Brock task force calls for boost in international research support

The migration of researchers leaving the Global South to take up positions in North America or Europe has long been bemoaned as a brain drain from areas of the world that need the expertise.

But health sciences researcher Ana Sanchez considers her relocation from her birth country of Honduras to Brock University in St. Catharines as being a two-sided “brain gain.”

“I didn’t really leave Honduras research-wise,” says Sanchez, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences who specializes in the study of parasites and tropical infectious diseases.

Sanchez’s activities include setting up a research partnership with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras (National Autonomous University of Honduras). There, she works with Honduran scientists and students to increase the country’s research capacity in such areas as soil-transmitted helminths, malaria, bacterial and viral diseases and childhood nutrition.

“Brock not only allows me to do this research in Honduras, but enables me to do it.”

Sanchez is passionate about encouraging her Brock University colleagues – whether internationally- or Canadian-born – to pursue global research.

“Research and scholarly collaborations with other countries help strengthen Brock and our students,” says the medical microbiologist and parasitologist. “We might be located in the Niagara Region but by doing international work, our impact is felt in other areas of the world.”

In 2013, Vice-President Research Gary Libben asked Sanchez to form and chair Brock University’s Research Internationalization Task Force.

The five-member group was tasked with examining Brock’s current internationalization research process and making recommendations on how to expand the University’s international research activities and reputation.

The task force summarized its findings and recommendations in its December 2015 report.

Sanchez says enabling diaspora researchers to carry out work in their regions of origin is one way Brock can expand its international research intensiveness.

Beyond publishing in international journals, Sanchez encourages faculty from all disciplines as well as librarians to seek out and form partnerships with colleagues across the globe doing similar or complementary work.

Faculty can mentor or supervise students in countries worldwide. Artists and scholars can partner to co-create productions and scholarly works, she says.

But, while Brock offers a wide array of two-way international researcher and student programs, the University needs to have a central system that co-ordinates or keeps track of international research at Brock and connects researchers here and abroad, says Sanchez.

“Our information is scattered,” she says. “Faculty members’ web pages are not necessarily updated. International research is hardly sustainable if it happens as isolated efforts by faculty members.”

Coordinating international research efforts is one of several recommendations the task force makes for 2016. Others include:

  • creating a research fund for international research and scholarly activities.
  • offering an International Research Award.
  • including an international research advocate in the University’s Internationalization Committee.
  • consulting with international research stakeholders on a regular basis.

“The Task Force concludes that strengthened international research collaboration will help Brock improve its position nationally while gaining international reputation,” says the report.

“As a result, the University will be in a better position of attracting and retaining the best talent and research funding, which will consequently lead to greater contributions to both civil society and the scientific community.”

Sanchez says that, later this year, she and her colleagues plan on distributing a survey for faculty and librarians that would help “create an inventory of international activities and assess our areas of strength to better support them. Within a year, we also would like to present the International Research award.”

The task force will next meet with the Vice-President Research in the fall.

The following is a question and answer with Associate Professor Ana Sanchez.

Why is it important for Brock University to pursue international research?

“International research is a must for all universities that are striving to have an impact in the world. The research doesn’t necessarily have to be groundbreaking, like curing cancer; however small, if we are present in another country, we are making a difference. Beyond publishing and spreading ideas, we are affecting the lives of people living in various communities and, in many cases, can even influence policies and practices in the countries where those communities are located.

Collaboration multiplies the impact of research. Both you and your colleague are growing. Everybody is learning, expanding their minds, looking at different ways to ask questions and find answers. In some cases, we build institutions’ capacity in areas such as academic integrity and the rigorousness of proposals and dissertations. The fluidity of knowledge and resources is beautiful.”

How does a researcher pursue “international research”?

A lot of the work that we do is “networked”: you know somebody and somebody else knows you. You can approach each other – even from different disciplines – to create, and seek funding for, research proposals. Researchers can also mentor students from around the world.

We don’t necessarily have to physically go to another country to be “international.” With the global connectivity that we have, collaborating is easier to do and is powerful. We still have an influence; we’re still co-operating. For example, I recently attended, via skype, two proposal defenses for a Master’s program that we implemented in Honduras. These Honduran students have access to me as a mentor and my mentorship in graduate studies has been built at Brock.”

What are the challenges of international research?

“It requires a lot of resources as well as dealing with a variety of people, cultures and political situations. A publication from an international collaboration represents the successful culmination of a long and complex journey – especially if fieldwork outside of Canada was involved. Hence, we need to recognize that scholarly productivity cannot be only measured by ‘number of papers published’ but also by their relevance, significance and impact.”

What is the next step?

“We submitted our Research Internationalization Task Force report, which includes a number of recommendations that would help strengthen our impact at the global level. It’s important to mention that now that our mandate has been fulfilled, the task force has now become a Standing Advisory Committee to the Vice-President Research. The next steps would be meeting with the new VP-Research and finding common ground to prioritize and implement our recommendations in the next few years.”

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