What are the best approaches for formulating and agreeing on common objectives at both the program and project levels for bioengagement activities? In the planning of joint programs for implementation in an uncertain financial environment, what types of early steps should be considered to increase the likelihood of continuation of successful activities, even in the absence of special funding for follow-on activities? How can projects that are not producing anticipated results be terminated without creating animosities that could jeopardize future endeavors?
These are but three of the many questions that confront managers of U.S.-Russian bilateral programs as they begin to put in place and then carry out joint activities. Failure to address such issues in a timely manner can reduce the likelihood that cooperation will lead to useful results. In particular, even if administrative arrangements for initial research activities seem flawless, the activities may have little effect on scientific or economic advancement or security enhancement in the absence of early identification of feasible approaches for capitalizing on research achievements.
Views of program sponsors and of participants in recent bilateral activities, as well as comments by close observers of bioengagement activities, provide insights that are useful in seeking answers to such questions. The personal experiences of members of the committee responsible for this report, together with observations of other participants in joint activities, are the basis for the comments that follow.
INTERESTS AT THE POLICY AND INSTITUTIONAL LEVELS IN LESSONS LEARNED
Lessons learned from past activities should be of interest at the governmental and institutional levels, and 10 are set forth below. In the subsequent section of this chapter, lessons of special interest to individual researchers are presented.
1. As previously noted, during the 1990s, U.S.-Russian cooperation in the life sciences and in many other fields was, in a number of ways, a foreign assistance relationship. In recent years, however, scientific cooperation between the two countries has been slowly transforming into a series of partnerships, with both sides playing active roles in planning projects, in providing financing, and in sharing results and benefits from activities. Equitable sharing of direct costs of cooperative programs has been a particularly difficult issue, given the precedent of earlier patterns of U.S. organizations providing most of the financial support to cover direct costs.
The Russian government has gradually increased its contributions to joint efforts. Despite this positive trend, at times U.S. counterparts who have been accustomed to controlling the financial resources have been reluctant to recognize the equality of Russian counterparts when defining objectives, designing project components, developing metrics of success, and jointly managing the overall relationship. Sharing of costs and continued evolution toward truly joint efforts from the earliest stages of planning are essential if joint efforts are to receive political and financial support over the long term.
2. Support, or at least acceptance, by all concerned government agencies in both countries is an important first step in launching a new public- or private-sector initiative or even renewing existing arrangements. A common problem has been the absence at the discussion tables of representatives of one or more important government agencies from the two countries who should have direct interests in the project. Often, it is essential that relevant agencies participate in discussions of significant implementation details as well as simply giving general approval for the general approach.
Aside from the special foreign policy roles of the Department of State and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in advocating joint activities that they consider important, there may not be effective champions within the two governments for guiding proposed activities. International policy officials may be supportive of specific projects, but they rely on technical agencies to work out details. The dispersion of authority among technical agencies requires considerable coordination from the outset. Also, the involvement of private-sector companies and independent research groups may further highlight the importance of coordination.
3. International programs sponsored by institutions in third countries that have objectives similar to those reflected in U.S.-Russian bilateral efforts may compete for the time of interlocutors and important scientific leaders in either
the United States or Russia. At the outset, the commitments of key interlocutors and scientists should be clear to both sides. The commitments should, to the extent possible, include reciprocal travel to consult on progress of the programs. If appropriate, important organizations from other countries might be considered as additional participants in the planned activities.
4. Cooperation that builds on mutual strengths of the two countries and extends ongoing joint activities of their institutions is usually on a solid footing. However, initiation of bilateral activities in some subfields of biology wherein one country has relatively limited experience will require considerable patience, with full recognition of the differences in capabilities. The expectations as to mutual scientific benefits need to be carefully considered, depending on the comparability of capabilities and interests.
5. Strong commitments and support by institutions in both countries that are participating in bioengagement are essential. Such support includes releasing key participants from other duties when necessary; providing appropriate working facilities for participating scientists; ensuring access by research teams to water, power, communications, maintenance, and transportation infrastructures of the institutions; and arranging facilitative services for visiting scientists.
6. The importance of up-front planning, including pilot efforts if appropriate, prior to initiating significant program activities cannot be overemphasized. A get-acquainted phase that involves clarification of tasks, agreements on responsibilities and time lines, and preliminary identification of desired outcomes may be essential.
