International Research Collaboration, the Yale-Fudan Example

International Research Collaboration, the Yale-Fudan Example

“There is only one world of science out there and this kind of international division of labour makes a lot of sense,” a statement attributed to a former Yale University President, Richard C. Levin, speaks volume about the kind of new mindset Nigerian universities’ Chief Executives need to adopt in our quest to revitalize our institutions and make them more internationally competitive.

When Nigerians lament about the high number of its citizens seeking graduate and post graduate studies abroad, most often, it is usually about the foreign exchange and human capital drain that comes with it. But that is just only a side of the perspectives. Notwithstanding the huge costs on the economy, there are ways we can turn the drain to gains. But for that to happen there is a need to develop a strategy and a new mindset. The Fudan-Yale Biomedical Research Centre as captured in one of Thomas L. Friedman’s masterpieces, “The World Is Flat” presents us with a powerful reference.

How did the Yale and Fudan Universities collaboration arise?

Interestingly, the Biomedical Research Centre collaboration did not start as a result of a certain directive from the Yale University or Fudan University leaders. Rather, it was a consequence of a long standing relationship among the scientists involved in the research work. But where the leadership plays a big role is in creating the right atmosphere for such productive engagements to happen.

The key actor, “Yale Professor, Tian Xu did his undergraduate work at Fudan and received his PhD from Yale.” So he had a strong connection with both institutions. Also “five of Prof. Xu’s collaborators, who are now professors at Fudan were also trained at Yale.”

A Win-Win Situation

Prof. Xu had attained prominence in the field of genetics and when he “won grants from the National Institute of Health and the Howard Hughes Foundation to study the connection between genetics and cancer and certain neurodegerative diseases,” a kind of research that requires a lot of gene testing–he needed a large number of staff to support the work. Leveraging his relationship with Fudan, “Yale had to outsource the lab work” and that was how the Fudan-Yale Biomedical Research Centre was established. Imagine if the leadership of Fudan University had gone independently to set up the Lab because they could afford the Lab equipments. The chances of such a setup yielding any tangible result are always going to be slim.

The shared responsibility

This partnership presents an interesting kind of lessons on how to share responsibilities in research collaborations. Each University agreed to take responsibility for their staff and research and so Yale had no financial obligation to Fudan and vice versa. At a fraction of the cost in a typical American lab Fudan University engaged a large number of lab technicians (150) and used a large number of lab animals to do the technical work, leaving Yale professors to focus on “the high end analysis of the data.” In the process the Chinese technicians, graduate students and young faculty learned how to collaborate with the best in the field from Yale-a prized training and experience that do not come easy. For the Yale researchers, it was a good way to enhance productivity and innovation-at a fraction of the cost.

The American interest

Make no mistake about it, there must be an economic interest behind every research and someone has to reap the benefit when it succeeds. Trust the Americans; their interest was well protected in the agreement leading to the eventual collaboration. “A lot of legal preparation went into this collaboration to make sure that Yale would be able to harvest the intellectual property that is created.”

Extra rub-off on China

At the end of the research work you would imagine that the Chinese involved would have a deeper understanding and skills (or even the confidence) to engage in such high end research investigations in future. As part of the conditions for the collaborations, Yale set some minimum standards in relation to “the working conditions at the Chinese labs” and “the living conditions of the lab animals.” With the standards set, Chinese research facility enjoyed an upgrade to world class standard-a thing that perhaps would have been taken for granted.

 Key lessons for Nigeria

There are obvious lessons for Nigeria’s tertiary institution managers and its regulators. First, the institution leaders must learn to make conscious effort to create the kind of atmosphere that encourages top Nigerian professionals in Diaspora to collaborate with their peers at home or that attracts top researchers from other countries to come to our institutions to carry out their research work. It is sometimes inexplicable to observe why we create so much stumbling block and choking atmosphere for our citizens to thrive. Again, an institution establishing research labs just because it can afford them almost always is a waste of scarce resources- it is critical to ensure that the capacity to put the labs to optimal use are available, and that there are defined research work(s) for such labs which must be justified.