International research partnerships are becoming increasingly common. And for good reason. As technology lowers the barriers to communication, information and data can be shared at breakneck speeds, creating new opportunities for scientists and researchers across the globe to explore more formal and informal ways of collaborating.

In 2011, a report by the U.K’s Royal Society argued that global partnerships improve the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of research, collaborations that are bringing together complementary skill sets and access to resources, equipment and knowledge that may not be universally available.

One well-known example is the Human Genome Project, a massive undertaking involving thousands of researchers operating in six different countries that ran from 1990-2003. It radically shifted our ability to understand our bioloigcal structure and that of countless other species. 

Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, noted in 2001 after the majority of the research had been published that humanity's genome is best conceived as a book with many uses: "It's a history book – a narrative of the journey of our species through time. It's a shop manual, with an incredibly detailed blueprint for building every human cell. And it's a transformative textbook of medicine, with insights that will give health care providers immense new powers to treat, prevent and cure disease."

But not all collaborations need to function on such grand scales. And given humanity’s current ecological challenges, such global collaborations have never been more important.

European Research Day

On November 5th, European researchers are set to meet in Ottawa for European Research Day, a conference bringing together European and North American researchers to exchange project information and best practices while exploring opportunities for collaboration.

Karin Björkland, an assistant professor of Architecture and Civil Engineering at the Chalmers University of Technology in Göteborg, Sweden, will be speaking on the importance of transatlantic research and scientific cooperation.

Björkland is well positioned to help bridge those geographic divides. Her research focuses on a problem common to all continents with major urban centres – understanding sources and treatments of pollutants in urban stormwater runoff and, just as importantly, how to reduce those pollutants.

“Putting my research in a bigger perspective and understanding the Canada and North America actually made me a better researcher."

Because water contaminants often occur at hard-to-detect concentrations. She hopes that by gathering data on stormwater composition her research can pave the way for stronger testing methods to identify contaminants, crucial at a time when there’s currently a lack of data on treatment technologies and how effective they are at improving water quality.

“One of the biggest challenges is actually to understand how these treatment technologies function and how they could be improved,” Björkland tells A\J. “Some of [the current treatment technologies] are good – we would just like to improve them even more so we can remove a variety of pollutants at the same time.”

Canada-Sweden partnership

In an effort to broaden her research’s scope, Björkland led the Removal of Organic Contaminants in Stormwater Treatment Facilities project in collaboration with the University of British Columbia. The project looked at what happens to stormwater pollutants when water is treated in the hopes of developing more efficient treatment methods.

These kinds of international collaborations, she says, are important in identifying what aspects of water treatment engineering are working around the world. And, just as crucially, how different institutions have focused on different aspects of the same problem.

“It was very interesting to come to Canada and see how they approach management of urban runoff,” Björkland says, noting UBC was more open-minded about trying new approaches. “We need to do a lot of things to improve stormwater quality.”

There are large-scale benefits to be had from such global collaborations. “Putting my research in a bigger perspective and understanding the Canada and North America actually made me a better researcher,” Björkland says.

“I don’t focus only on what we can do in Sweden. I see more of a global scale now,” she says, reinforcing the need to share knowledge gleaned in one part of the world as widely as possible to save researchers time and money.

Her stormwater research, after all, shouldn’t be confined to Sweden.

Braydon Black is a recent graduate of the Biological Sciences program at the University of Calgary and is currently working as a freelance writer and journalist. Follow him on Twitter.

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