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Sino-American botanical exchange: characteristics of success and lessons learnt
Volume 8 Number 1 - January 2011
Barnabas Seyler and Robert Lyons
International collaboration is increasingly recognized by botanic gardens, arboreta, and other public horticulture institutions as fundamentally important to fulfil the research, education, display, and conservation components of their respective missions (Hird, 2007; Raven, 2007; Rudyj, 1988). Many of the most pressing challenges today are truly international in scope. Concerns such as environmental degradation and ecological changes, the invasiveness of introduced plants, insects, and other pathogens, conservation and afforestation efforts, and the interconnected global economy require greater international exchange and collaborative research at all levels. Nonetheless, engaging in a meaningful international partnership is easier said than done. How does a public garden determine the best way to engage with potential partners in another country? What characteristics even constitute a successful exchange? How does one overcome the daunting and seemingly endless challenges?
“Strong personal relationships are critical to successful collaboration”
Although plant collection and germplasm exchange were routinely listed as top collaborative motivators from the American perspective, significant support was identified from every sampled population for additional types of Sino-American collaboration including information and technical exchange, research and conservation work, cultural exchange, internships and educational exchange, as well as staff exchange. Key motivators for many American public gardens were the professional development opportunities for staff to grow in their confidence and in their cross-cultural understanding and to learn the artistry and methods employed by Chinese horticulturists growing traditional horticultural art forms. Research participants emphasized that staff exchange is critically important since it often lays the groundwork for other types of exchange by building meaningful relationships, impacts other modes of exchange, and amplifies their impact.
From the Chinese perspective, botanical exchange has been mostly one-sided in the past. Individuals were sent to study at US universities and public gardens, but the Chinese research participants believed that there was minimal meaningful reciprocity of Americans coming to study and conduct research in China. However, the Chinese now seek to encourage greater two-way exchange, specifically in terms of information, plant and staff exchange. A free exchange of current information was deemed vital since one never truly knows what information is needed until it is needed. Chinese research participants explained that a major collaborative motivator was to obtain the most up-to-date information on an ongoing basis about best practices, professional trends, continuing and published research, indices semina, as well as information and controls for highly invasive, introduced plants. Periodicals and newsletters like BGjournal were mentioned as quite helpful in communicating conservation issues, funding opportunities, and other so-called “hot-topics” (Wang, 2008).
As with the Americans, many Chinese research participants cited plant exchange for joint research and conservation purposes as being a critical collaborative goal. Many viewed a greater emphasis now on conserving and promoting a garden’s local plants. Nevertheless, collecting, conserving, and displaying so-called “superstar” plants (Chen, 2008), such as flashy cultivars, extremely rare plants, and others which may be used to easily connect with and educate the public, were deemed crucial. There was also interest in greater exchange of cultivars and hybrids for display and education purposes.
The Chinese research participants resoundingly identified staff exchange as the most important collaborative goal for their respective institutions since it expedites the establishment of the necessary relationships, mutual understanding, and critical contact networks that enable all other types of exchange to occur. They also believed it facilitates greater communication and enables both partners to learn from each other’s strengths. Research participants identified six main professional development goals for staff exchange: best horticultural practices; public education methods; research and conservation techniques; collections management procedures; garden management and public outreach methods; and private fundraising /development strategies.
Research participants from every sampled population indicated that domestic and international regulations and bureaucratic red tape, including obtaining proper visas and permits present significant and increasing challenges to collaboration. Confusion related to the implications of international treaties and the lack of uniformity in local enforcement were also listed as significant challenges. Research participants noted that these challenges reiterated the need for greater cooperation and relationship building between botanical gardens since gardens, researchers and plant collectors can no longer operate in relative isolation.
Language and cultural concerns were also identified as collaborative difficulties. Since expectations and assumptions vary from culture to culture, considering how cultural expectations are to be addressed (e.g. who pays for what and when) is quite important and should be clarified from the start to ensure balance and equity. In addition, differences in public opinion and understanding from one country to the other can lead to major challenges. For example, collaborations dependent on “common assumptions” in one country may require significant educational efforts and/or greater advocacy in the other country if the assumption is not yet widely shared there (Aniśko, 2008).
“Domestic and international policies and regulations, language and cultural differences all present challenges when establishing a partnership.”
Lack of time, funding, and proper contacts, as well as insufficient knowledge regarding the institutional strengths of potential collaborative partners were identified as inhibitory to collaboration on both sides. There are more than 150 botanical gardens in China and more than 500 in North America. With each being structured differently according to different institutional models, it is quite difficult for gardens in one country to assess the institutional strengths of specific gardens in the other country. Not having a way to obtain this knowledge within the other country makes determining the most advantageous collaborative partner for a particular need quite difficult.
Addressing the challenges
All research participants defined successful collaboration to be both mutually beneficial and reciprocal. Not only should substantive benefits be derived on both sides, but exchange and movement of personnel, information, techniques, and resources should freely flow in both directions. All parties should gain from the experience, derive benefits, and be pleased with the results. Both sides should be upfront and clear about their goals and desired outcomes, should have a genuine interest in helping each other, and should possess an attitude of openness and engagement to facilitate communication and create an atmosphere of mutual trust.
Collaborators in a successful exchange should be considered equal partners with complementary resources, know-how, technology, plants, and information. Each side should be able to learn, accomplish, or improve something that they otherwise could not do on their own. Benefits need not be financial but should be of sufficient incentive to justify the collaboration. There should be a shared direction or common basis for collaboration, and the limits of each participant’s role and obligations should be clearly understood. Each party should seek to understand the other’s strengths and weaknesses and learn as much about their collaborator’s culture as possible.
“Successful collaboration should be both mutually beneficial and reciprocal.”
Staff exchange is well positioned to address the collaborative challenges existing in both China and North America since it facilitates and promotes ongoing relationship building. Data indicate that building relationships is crucial to successful collaboration since relationships are the basis for and often open the door to other types of exchange. In addition, training done independently or sporadically as opposed to via an ongoing system of exchange minimizes the overall effect that could otherwise be achieved since many benefits mature and additional opportunities arise over time. According to a survey sent to the American Public Gardens Association’s institutional membership, there was significant support expressed for staff exchange with two-thirds expressing interest in sending their own staff to study at Chinese institutions and three-quarters expressing interest in hosting staff from Chinese botanical gardens). Staff exchange was also mentioned as the top collaborative goal of the majority of Chinese research participants.
Aniśko, T. 2008. Personal Interview. Oct. 24, 2008. Curator of Plants, Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, PA, USA.
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BGjournal Vol 8 No 1 January 2011
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