders to address a specific research opportunity. International collaborations prepare researchers to work across difference, providing benefits such as:

  • Greater access to information, ideas, and facilities, facilitating a more rapid advancement of knowledge and discoveries;
  • Strengthening of domestic research excellence through access to research and facilities abroad;
  • Increased attractiveness of domestic systems to overseas researchers,
  • Contributing to the solution of global challenges;
  • Economies of scale and expanded research scope shared across nations.

Successful convergent international collaborations involve all participants engaging in effective team science. Organizational context and team composition are key drivers to team effectiveness (see Doolen et. al., 2003; Doolen et. al. 2006; Sewcharan and Parumasur, 2009). Resources for best practices of team science include:

Tools to measure the effectiveness of team science, or the readiness of a team to embark on team science, include:

Engineering Workforce Development (top)

Critical to solving the greatest engineering challenges of this century is the development of a modern engineering workforce able to accelerate the application of emerging knowledge. In light of a transition to convergent research practices (see Convergent Research section of this summary), 21st-century engineers must have the key competencies to thrive in diverse team structures across geographical, topical, cultural, academic, and industrial boundaries (NAP 2019). Through international collaborations, the ERC program enables the formation of global networks of interculturally competent and academically mobile engineers.

International experience exposes engineering students and faculty to worlds of professional practice that they would otherwise not have access to, building their capacity to operate as global engineers. Jesiek et al. provide a thorough literature review on engineering practice in a global context, wherein the authors organize the competencies or attributes deemed important for global engineering work around three main contextual dimensions: technical coordination; engineering cultures; and ethics, standards, and regulations.

Engineering centers worldwide are putting increasing effort into providing students with greater insight into real-world industrial environments, training students to work in large multidisciplinary teams, and showing students a variety of future career options for engineering graduates (O’Sullivan, 2016). Global competency is attractive to employers within academia and industry. Training a workforce to embody these competencies can help facilitate the movement of people across this boundary (Parkinson 2009). A Council of Graduate Schools study on PhD career pathways established that when engineering alumni were asked what skills and attributes are most important to their work, participants in research institutions say that the attributes and skills associated with independence are most important to them, such as independence, leadership, innovation, and persistence; engineering alumni outside of academia were more likely to say cooperation is more important (CGS, 2017). These results indicate the existence of a skill gap.

Through international collaborations, the cooperative skill gap between university-trained and industry-trained workforces graduating from ERCs could be bridged. This is supported by an established link between the networking benefits international experiences provide students and long-term career success (Rubio et al. 2011). With greater international collaboration activity, the mobility and career prospects of ERC graduates will increase.

Diversity and Culture of Inclusion (top)

Fostering the development of an inclusive engineering workforce is imperative to addressing complex problems with worldwide societal impacts and maintaining US competitive advantage (NASEM, 2017). International collaborations by nature build in their participants the socio-cultural competencies and global networks necessary to achieve this goal (Morgan and Playpool, 2010). ERCs create a culture of inclusion by ensuring participation of members from a diversity of scientific backgrounds and training, participation of members of groups traditionally underrepresented in engineering and STEM, and consisting of a diversity of partner institutions that will bring different perspectives to bear on the goals of the NSF ERC (Gen-4 Solicitation). International collaborations can create added value towards each of these goals.

Before international research collaborations are embarked on, cross-cultural collaboration impacts the process by which research agreements are made and negotiated. Enhancing international collaboration requires recognition of differences across international boundaries. Culture Matters, a summary of a workshop convened by the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable (GUIRR) in July 2013 addresses how culture and cultural perception influence and impact the process by which these agreements are made and negotiated across international boundaries. Resources such as the SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence (2009) can be used to help navigate international relationship building.

Once research agreements (for example, a C2C agreement) have been met, the added value of working across cultures begins to emerge. To create global leaders with proven technical abilities as well as social, environmental, and ethical competencies, ERCs with successful international partnerships involve their students and faculty in research experiences. As discussed in the Engineering Workforce Development section of this brief, it has become important that doctoral students gain the skills they will need to engage in cross- and multi-national collaborations in the future.  Nerad (2011) provides a literature review of research on the outcomes of international exchange experiences for STEM graduate students, including research on the correlates of intercultural competence and the outcomes of study abroad programs.

An example from this extensive list of potential areas of added value would be how new international collaborations present an opportunity for ERCs to contribute to addressing the gender and under-represented minority gap in international exchanges. A 2010 study showed that  more men are invited by host universities or picked from faculty to participate in international exchanges, while women abroad are more likely to have to make their way into exchanges through applying themselves (Nerad, 2011). Through thoughtful collaboration architecture, inequities such as this can be addressed.

International collaborations provide an opportunity to expand the diversity of researchers and institutions contributing to ERCs, and the social, cultural, and ethical competencies of faculty and students engaged in ERC work. This added value is proving more important than ever in order to capitalize on unique opportunities to enhance research and training in an increasingly interconnected world.

Innovation Ecosystem (top)

Moving the translational research being executed in ERCs from discovery to commercialization involves a trusted network of partners, including the US government, academic researchers, civil society, the investor community, and commercial industry. This set of actors (in the context of their relationships and shared resources) whose collective actions are able to bring great ideas to transformative impact at scale comprise an innovation ecosystem. Innovation ecosystems operate at multiple levels and within multiple sectors, but they are typically defined by their connectedness; each part of the innovation ecosystem is moderated by other parts of the system (IDIA Innovation). Bringing international collaborators into the ERC’s innovation ecosystem provides access to globally dispersed knowledge networks, expertise, capital, customers, and shared challenges to solve.

Translational applications of the fundamental research executed at ERCs can fail for lack of resources needed to develop them to a stage where industry or investors can recognize and exploit their commercial potential. Successfully equipping ERCs, and the translational researchers within them, with the resources they need requires an interplay of actors along the innovation spectrum (Jackson, 2011). Without established vehicles of collaboration such as nondisclosure agreements, memoranda of understanding, and visiting-scientist or postdoctoral programs, it is highly difficult to promote interaction and create the intangibles of an innovation ecosystem that improve the odds that ERC-borne ventures will succeed.

Each ERC has a network of trusted partners that work together to create and enhance the capacity for innovation and new ways for delivering value with positive societal impact. Agreements such as the C2C mechanism open doors for ERCs to capitalize on the significant added value international collaborations provide towards the health of the ERC’s innovation ecosystem.