“It’s not for us to solve our partners’ problems. Our task is to do better research”

This picture shows Laurent Goetschel, a peace researcher. © Manu Friederich

No one contests the importance of research collaboration. But collaborations with emerging countries are often overlooked. These can prove important for Swiss research, says Laurent Goetschel, a peace researcher at the Institute for European Global Studies in Basel. By Roland Fischer

​Horizons: Prof. Goetschel, you argue that Switzerland’s international research collaborations should include countries that are barely visible on the world’s scientificscene. Are you talking about ‘development research’ or ‘north-south research’?Laurent Goetschel: The concept of ‘development research’ is closely allied to development aid. It’s research that is intended to deliver ideas as to how best to carry out development work. I would prefer to talk about research on global problems and
challenges but in local contexts. Referring to specific geographical contexts takes into
account the many very different approaches. These range from questions of good
governance to issues such as poverty, globalisation and public sanitation. What they
all have in common is this: they involve tackling a research question in collaboration
with research partners from countries with different levels of socio-economic development.

H: Doesn’t this almost inevitably smack of paternalism?G: That’s a prejudice that has long confronted this kind of research. People think
that if you’re helping people, then you can’t possibly end up doing good research. And vice versa. But it’s not for us to solve our partners’ problems. Our task is to do better research, and to do it in collaboration with them and to the advantage of both sides. Of course, without our involvement, local researchers in those countries often wouldn’t enjoy the conditions that north-south projects need. But on the other hand, our own research scene can also profit from such collaborations. This too can result in research excellence.

H: For example?G: Being able to test well-known concepts and observations in foreign contexts. And
there are topics that affect us directly, but that we can only investigate in meaningful
collaboration with those kinds of partners: biodiversity, commodities, health and migration. And it’s exciting, for example, to talk with someone from the Sudan about
peace research, because it opens up quite different perspectives.

H: And the brain drain? Don’t such collaborations mostly bring about the emigrationof promising researchers from developing countries?G: Ninety percent of the researchers involved who come from emerging countries carry on researching there. We know how to set up projects so that resources don’t migrate.

H: The National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) ‘North-South’ was closedlast year. What sustainable structures have resulted from it?G: It will hardly be possible to maintain the research networks it managed to establish
with different countries. Just providing money for projects is not enough on its own. That’s a shame. In this respect, the conditions are worse than when the NCCR North-South was up and running.

(From "Horizons" No. 101, June 2014)