7. Development of strategies for achieving long-term support of important activities deserves high priority. Government agencies and other organizations operating on year-by-year budget allocations often have difficulties in considering the implications of long-term programs. But continuation over the long term is often a key to significant payoff from some programs.
In short, wide-ranging consultations on details of proposed projects and discussions of preliminary plans for extending successful efforts are highly desirable early steps. Metrics include, for example (a) follow-on activities such as success in applying for additional grants, (b) realization of plans for publications, (c) filing of patent applications that draw on collaborative research results, (d) improvements of facilities to overcome technical weaknesses in the laboratories that may emerge during initial cooperative activities, (e) adoption of new protocols or procedures that have demonstrated success, and (f) enrollment in the cooperative activities of talented young investigators who are interested in linking their early careers to international projects.
8. The two governments have expanded their initial visions of narrow nonproliferation approaches, recognizing that strengthening broadly based institutional infrastructures is a key aspect in addressing bioterrorism and proliferation concerns. Indeed, a capacity-building approach when considering biosecurity and biosafety is imperative.
Of special importance is recognition that even in narrowly defined security-oriented programs directed to prevention of bioterrorism, attention to common health and agricultural diseases that affect many people and agricultural resources may be essential. Broad recognition of health concerns, in particular, is usually as important for local acceptance of programs as narrowly focused concerns over the much lower probability of outbreaks of diseases associated with extremely dangerous pathogens. By including a strong emphasis on day-to-day issues facing the general public, local buy-in of programs will be significantly enhanced. Then cooperative activities can be better oriented to addressing key components of overall health, agriculture, and other systems that intersect with bioterrorism concerns.
9. The involvement of anticipated users of results of applied research activities early in the design and conduct of research projects is desirable. The users may be government agencies, specific facilities, industrial organizations, or clusters of professional organizations. Often, planning should extend well beyond expectations for preparation of journal articles and extend all the way to the marketplace, although journal articles may be an essential first step.
10. Selecting, installing, and maintaining new equipment, including imported items, may be a critical component of a joint project. However, the long-term costs of equipment acquisition and maintenance (including warranties), the skills needed to utilize the equipment effectively (including technicians), and the support infrastructure for supplies and services (relying on readily available local experts for maintenance of laboratory equipment) may vary significantly, even though the equipment is designed to serve comparable functions at different locations. All aspects of equipment acquisition, utilization, and maintenance need to be carefully considered when planning collaborative activities that require such acquisitions. Compliance with local quality assurance requirements for data that are generated and adherence to prescribed environmental practices in the laboratory and in the field deserve special attention.
LESSONS LEARNED BY RESEARCH SCIENTISTS
To obtain working-level perspectives as to lessons learned, the committee solicited reflections on personal experiences of a number of scientific collaborators in the two countries who had been active in one important area of bilateral cooperation—joint research in the field of agriculture. The collaborators provided their observations concerning the successes of their project activities, the reasons for success, problems encountered, and lessons learned for future projects. A number of their viewpoints are set forth below, and their observations are further elaborated in Appendix C.10. Their impressions underscore the importance of synchronizing solutions to problems encountered at the governmental and institution levels with solutions of problems encountered at the level of the researcher.
While the comments focused on improving cooperation in the area of agriculture, some observations have salience in other fields as well.
International projects may have been a new experience for some scientists, although this situation may be of less concern in the future as international outreach continues to expand. At times a resident of one country must relocate for a period of months or longer to the other country as a manager, as a highly trained specialist in a newly developing area of endeavor for the host country, or as a trainee. Lack of experience in working in foreign environments or unfamiliarity with the requirements of international projects can lead to many missteps— administratively, financially, or programmatically. Care should be taken in selection of the people who relocate or travel abroad, and reliable support mechanisms may be needed to avoid difficulties that reduce productivity or create personal hardships for temporary visitors.
While researchers sometimes have a sufficient degree of fluency in the language of their international counterparts to carry out general exchanges of views and minor transactions, interpreters are often essential in development and implementation of long-term arrangements. Special language training may be needed for scientists who will spend weeks or even months in a partner country. Also, written agreements between the U.S. and Russian institutions are usually considered to be significant documents and may require translations. Some plans fail to allocate sufficient budget resources to language training or professional interpretation services.
Other concerns of participating scientists are reflected in the following 12 observations.
