Nav: Home

Flow water research and education more towards developing world: UN University

May 29, 2019

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 the UNU's Canadian-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 suggest 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 programs 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 (THE) 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 programs, 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, 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 - particularly US - 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:
  • Globally, more research papers are being published and the number of academic journals focused on water issues is rising. Even so, water-related research doesn't figure prominently in most countries. -- usually falling below 10 per cent of all published papers. And the proportion is even lower among those that lead in publications in all subject areas

  • Water-related research is published in 88 countries. Between them, the United States and China accounted for 33 per cent of the 1.2 million papers published between 2012 and 2017, although their publication rate is growing more slowly than many other countries

  • About 70 per cent of the academic journals that carry research on water issues are published in just four countries -- the United States, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands -- and only two per cent are in China.
All 15 countries leading in publications per million population are among the world's wealthiest, suggesting water research does not necessarily 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 each paper dropped precipitously, from 22 in 2012 to just three in 2017. Mehmood suggests this decline results, at least in part, from the lower quality of papers written to conform with government sponsored policies on publication or increasing pressure in academia to produce research papers

  • 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."

    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:
    • Most of the universities that offer courses in water-related issues, and that publish research papers, 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.

    • Wealthy nations are home to the highest-quality schools, with 38 of the universities in the Shanghai Ranking's Top 50 for Excellence in Water Resources in North America and Europe, and the other 12 in Australia, China and Taiwan.

    • Four universities ranked in the top 50 both for excellence in teaching (Times Higher Education website) and in excellence in Water Resources (engineering, Shanghai Ranking) is in the United States; the other in China.

    • The cost of education is a barrier in many countries, especially for foreign students. 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," Mayfield notes.

    • The lack of detailed and centralized information means "searching for information on water-related programs and courses is an onerous task," for students, Mayfield says. Also "A better 'roadmap' is needed to chart the programs."
    "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, he adds, "a consortium of universities could offer large-scale water studies, courses or programs using the specific expertise of their combined faculty members."
    • There is a need to encourage more women to enter the water-resources field.

    • The most important skills, knowledge and abilities for work in the water sector identified in many studies were "interpersonal" -- the ability to interact, coordinate, teach and learn. These skills are not typically taught or emphasized in water-sector education and training and should be considered and incorporated in educational activities.
    Both authors agree that assessing research impact by tabulating publication and citation numbers simply show 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 programs to their employment experience.

    Concluded Dr. Vladimir Smakhtin, Director of UNU-INWEH: "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 dialog on how to implement the changes required."

    The UNU Institute for Water, Environment and Health is a member of the United Nations University family of organizations. 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.

    UN University Institute for Water, Environment and Health

    Related Education Articles:

    The new racial disparity in special education
    Racial disparity in special education is growing, and it's more complex than previously thought.
    Education may be key to a healthier, wealthier US
    A first-of-its-kind study estimate the economic value of education for better health and longevity.
    How education may stave off cognitive decline
    Prefrontal brain regions linked to higher educational attainment are characterized by increased expression of genes involved in neurotransmission and immunity, finds a study of healthy older adults published in JNeurosci.
    Does more education stem political violence?
    In a study released online today in Review of Educational Research, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association, three Norwegian researchers attempt to bring clarity to this question by undertaking the first systematic examination of quantitative research on this topic.
    Education interventions improve economic rationality
    This study proves that education can be leveraged as a tool to help enhance an individual's economic decision-making quality, or economic rationality.
    Protestantism still matters when it comes to education, study shows
    A new academic study, the first of its kind, reveals a significant and positive historical legacy of Protestant religion in education around the world.
    Individual education programs not being used as intended in special education
    Gone are the days when students with disabilities were placed in a separate classroom, or even in a completely different part of the school.
    How does limited education limit young people?
    A recent nationally-representative US Department of Education study found that 28 percent of fall 2009 ninth-graders had not yet enrolled in a trade school or college by February 2016 -- roughly six-and-a-half years later.
    'Depression education' effective for some teens
    In an assessment of their 'depression literacy' program, which has already been taught to tens of thousands, Johns Hopkins researchers say the Adolescent Depression Awareness Program (ADAP) achieved its intended effect of encouraging many teenagers to speak up and seek adult help for themselves or a peer.
    Teenagers gamble away their education
    The odds are stacked against teenagers who regularly gamble. A new study in Springer's Journal of Gambling Studies shows that a 14-year-old who gambles is more likely to struggle at school.

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Rethinking Anger
Anger is universal and complex: it can be quiet, festering, justified, vengeful, and destructive. This hour, TED speakers explore the many sides of anger, why we need it, and who's allowed to feel it. Guests include psychologists Ryan Martin and Russell Kolts, writer Soraya Chemaly, former talk radio host Lisa Fritsch, and business professor Dan Moshavi.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#538 Nobels and Astrophysics
This week we start with this year's physics Nobel Prize awarded to Jim Peebles, Michel Mayor, and Didier Queloz and finish with a discussion of the Nobel Prizes as a way to award and highlight important science. Are they still relevant? When science breakthroughs are built on the backs of hundreds -- and sometimes thousands -- of people's hard work, how do you pick just three to highlight? Join host Rachelle Saunders and astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Ethan Siegel for their chat about astrophysics and Nobel Prizes.