Maria D Carvalho completed her PhD thesis in 2015 in Geography and Environment. Her research focuses on how the spatial relationship between innovation and manufacturing changes as global value chains spread. To explain her own ‘global spread’, Maria likes saying she is part of the C.I.A – that is, being a Canadian-Indian that grew up in (Saudi) Arabia.

What are you writing about? What is the puzzle in your thesis?

It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question really. Essentially it asks whether a country needs manufacturing to commercialise technologies for innovation. Alternatively, it asks whether a country’s manufacturing base needs innovation to produce the next set of technologies? If they do, then countries should have policies to prevent manufacturing from shifting outside their country. If innovation and manufacturing don’t need to be in the same country to enable future commercialisation, then the spread of these activities through global value chains and research linkages is not as threatening.

Why is this something worth studying?

My motivation to study this question happened when many American and European solar PV firms were going bankrupt as Chinese firms were out competing them in terms of manufacturing costs, and then, global market share. I wondered, “Is it really that easy for ‘late-comer’ firms – who had not invested in early innovation efforts – to undermine the competitiveness of firms in countries that undertook early innovation efforts? If so, was it worth investing in R&D to commercialise technologies if countries could not reap the benefits of having a competitive manufacturing industry?”

I wasn’t alone in my thinking. These questions have been bandied about amongst many policy-makers, especially for countries that are looking to develop supportive industrial policies for technologies that address climate change, and would like to institute trade protectionist policies. 2012 saw the rise of trade protectionist measures being instituted by different countries to protect domestic manufacturing of clean technologies against foreign imports. However climate technologies are not the only ones that face these kinds of political economy questions – we have seen similar motivations behind trade protectionist policies for products like iron and steel, automobiles, and internet and communication technologies.

Beyond trade disputes, the research also has relevance to reactions against globalization. Key arguments that won the Brexit and Trump campaign was that the UK and US were losing its competitiveness because manufacturing jobs were moving to emerging economies. The research tries to understand whether the loss of manufacturing really is a good indicator of this loss of competitiveness.

What did you find out?

By collecting global data on innovation and manufacturing of solar PV technologies, I was able to map where these activities ‘shifted’ over time. I also interviewed researchers and industry in different countries on their research partnerships.

My research findings suggest:

  1. The loss of manufacturing is not a sign of loss of competitiveness. Competitiveness is producing technologies that others cannot manufacture by constantly developing the next set of technologies and appropriating high value-added.
  2. Innovation and manufacturing to develop the next set of technologies do not necessarily have to be in the same country. When countries lack either activity, they seek international collaborations to leverage on each other’s advantage.
  3. However research institutions that have fostered close partnerships with domestic firms are less likely to partner with foreign firms that compete with domestic industry.

If you could force one person to read your thesis cover-to-cover, who would it be?

President Trump and Prime Minister May, and any country considering undertaking trade protectionist policies for climate technologies. The entire world should work together to accelerate commercializing climate technologies by leveraging with each other’s strengths. Only then can we collectively benefit in having climate resilient world.

What is the anthem to your PhD?

“I’m coming out” by Diana Ross.

I’ve got to show the world 
All that I want to be
And all my abilities
There’s so much more to me
Somehow, I have to make them

Just understand
I got it well in hand
And, oh, how I’ve planned
I’m spreadin’ love
There’s no need to fear
And I just feel so glad
Every time I hear

I’m coming out
I want the world to know
Got to let it show