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Tips for Successful International Collaborations

Boston Eve Skyline
CREDIT: Greater Boston Convention and Visitor's Bureau

One of the first sessions at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (publisher of Science Careers), which this year takes place in Boston from 14 to 18 February, was a workshop called "Responsible Professional Practices in a Changing Research Environment." In the morning, Gray Handley, who is associate director for international research affairs of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, explored international research collaborations and what makes them successful or dooms them to failure.

Above all, setting up successful international research collaborations is about leveling the field, especially with partners in developing countries. Handley recommends adopting the following principles:

Your institution can say, 'You are spending too much time traveling, too much money.' It can cut you off.

—Gray Handley
  • Make sure that it is a true collaboration: Take into account the missions of the partner organizations; pursue interests that are shared among all investigators and relevant to local needs; verify that there is a good, common understanding of the field among all partners; make sure that everyone involved will benefit.
  • Establish a relationship of trust and openness. It needs to be a "two-way street" so that "they will tell you when things don't go well … but they also need to trust you to tell them when someone is not doing things well" on your side of the collaboration, Handley said.
  • Seek support from the host government and local community. Otherwise, you may suddenly find "that your results are being compromised just because you haven't been engaging all the people that could have an influence on whether this study can go forward," Handley said.

You also need to be aware of difficulties that lie ahead, especially in developing countries. "International collaborations are essential, sexy, … appealing, and good for your CV, but many people go into international collaborations without giving careful thought" to their challenges, Handley said.

  • Be willing to invest a lot of time, money, and other resources into the collaboration, including travel, building research capacity, and training staff members overseas.
  • Be prepared to justify to your dean, funding body, and reviewers why you are spending time and money abroad rather than domestically. "Your institution can say, 'You are spending too much time traveling, too much money,' " Handley said. "It can cut you off."
  • Effective communication across languages, cultures, and scientific fields can be especially difficult. Some cultural differences, such as how much and how openly women scientists are empowered to contribute—very much an issue in some cultures—also need to be appreciated.
  • Depending on the country, be prepared to face a complex and seemingly arbitrarily changing bureaucracy, long delays, and corruption.

Also be aware of the pitfalls and accept that you won't be able to avoid them all. "Only some of these pitfalls can be avoided, so don't feel bad if you see things falling apart," Handley said. Among the pitfalls that you are likely to encounter:

  • It may prove difficult for either partner to carve out time for the collaboration—for you because you have teaching commitments or other grants, and for your collaborators because they have "to drive a taxi or work as a medic or pharmacist" to make ends meet.
  • The sharing of data and biological samples "is fraught with challenges," Handley said. You need to obtain adequate transfer agreements and also be aware that "there is a history of foreign scientists misusing data and materials," Handley added. "There is nothing more destructive to a collaboration than the sense that a Northern scientist is only there to mine the data and to publish independently, or undertakes research that doesn't benefit everyone in the partnership." If there are such perceptions, they need to be tackled at the beginning. 
  • Some countries do not have a grant-management office or accountants, so you may be confronted with weak management at their location. Hiring procedures may not always be based on merit, so also be prepared to deal with staff incompetence.
  • Be prepared to deal with a sudden loss of staff members or space, government instability, unreliable water and electricity supplies, and unethical demands, such as for free gifts.

Although it is impossible to avoid all these pitfalls, "being prepared makes a difference," Handley said. "If you did a good job you will be able to carry out the work." So:

  • Make sure "to build a strong foundation" with local partners that you can trust, talk to, and rely on to solve problems. Put yourself in their shoes and appreciate their needs and expectations.
  • Make sure you understand the cultural, political, and regulatory context of your partners as well as the expectations and guidelines of your funding body at home. "Talk to the NIH about their expectation," Handley said. "What happens if I run into a 1-year delay? Can I get an extension, or can I have more money because they don't have a piece of equipment that they said they had?"
  • Careful planning is essential. Lay out everyone's responsibilities and expectations, define ways to build a supportive network, put in place strategies to meet all the logistical needs of the project, and make sure there is good scientific and financial monitoring. "Make mutual commitment to rigorous planning and joint management."

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