1. Too often, interested parties assume that government approval of a collaborative project means that adequate financing will be provided by one or both of the governments until the project is completed. Often this is not the case. Even if a first round of funding is provided, a planned second round may again require an extensive list of approvals with no assurance of a positive outcome. Proponents in one country of a proposed project, whether financed by a public-sector or private-sector organization, need to take care in avoiding statements that lead to false expectations among their counterparts as to commitments of financial sponsors that will support projects.
2. Key collaborators for individual projects should have common interests and capabilities that are well matched. Cooperative projects should not be undertaken if the principal scientists in the two countries are not satisfied with the content of the proposed programs and the capabilities and enthusiasm of their counterparts. Compatibility issues can be addressed during an initial get-acquainted phase prior to launching the project.
Sometimes senior scientists with somewhat different interests and research objectives are designated to serve as the coleaders from the two sides of projects that had been developed by others. In these cases, the leaders have the options
of (a) embracing previous arrangements, (b) attempting to redefine the programs with their counterparts, or (c) stepping down and arranging for other project leaders.
3. In-person joint planning and review throughout the implementation of projects is important. Time lines for carrying out different phases of research are a continuing topic, and preliminary agreement on publications and authorship as well as other anticipated outcomes of collaboration needs to be reached early in the project and adjusted as necessary. In short, face-to-face field and laboratory visits at predetermined intervals may be essential, not only to coordinate activities but also to clarify misconceptions about the research approach and to build mutual confidence of reliability of foreign partners.
4. Open communications that facilitate access to primary data, interim results, and modifications of research approaches are important throughout project implementation.
5. Joint activities are most interesting for both researchers and policy officials when they are results oriented. Publications, presentation of concepts and technical data to likely users of research findings, and, in some cases, patent applications are often cited as desired results. This orientation of international projects to providing discernable outcomes is particularly important in supporting requests for future funding, which may be in competition with requests for funding of domestic projects.
6. Arrangements for funding joint projects will, of course, depend on the type of funding that is available. If grants are obtained, payments to the participating institutions and scientists in the projects should be linked to completion of predefined tasks specified in the grants. This approach helps to ensure that grant funding is focused on the tasks at hand and not used for other purposes.
7. Special efforts may be needed to involve investigators who are in the early stages of their careers in joint projects when appropriate. They not only can help ensure long-term continuation of research efforts, they also can provide continuity of current efforts when more senior scientists are unexpectedly drawn to other projects or retire. But most important, they may be able to bring fresh ideas to projects that might otherwise be stymied by out-of-date concepts.
8. The more institutions that are involved in cooperative projects, the more important the agreed administrative arrangements become. One-on-one institutional arrangements may seem to work better and more efficiently than broader involvement of a number of institutions in a single project. At the same time, however, involvement of specialists from a number of institutions with particular skills and experiences may be important in building self-sustaining networks of specialists. In any event, when organizational affiliations of project participants expand, steps are needed to simplify administrative arrangements to the extent possible.
9. At times, newly constructed or reconstructed facilities are needed to
carry out joint projects. Allowances must be made for unanticipated difficulties and time delays that may accompany the initial uses of untested facilities.
10. There may be requirements for special facilities and procedures to accommodate new projects. For example, requirements by government funding agencies related to animal care and use may extend beyond previous requirements set forth by individual facilities, and adjustments are then clearly in order.
11. The presence in Russia of an organization that can assist investigators in resolving difficulties across borders that may arise during project implementation—in particular, the International Science and Technology Center (ISTC)—has been important. Now, as the ISTC prepares to close its doors in Moscow in 2015, there may be a need for another mechanism or mechanisms to help facilitate activities.
12. Professional rewards from collaboration can be high. Collaboration not only helps solve problems of direct interest to principal investigators, but also highly visible joint efforts can at times encourage other colleagues to become involved in international programs.
Many other lessons learned are included in scientific publications, trip reports, and other manuscripts prepared by scientists involved in exchanges during the past decade. The best way to take advantage of their experience is, of course, through direct contact with them. This report is intended to provide useful pointers for beneficial discussion.
As to future programmatic activities, some problems are likely to continue to complicate cooperation in science-oriented activities sponsored by the governments or by other organizations in the two countries. Hopefully, experiences in resolving past difficulties have sensitized the participating organizations in both countries to resolve anticipated issues as soon as possible after authorized counterparts have given “approval in principle” to move forward with projects. While impediments may continue to arise, early resolution will probably be quicker than resolution that is postponed to the implementation stage.
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