Capacity-building sets stage for international research partnerships

Herd of sheep near mountains

Researchers at the University of Minnesota will soon come together with their counterparts from across Latin America to improve animal, human and environmental health through collaborative research.

This international network, launched through a two-year International Capacity Building grant from the U’s Office of the Vice President for Research and matched by endowed chair funds from the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety, will serve as the framework for forming new research projects around subjects that can benefit both the U.S. and Latin America. The International Capacity Building funding provides for a project manager to support the development of grants and provide administrative assistance for research projects that focus on promoting aquaculture (farming fish or shellfish for food), supporting livestock health, curbing zoonotic (animal-to-human) diseases and preserving ecosystems, as well as addressing the issues that lie where these four areas intersect.

The transdisciplinary effort will bring together U of M researchers from the colleges of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences; Public Health; and Veterinary Medicine, as well as the corresponding experts from these fields in Central and South American research institutions.

International collaborations are an OVPR research priority. In 2015, an analysis of publication data and other metrics allowed the office to pinpoint three groups of countries that showed the highest potential for new research collaborations. One group included three countries in Latin America (Argentina, Chile and Peru). The International Capacity Building grant supported the network with Latin American institutions in part because its scope aligned with these original findings.

“We put together this approach with the vision of establishing partnerships that match our interests and expertise with opportunities and capacities in partnering countries,” said Andres Perez, Ph.D., one of three principal investigators on the project, whose Endowed Chair of Global Animal Health and Food Safety matched OVPR funds.

Along with Perez, the principal investigators include Claudia Munoz-Zanzi, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology and community health with SPH; and Nicholas Phelps, Ph.D., assistant professor of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology in CFANS.

Maria Sol Perez Aguirreburualde, Ph.D., the initiative’s project manager, will manage the network and provide administrative support across research areas to help the collaborations take off. Perez Aguirreburualde was previously a post-doctoral researcher on animal health at the Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria, a federal agricultural technology institute in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and one of the network’s partnering institutions.

Launching an international network

Though the network is still in its early stages, six countries have already pledged their support — Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Spain (included for its cultural similarities to many Latin American countries) and Uruguay. As it continues to develop, researchers hope it will expand to other Latin American countries as well.

Over the next few months, U of M researchers will get to know their international partners and learn about the strengths and capacities each of them brings to the table. For example, a U of M researcher working with a Chilean scientist may want to learn about the aquaculture industry in Chile, where in the country fish farms are concentrated and what pressing challenges aquaculture farmers face.

Once the groups settle on which projects are top priority, they will seek funding opportunities to pursue them. When looking for grants in partnering countries, Munoz-Zanzi said it’s crucial to understand the funding agencies’ priorities.

“We have to figure out what their needs are,” she said. “In the U.S., the National Institutes of Health is clear about the type of research they want to fund. We need to find someone in each of these countries who can provide similar information on their funding agencies’ priorities and how to access grant opportunities.”

Perez and his team have identified more than $15 million in research grants so far across partnering countries — and the act of collaborating alone may help researchers secure these funds, Perez said. Seeing that the project includes collaboration with a major U.S. research university could boost the appeal and credibility of the project to funders — and vice versa. This advantage could help many of the network’s projects breed long-term collaborations between U of M researchers and their counterparts in Latin American.

As the network develops, its leaders will look for ways to sustain it long-term.

“There are a lot of opportunities here — the challenge is to identify strategic opportunities for where to put our resources,” Perez said. “We hope to form a sustainable model for collaborative research that leads to improvements in health for humans, animals and our natural ecosystems.”