Water Research and Education Need to Flow Towards Developing World

Post-secondary education relevant to the global water crisis is concentrated in wealthy countries rather than the poorer, developing places where it is needed most.

Meanwhile, water research is largely assessed by counting the number of papers published and their citations by other researchers, rather than considering if the work actually leads to successful, practical solutions.

Our twin papers — products of research at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH) — highlight and document these weaknesses in the global effort to address inadequate water supply and sanitation — problems that rank among the top 10 global risks.

There is no global source of information on water-related academic activities. To uncover trends in water-related publications, therefore, we had to devise indirect measures using several databases, including one that indexes 22,800 journals, magazines, and reports from more than 5,000 publishers.

Because there is no list of water resource-related post-secondary programmes, similar detective work was required to locate the world’s 28,000 or so universities that offer degrees in water-related programmes.

Our most troubling finding at the end of the day: altogether too little training and research takes place where water problems are most acute. Instead, global water research relies on Western — particularly US — scientific outputs.

Globally, we found water-related research is published in 88 countries but just two of them — the United States and China — accounted for 33% of the 1.2 million papers published between 2012 and 2017.

About 70% of the academic journals that publish water research are based in just four countries — the United States, Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands; 2% are in China.

Our most troubling finding at the end of the day: altogether too little training and research takes place where water problems are most acute. Instead, global water research relies on Western — particularly US — scientific outputs.

All 15 countries leading in publications per million population are among the world’s wealthiest, suggesting water research does not emerge as a reaction to water scarcity, but instead, to economic value in a supply and sanitation industry expected to be worth US$1 trillion in 2020.

The average number of citations for any given paper dropped precipitously, from 22 in 2012 to just three in 2017. This suggests, at least in part, that lower quality papers are being written to conform with government sponsored policies on publication, or reflects increasing pressure in academia to produce research — “publish or perish”.

This pressure might be critical for researchers to survive, but it is hardly conducive from a development perspective.

Meanwhile, most universities offering water-related courses are in North America, Europe and parts of Asia. In sub-Saharan Africa, which faces severe water shortages, very few postgraduate institutions offer recognised programmes focusing on water.

And many students from water-stressed countries who attend university in North America or Europe don’t return home after graduation, depriving their countries of badly needed expertise.

Any incentive, process, or practice that encourages the return of these highly-qualified students to jobs in the water sector could benefit the home country.

Given the highly autonomous nature of universities and their faculty members, it’s unreasonable to expect widespread cooperation in curriculum design and delivery but some sharing of materials would be very beneficial.

The bottom line: 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.

We suggest that a consortium of universities offer large-scale water studies, courses or programmes using the specific expertise of their combined faculty members.

Other recommendations include: encourage more women to enter the water-resources field; and find better ways to convey in a practical way the research findings, learning, and knowledge in research publications to actual users in need of the knowledge.

Teacher and teaching ratings should likewise be based on outcomes, including assessments, by previous students at different intervals since graduation, about the quality, content and relevance of their programmes.

The bottom line: 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 also must be a more structured focus on water education.

The UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set ambitious targets for improvement in water supply and sanitation. To achieve the water-related SDGs, however, we need to use insights into academic shortcomings to make reforms — and this must happen soon.

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The papers “Higher Education in the Water Sector: A Global Overview” and “Bibliometrics of Water Research: A Global Snapshot”, are available on the UNU-INWEH website.

 

This article was first published by Inter Press Service News.

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