Going global

Stephen Forrest is U-M's Vice President for Research.

Stephen Forrest is U-M’s Vice President for Research.

The Office of the Vice President for Research recently announced a collaborative agreement between the U-M and Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) that encourages cooperative research in renewable energy and biomedical research. Many questions arise from this announcement: Why SJTU? Why these topics? Why now? Let me try to answer them here.We have unquestionably entered the age of globalization. Many companies large and small do business across the globe, placing significant manufacturing and service arms in numerous locations worldwide. Indeed, one cannot imagine a Microsoft, IBM, General Motors or any of the Fortune 500 companies succeeding without a global reach.Unlike the industrial community, there are few examples where universities have created formal collaborative research agreements with foreign partner institutions. We, of course, have a long tradition of one-on-one faculty collaborations with overseas colleagues. But in this highly interconnected world where large research problems have global reach, the absence of institutional-level cooperation seems strange.Even so, universities have long recognized the benefits of “study abroad” for undergraduates. It gives participants an educational experience that provides a deeper appreciation of the views and perspectives of a culture other than their own. In fact, I’ve personally benefited from an education abroad program. While attending the University of California in the 1970’s, I spent one year at the University of Birmingham, UK. To say it changed my life is not an understatement. Everything that followed for me started with this extraordinary experience!Nearly two years ago, U-M entered into a significant and successful inter-institutional research collaboration with the Fraunhofer Institutes in Germany, and Fraunhofer USA. The subject is clean fuels. The object is to combine our complementary research expertise to build economic foundations for less carbon-intensive transportation. This collaboration is based on seed investments from both the Fraunhofer Institutes and U-M, and has successfully brought together exciting research projects from both organizations.So this brings us to SJTU. U-M has had an educational collaboration with SJTU that goes back for more than a decade. The U-M/SJTU Joint Institute places American and Chinese students here and in China, with more than 200 JI students now attending U-M, mostly in the College of Engineering. Prof. Jun Ni (U-M, Mechanical Engineering) is currently Dean of the Joint Institute.While educational opportunities have abounded, research collaborations have been slower to develop, although it now seems natural that U-M and SJTU take the next step in building links between our universities and countries. After all, President Obama has stated (correctly, in my view) that the U.S. and China have the most important bilateral national relationship in the world today. To understand our cultures, and to make rapid advances particularly in the areas of clean energy and medicine, we have to learn to do joint research, thereby learning from and teaching each other.Interestingly our timing is excellent. The U.S. Department of Energy just announced an opportunity for joint research with Chinese institutions on renewable energy. This program recognizes that we all live on the same planet, and the two largest carbon-emitting nations must work together if we are ever to have hope in solving the massive problems of climate change and affordable, secure energy generation now confronting humanity. Our U-M/SJTU research collaboration is opportune, as it places us in an excellent position to compete for such programs.I believe, therefore, that globalization of research is an essential step for universities to make the greatest possible impact in solving the largest problems now confronting humanity. Fraunhofer and SJTU are only the start of what looks to be an increasingly important trend overtaking the academic research enterprise worldwide.

For more on U-M research, see Stephen Forrest’s blog.

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