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Partnerships are Key to a Global NUI Galway

Partnerships are Key to a Global NUI Galway

29 July 21
 | 14 MINS

Finding ways to nurture our unique yet elusive strength is an essential pillar of our internationalisation mission.

Back in 2008 I was tempted over to the Cairnes Building for a talk on “The Future of Knowledge” by Larry Prusak, hosted by the forerunner of our Whitaker Institute for Innovation and Societal Change. Not exactly home turf for a molecular biologist, but Prusak is a founder of the field of knowledge management and has worked extensively in major organisations such as NASA, IBM and the World Bank as well as being an influential academic thinker. 

And in this the Irish should dominate because you are the world’s great interactors.

Larry Prusak

The democratisation of knowledge 

What remains vivid for me is how Prusak explained the opportunities that arise from the democratisation of knowledge. In recent decades society has moved from protecting ideas in elite institutions to ever wider dissemination, culminating in the openness of our internet age. To summarise his point, a student in Guangzhou, Gujarat or Guadeloupe now has access to information as easily as someone in Glasgow or Galway.

This seems even more true in 2021. In 1863 Queens College Galway’s William King proposed the naming of our closest species relative, Homo neanderthalensis, using a plaster cast from the fossil itself that he imported from a specialist in London. Today anyone can search “3D Homo neanderthalensis” and zoom in on the same skull instantly. An NUI Galway undergraduate can even download a file and have it 3D printed for free in our Library’s MakerSpace.

Of course there is a distinction between data and information versus hard won knowledge and wisdom. But what mattered in Prusak’s foretelling was that new insights and innovations can much more easily arise from bringing together knowledge in novel ways.

And in this,” continued Prusak, “the Irish should dominate because you are the world’s great interactors.”

Finding ways to nurture our unique yet elusive strength is an essential pillar of our internationalisation mission.

In my first year Biotechnology classes I teach students about “hybrid vigour”. This is a core principle enabling modern agriculture, and states that the offspring of diverse parents have superior properties. The actual genetic mechanisms have been debated for over a century, but it is clear that the advantage almost always comes from an effect of many genes, and the complementary strengths of both parents. The resulting improved “fitness” tends to have benefits in a broad spread of capabilities of the offspring.

The opposite phenomenon is known as “inbreeding depression”, where combining closely related individuals exposes weak aspects of their genetic makeup. In fact, breeding a vigorous hybrid with itself rapidly reverses the initial fitness advantage. This is what underpins the significance of seed suppliers and breeders in the agricultural sector.

Aside from being fascinating for geneticists, molecular biologists and economists, hybrid vigour provides a useful analogy for what we can achieve through rich and diverse international partnerships.

Breadth and diversity

The first core feature of partnerships is that they reward diversity and openness because the benefits extend across their “DNA”.

Only in a few cases such as tomatoes is a single gene thought to explain the majority of superiority in hybrid offspring. This tells us there is more to partnership building than matching a few specific strengths, unless we are the organisational equivalent of a tomato.

The value of a successful hybrid in agriculture is that it can give better yields, easier harvesting, and climate resilience all at the same time. The fruit you buy in the supermarket are appealing, nutritious, and cheap.

This analogy implies that we should build partnerships with notably different organisations, and have an eye for opportunities across all aspects of research, teaching and societal impacts. Achieving this scope requires partnerships to be at the level of larger units such as Schools, Colleges or our university. 

We can see this breadth in our partnership with the University of Notre Dame, which is growing organically to involve multiple colleges and encompasses recruitment, mobility and joint research. It already includes efforts at varying levels of development to enable student mobility including summer research students, encourage joint proposals to international funders via joint online talks and symposia, offer sabbatical hosting and give access to specialised research infrastructure. It is not hard to imagine further novelties like online guest lecture swaps, joint remote environmental data collection projects, collaborative virtual exchange projects for undergraduate students, shared community outreach initiatives, or postgraduate dual degrees.

This breadth of activity contrasts with more familiar academic “collaborations”, which tend to be owned by individuals and target the tightly defined deliverables of specific research projects or teaching initiatives.

An important quality of partnership diversity is not simply its richness, but also equity and respect. I was recently inspired by a speaker at a British Council internationalisation conference session on African partnerships who pointed out that European universities often start with a target initiative then search for a matching African partner. He suggested it would be more logical and effective to start with the partner, then identify the specific goals and solutions by building transnational understanding. An African or Asian or US partner is closer to the realities of African or Asian or US challenges and opportunities.

Partnerships need to be driven by the energy of aspiration. 

Mutual aspirations

This leads us to the second core feature of partnerships, which is that they must be aspirational and mutual. They are a meeting of equals, where each side can foresee benefits and both believe that a broad but not entirely known set of positive outcomes will emerge. Partnerships need to be driven by the energy of aspiration. 

Any long term relationship must be able to live and learn through mis-steps that are instructive, as well as individual successes that run their course. It is obvious that examples of positive benefits and growth in value need to be at hand to demonstrate success and progress, because relying on vague future “could be” promises undermines enthusiasm and credibility. But partnerships are not transactions to be measured by recruitment targets, balanced student mobilities or joint funding income.

Mutuality in  a partnership requires formal status and recognition, usually underpinned by a memorandum of understanding (MoU) as a written commitment. This formality enables governance, which ensures commitments that are credible, an evaluation process that facilitates learning from successes, and cataloguing and dissemination that can expand awareness inside the partners.

Ultimately, the value of aspiration and mutuality is that a partner becomes a “go to” contact for novel ideas and a source of inspiration.

Our current participation in the ENLIGHT European universities consortium provides a nice example. ENLIGHT’s long term goals include a vision for multi-campus integrated courses and community engagement. Yet the consortium is already opening doors in areas whose significance we did not foresee when we joined in 2018. Examples include virtual exchanges of students that expand international experiences without the complexity of travel, and consideration of summer workshop style learning that could even result in academic credit.

We must use our natural ability for interactions and the rich international diversity that we have in front of us.

Partnership building

Creating knowledge is our aim as a university. So to return to Prusak’s insight, we must use our natural ability for interactions and the rich international diversity that we have in front of us.

My manifesto is for partnerships that are large scale, long-term, broad-based and formal commitments and which provide research inspiration, learning opportunities and societal impacts. Maybe not quite the soundbite yet, but it describes the framework we need to breed and nurture interactions that grow our global recognition and relevance.


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