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President Aoun argues for sustainable global partnerships during China-India conference

At a time when universities are rapidly expanding educational and research programs abroad, Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun spoke on a panel of local university presidents examining the state of global R&D partnerships. Aoun was the first panelist to speak and framed the issue by offering “an environmental scan” of the situation, which he believes is in need of improvement.

“We live in a period of knowledge explosion,” said Aoun. “No university and no country is self-sufficient—we need to establish sustainable global partnerships to address today’s societal problems.”

Noting that universities have traditionally valued fundamental research over applied research, Aoun argued for significant focus on “translational research,” which he has championed along with interdisciplinary work. “The most exciting discoveries are happening at the intersection of fields,” said Aoun. “We need to focus on ways to create sustainable partnerships using translational and interdisciplinary research.”

Aoun said that current international partnerships are not living up to their potential, largely because they are based on a unidirectional model, rather than a truly global model characterized by reciprocal relationships. “We need to begin building a truly global research enterprise,” said Aoun.

While the panelists agreed that there is substantial room for improvement, each cited examples of current global research partnerships affiliated with their institutions. Aoun highlighted two Northeastern ventures, each with industry partners: The Northeastern University-Greece Innovation Center, and the Center for High-rate Nanomanufacturing, which is also affiliated with two South Korean universities.

International education programs will likely provide the infrastructure needed to build sustainable global research partnerships, said Aoun, who pointed out that Northeastern’s co-op and experiential learning programs have become increasingly global. Today, Northeastern offers co-op and experiential opportunities with more than 2,500 businesses, research institutions, government agencies and nonprofits operating in 88 cities outside the United States.

Susan Avery, president of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, agreed with Aoun on the benefits of experiential learning, calling it, “increasingly important in global partnerships.”

During the question-and-answer session, the panelists were asked if failed partnerships could provide the most valuable lessons for the future. The presidents agreed that global partnerships must be multidirectional, and that all sides need to understand how they are helping one another. Early funding, derived from industry, foundations, government agencies and universities, is also essential.

There was strong consensus among the panelists that simply signing a Memorandum of Understanding is not sufficient to build a sustainable partnership. “Higher education is littered with MOUs that went nowhere,” said Aoun.

Moderated by Boston University President Robert Brown, the panel included President Aoun, President Avery, Su Guaning, president of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and Jack Wilson, president of the University of Massachusetts.

The discussion was part of a weeklong series, The U.S.-China-India Innovation Partnerships Conference, organized by MassInsight, a Boston-based policy organization. Thought leaders from academia, government and industry gathered for the conference to discuss the formation of strong global partnerships designed to meet 21st century demands.


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