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Opening Doors on a World of Research

These days scientific research almost always involves international entanglements. But with hectic schedules and torn responsibilities, academic researchers have little time left to unravel the intricacies of setting up international collaborations. This is where campus offices of international research and development can come to the rescue. Serving as a facilitator between a university's scientists and potential foreign partners, these small but vital bureaus can make the difference between success and failure in international science. "This kind of service is like a godsend to faculty members and professors because they're already swamped with research, teaching, and administrative loads," says François Carrier, director of the Office of International Research at McGill University in Montreal.

International research offices specialize in creating and maintaining complex agreements, with a focus on the legal, contractual, and financial aspects of international projects. Projects involving foreign agencies and institutes are typically more difficult to negotiate and manage than strictly domestic projects.

McGill receives over $235 million in research funding annually; currently the university is involved in more than 100 international projects worth in excess of $70 million, funded by federal and provincial government agencies, foreign governments, international financial institutions, and private foundations. McGill signs an average of 17 new international contracts and grant agreements each year, ranging up to many millions of dollars. More than 120 new international initiatives are in development at any one time.


Dealing with foreign governments and agencies can lead to headaches. Compared to Canadian funding organizations, many overseas agencies add layers of complexity and are more rigorous with their reporting requirements. Ask professors what it's like to wade through the guidelines of some international proposals and many will say they tend to be filled with incomprehensible acronyms and confusing technical jargon. "It could be nightmarish to handle this paperwork," says Carrier. "We help demystify these requirements so even before applying, the professor knows exactly the kind of work administratively that needs to be done."

By reading the fine print hand-in-hand with on-campus researchers, the office helps translate solicitations into more familiar prose and keeps the submission process on track. Office personnel also ensure that the proposals meet all deadlines and comply with both in-house and external regulations and guidelines.

But the McGill office doesn't limit itself to working case-by-case on particular collaborations. Carrier also aims to increase the international savvy of their scientists by presenting workshops on everything from putting together a simple budget to understanding the countless reporting systems encountered around the world. Representatives from national and international granting agencies are invited to give seminars on campus explaining their priorities and offering insight into the types of projects that are of interest to them.

Offices of international research exist in one form or another on university campuses across Canada. The International Centre at the University of Calgary has more than 190 active international agreements with institutions in more than 50 countries. It provides faculty, staff, and students with opportunities to join in a variety of academic and scientific activities, exchange programs, training, internships, and collaborative degree programs. The new 'Accelerating Research' program facilitates collaborations via funding for travel to conferences abroad and communication tools like state-of-the-art video conferencing studios.

The University of Toronto (U of T) is currently involved in international agreements with 125 international partners in 45 countries around the world, exploiting historical linkages with agencies and research institutes in Western Europe and Asia. U of T concentrates on building existing campus projects to form large-scale collaborations. By placing themselves on the worldwide stage, faculty members are getting more recognition and creating further demand for campus know-how.

"In the past many researchers' works were just lost in the sea of projects and were not central to the universities mandate, while today many ongoing international projects and partnerships have become more significant, more visible, and more recognizable," says U of T's International Liaison Officer Anatoly Oleksiyenko. Like other offices, U of T's liaison office alerts faculty members to international opportunities that are a match with current research. They act as a clearinghouse, monitoring funding pipelines around the globe and identifying potential projects that might be of interest. Databases are updated almost daily on what projects are ongoing and what project leads professors are looking out for. The offices can act like a middleman and tailor their 'advertisement' to the proper professors or departments.

One of the more complex projects Oleksiyenko's office is currently handling is a $4.5 million environmental study that has Canada helping China meet requirements set out in the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. In collaboration with the university's Institute for Environmental Studies, the departments of geography and forestry, and various Chinese government agencies and universities, this project funded by the Canadian International Development Agency applies Canadian modeling and remote sensing technology to understanding the role of land-use change in China's carbon cycle. The goal is to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by enhancing China's capacity to impound carbon in natural sinks like forests, thereby supporting environmentally sustainable development in China.

This collaboration grew out of an already solid foundation: a 20-year relationship between the university and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. "The group at U of T knew the environment, knew the institutions, and knew what to do--so it was a perfect fit," adds Oleksiyenko. Starting with simple, clear-cut studies and building international contacts from the ground level, he says, are the most direct pathways to success.

Call of Duty

Dedication and patience are high on the list of skills required for any researcher, but when working internationally, Carrier believes, you have to go beyond the call of duty. International collaborations can require even more administrative and bureaucratic work than most researchers are used to. Offices of international research can help with this, but they can't absorb all of it. "We discourage those who are not really serious about going after international funding," notes Carrier. "Being successful could be the worst thing that could happen because it requires so much extra work to be done." And if that doesn't put you off, the start-up time might: With all the complexities surrounding multinational projects, it can take up to 2 years from initiation to final approval.

Research globalization is becoming more important on campuses everywhere. These days, world-class facilities may be located just about anywhere, and increased competition for limited resources means that researchers must often look abroad for support. Despite the cost in time and effort, collaborating with the world's best scientists and the world's leading scientific facilities can result in stronger science and increased visibility for early-career scientists.

Oleksiyenko believes that the young Canadian scientists differ from their elders in that they consider the world open to them. Many come from far away, and many are global citizens with global aspirations.

"They are multilingual, they're open to different cultures, wanting to travel and collaborate--they belong to the world," says Oleksiyenko. "This is the attraction of Canadian researchers; we're valued by our partners because we offer this kind of diverse approach."

Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at