Needed most in poorer nations: educational opportunities,
greater focus on practical water-related results, papers say
Assess water research impact by successful results achieved,
not by papers published and cited by other researchers
Post-secondary education and research aimed at tackling the global water crisis is concentrated in wealthy countries rather than the poorer, developing places where it is most needed, the United Nations University says.
Two new papers from UNU’s Canada-based Institute for Water, Environment and Health call for reducing this “alarming” imbalance between resources and need, which impedes the search for solutions to crucial water challenges.
They also call for refocusing how water research is assessed, with more emphasis on whether the work leads to successful, practical solutions and less on counting the number of papers published and cited by other researchers.
Leading international agencies rank inadequate water supply and sanitation among the top 10 global risks, and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals set ambitious targets for improvement.
Despite the research and other efforts that have gone into trying to resolve the water challenges, “not many of them have been removed from the global development agenda”, says Hamid Mehmood, a UNU-INWEH Senior Researcher based in Hamilton, Ontario, in his paper “Bibliometrics of Water Research: A Global Snapshot“.
“Higher education related to water is a critical component of capacity development”, according to Colin Mayfield, Professor Emeritus at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, in “Higher Education in the Water Sector: A Global Overview”.
In their separate papers, Drs Mayfield and Mehmood examine the weaknesses in water-related research and education systems, and suggest reforms.
In both cases, with no global data source offering detailed information on educational activities in the water sector, or even listing water-resources programmes as a discrete category, the authors devised indirect strategies to extract information from several databases.
Mehmood entered a string of 1,057 search terms into the Scopus database, which indexes 22,800 journals, magazines, and reports from more than 5,000 international publishers, to find trends in water-related publications and citations between 2012 and 2017.
Mayfield also used Scopus as well as the Shanghai Academic Ranking System, the Times Higher Education website, the Ranking Web of Universities, Our World in Data, and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics to get data on the location of the world’s more than 28,000 universities that offer degrees in water-related programmes, particularly those with high academic rankings, as well as the obstacles and opportunities for researchers and students to access them.
Most troubling for both is the evidence that too little training and research takes place where water problems are most acute.
“Countries with protracted water problems in infrastructure, environment, agriculture, and energy solutions do not seem to be at the forefront of water research production or knowledge transfer. Instead, global water research is reliant on the Western — and, particularly, US-produced — scientific outputs”, Mehmood states. “Considering the regional and cross-boundary nature of water-related problems, the lack of regional knowledge flows is alarming.”
Among Mehmood’s findings:
The pressure to publish, he says, might be “critical for researchers to survive under the existing ‘publish or perish’ paradigm, but is hardly conducive from a development angle.”
1% of post-secondary institutions in sub-Sahara offer water programmes
Mayfield’s paper states that “overall, the state of education and training in the water sector varies between regions of the world”, and the developed world has many concentrated places of excellence in water studies. That is less common in parts of Africa and Asia.”
Among many findings:
“Given the highly autonomous nature of universities and their faculty members, it would be unreasonable to expect widespread cooperation in curriculum design and delivery, but some sharing of materials would be very beneficial.” Perhaps, Mayfield adds, “a consortium of universities could offer large-scale water studies, courses, or programmes using the specific expertise of their combined faculty members.”
Both authors agree that assessing research impact by tabulating publication and citation numbers simply shows how information circulates in academic circles without determining its practical impacts.
“To help accelerate solutions to global and national water challenges that many of these research papers are highlighting, the water research community needs to look beyond the research ‘box’ and identify ways to measure (the) development impact of water research programs, rather (than) ‘impact’ based solely on academic impact measured in citations”, Mehmood says.
“The research findings, learning, and knowledge in these research publications needs to be conveyed in a practical way to the real users of this knowledge – stakeholders who are beyond research circles.”
Similarly, Mayfield suggests teaching ratings be based on outcomes, including assessments by previous students after different intervals since graduation about the quality, content, and relevance of their programmes to their employment experience.
Dr Vladimir Smakhtin, Director of UNU-INWEH, concluded: “When it comes to water research, the ‘publish or perish’ philosophy that drives many researchers must take second place to the goal of on-the-ground results, especially in the developing world, where there must be also a more structured focus on water education in the future. We need to find ways to make these reforms, and soon; otherwise we will not achieve water-related SDGs. We hope these two papers stimulate the dialogue on how to implement the changes required.”
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The UNU Institute for Water, Environment and Health is a member of the United Nations University family of organisations. It is the UN think tank on water created by the UNU Governing Council in 1996. Its mission is to help resolve pressing water challenges of concern to the UN, its Member States, and their people, through knowledge-based synthesis of existing bodies of scientific discovery; cutting-edge targeted research that identifies emerging policy issues; application of on-the-ground scalable solutions based on credible research; and relevant and targeted public outreach.
UNU-INWEH is supported by the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada and hosted by McMaster University.