How to Build a Global Research Network

This year’s EFC Research Forum Conference, “Thinking beyond national borders – Research and funding across boundaries”, hosted by the Volkswagen Stiftung in Hanover on 17-18 October, explored international collaborations within the philanthropic sector and beyond, with perspectives from researchers and funders alike.

It is widely agreed that international collaboration in research funding can add significant value, from achieving more impactful research and nurturing international partnerships to addressing common problems and building capacity. However, these opportunities, and their attendant challenges, are set against a changing international research environment.

Very few private Foundations run truly global research funding programs. Some are restricted by their statutes, others shy away from the operational issues. However, if foundations want to be at the cutting edge of their fields of activity, their research funding activities must not end at the boarder of their home countries.

At the Jacobs Foundation we have been running a global research funding program since 2015: the Jacobs Foundation Research Fellowship Program. The Jacobs Foundation was, therefore, invited to the Research Forum Conference to run a workshop. Together with Cosima Crawford (Nomis Foundation) and former Jacobs Young Scholar Peter Titzmann (Leibniz University Hanover), we tackled the following questions: How can we identify, globally, the relevant research and the most innovative and talented researchers in our fields of interest? How can we design and run funding programs that are attractive to researchers from different research systems? What are the main pitfalls to be aware of? How can we use social media and other digital technologies in such a global program?

Simon Sommer, Head of Research, Jacobs Foundation.

A global program is not a collaboration between foundations from a few countries, but a program that is open to applicants from all over the world. It means not only accepting proposals from all over the world, but also to enter into contractual agreements with institutions and individuals in different research systems, to make payments to diverse banking systems and to design the program in a way that attracts researchers from six continents.

Findings discussed at the conference included:

  • Be mindful of cultural differences in all domains. “This goes from understanding glowing recommendation letters from US professors, to understanding the ways financial administration offices in foreign universities work”, explains Julia Wyss.
  • Allow for indirect costs to be included. In some countries this is a “must”, and it also strengthens the position of the funded researchers in their respective institution.
  • Allow grantees to fund parts of their salary from the award – this is unusual in Europe, but almost indispensable for example in the US and other countries.
  • Make sure that the program gives awardees the opportunity to apply for additional networking support/ seed money. Peter Titzmann stated that for early career researchers these are the most important types of funding to establish international collaboration – and are hard to obtain.
  • Keep your processes lean and simple and make sure you have enough human resources – and the pertinently qualified people – to run such a program.
  • Make sure you are willing and prepared to help your grantees when exchange rates fluctuate. Accept financial reporting in the local currency.
  • “Take infrastructural realities into consideration”, Simon Sommer added in his closing remark, “some researchers simply do not work at institutions that allow for carrying out research as we are used to it.”

Foundations embarking on the journey of running a truly international program will have to make some top-down decisions changing processes – and at the same time be prepared for an almost daily search for creative solutions and compromise.