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Water Research & Education Needs to Flow Towards Developing World

Colin Mayfield, is Senior Advisor, Water Education and Knowledge Management at United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH), and Hamid Mehmood is a Senior Researcher*.

HAMILTON, Canada, May 30 2019 (IPS) - 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 citation by other researchers rather than whether the work actually leads to successful, practical solutions.

Twin papers from UN University’s Canadian-based Institute for Water, Environment and Health 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’s 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.

Nor is there a list of water resource-related post-secondary programs. Similar detective work was required, therefore, to locate the world’s 28,000 or so universities that offer degrees in water-related programs.

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.

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 some economic value in a supply and sanitation industry expected to be worth $1 trillion (US) 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 programs 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.

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

Other recommendations: 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 programs.

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) sets 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 soon.

*Their papers, “Higher Education in the Water Sector: A Global Overview” and “Bibliometrics of Water Research: A Global Snapshot,” are available at UNU-INWEH is supported by the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada and hosted by McMaster University.

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