A Tool for Development in Puerto Rico..International Research Collaborations
By Gloria Fernández Estébanez, MA, CRA
Developing international research collaborations can serve as a powerful economic development tool for Puerto Rico. At this particular juncture Puerto Rico needs to create new wealth to get out of a $70 billion plus fiscal debt crisis that has marred the island with emigration and scarcity. To prioritize investments in education and basic research can start a revolutionary spark to change the way our small island relates in an already globalized world.
It is my contention that the advancement of international research collaborations can only happen three goals are met. First, a commitment to the growth of research administration at all local universities. Second, a pledge from universities to foster research administrators and researchers with the hard and soft skills to navigate our ambiguous political situation and the growing global landscape. And third, the creation strong island wide partnership among public and private universities to pursue research endeavors and share all scarce resources and infrastructure. Reaching these goals can be met if we adopt as an important reference the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, which tap into every single one of the challenges Puerto Rico faces as a low-income country.
Universities and institutions in Puerto Rico that are engaged in the research enterprise must understand that research administration IS a professional field that involves the “support required for success in research programs” (Beasley, 2006). Research administration has a history and body of knowledge which has extended to global borders. Even with a core knowledge that has remained relatively constant, the future of research administration requires more knowledgeable and trained professionals that can care for a growing and technology driven research enterprise. Therefore, if Puerto Rican institutions aspire to resemble those top tier, world-class, research-intensive, and highly reputable institutions, colleges in the island must pursue to create solid research administration outfits with adequate and professional staff.
Although most research administrators “have shaped their role by themselves” (Andersen, 2011) and advocating for recognition as an essential institutional component, there are many universities in Puerto Rico that still have a one man/woman sponsored programs shop that manage all aspects of research administration. These operations by nature are mostly centralized and, if they are fortunate enough to grow in personnel and resources, they remain centralized as their creators want to maintain a level of control, that affords them power within the university.
In a university setting an experienced research administrator is exposed continuously to working with colleagues that have diverse academic and professional backgrounds and complicated levels of authority, requiring mastery of hard and soft skills. By its intrinsic nature research administrators develop such soft skills as the patience of working with difficult colleagues, the tenacity to endure long hours and tight deadlines, and the ability to explain complex regulations to college managers; as well as hard skills as preparing proposals, negotiating indirect costs and have a full handle of the cost principles. When a collaborative partnership is based on good communication and trust, project activities seem to flow easily regardless of any changes that my come along. Therefore for universities in Puerto Rico to expand international research collaborations, it becomes essential to foster research administrators and researchers that master a blend of hard and soft skills which overlap the realm of communication, cultural competencies and knowledge; but above all facilitate their capacity to manage a complex domestic and international environment, both of which have formal and informal authority structures (Andersen, 2018).
Competitive proposal development is not an easy task and can become even more complicated when international collaborations are in the mix. Therefore, it is vital to cultivate research administrators and researchers that have “contextual skills” (Bhatnagar and Bhatnagar, 2012), related to the “ability to operate successfully in different settings, such as different countries, different regions or a culturally diverse workplace.” Glauner and Jones (2018) support this by indicating that research administrator “must be aware and understand cultural differences and also be able to integrate them,” by providing an approach for research administrators who must recognize cultural differences, respect other ways of activities, and reconcile problems by “bridging the differences.” For example, explaining complex policies and procedures for a research project within an international collaboration would require acquiring basic concepts or international law and cultural values, as well as the ability to help researchers navigate their convolutions, including assessing the inherent risks of a project.
Because of Puerto Rico’s Hispanic cultural foundations, bilingualism (English and Spanish), comparative law system (Common Law and Civil Law) and its socio-political reality with the United States, our universities are in a very strategic position to nurture research administrators and researchers that can traverse the complexity of international research collaborations using both a theoretical and practical framework. Puerto Rican research administrators and researchers can be internationally proficient with such “transferable skills” as becoming a broker, being proactive in managing change, and becoming an effective diplomat (Anderson, 2018). Using a roadmap to proficient management of cultural differences, Puerto Rican research administrators and researchers can help international universities navigate the United States robust research funding landscape as well as to tap into other international funding mechanisms.
On the domestic front, Puerto Rico’s universities must break their competitive silos in the realm of research. A more open research context should be fomented making knowledge products more “transparent, collaborative and efficient.” The University of Puerto Rico must stop looking down on private universities, disparaging their capacity to contribute to the pursuit of knowledge. Wanting to establish collaborations with potential partners, whether at home or in other countries, might make them maintain a paternalistic view on implementing projects and therefore not allowing for full knowledge transfer and capacity building.
Public and private universities in Puerto Rico can work together and share all scarce resources and infrastructure. For example, the University of Puerto Rico which is threatened by more funding cuts and a continued fiscal deficit, it should pursue to increase domestic research collaborations with local private universities as a means to lessen recent reductions. Expanding the access for local private institutions to the Molecular Sciences Research Center (MSRC- http://cicim.upr.edu/) could serve to expand extent of its scope and spearhead other potential international collaborations. The Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust (PRSTRT) (http://prsciencetrust.org/) could provide grant funding to research collaborations among researchers in both public and private institutions instead of funding loose ended research projects. Furthermore, the PRSTRT could prioritize a domestic research collaboration agenda that can spread to our Caribbean region focusing on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), particularly the most prescient for our island, Goal 14: life below water. Puerto Rico and the region are heavily impacted by global warming and water use, marred by not having enough power as an international body to take action at the local level. Local international research collaborations stemming from the grassroot level would be more effective in addressing this issue and achieve some sort of outcome.
To close, I believe that establishing international research collaborations could be considered for many Puerto Rican institutions an intimidating task. What could be done as a starting point is to pursue an initial funding program that addresses a vulnerability or risky topic within our general research context or environment. For example, National Institutes of Health (NIH) funds educational activities fostering better understanding and handling of biomedical, behavioral, and clinical research ethics training in Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs). For a start, local Puerto Rican institutions could reach out to neighboring countries in the Caribbean to expand knowledge of the ethical principles, processes, and policies regarding international clinical and public health ethical research. It could be a reasonable start.
Andersen, J. in Andersen, J. Toom, K., Poli, S. and Miller, P. F. (November, 2017). Chapter 15: Transferable Skills. Research Management, Europe and Beyond. Elsevier Science & Technology Books. pp. 319 – 332.
Beasley, K. (2006). The History of Research Administration. In Kulakowsky, E. and Chronister, L. (Editors). Research Administration and Management. Jones and Bartlett Publishers.
Bhatnagar, N. and Bhatnagar, M. (Editors). 2012. Chapter 1: Soft skills: growing importance. Effective communication and soft skill: strategies for success. New Delhi, Dorling Kindersley India. online.
Glauner, A. and Jones, C. (2018). Cross cultural communication: Think AND, not but (don’t mind the gap, bridge it). NCURA magazine, Vol. 50., No. 3, May/June, 28–30.
United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Retrieved from: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/