Contemporary Crises

Exploring modern societal challenges

The Collaborative Era in Science

Just out of graduate school with a degree in science policy, I landed a dream job on Capitol Hill working for the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. My hope was to find ways to encourage international linkages in science. On my first suggestion that Congress should support it, I was told by a senior member that this was not going to become part of legislation. “International collaboration is foreign aid in another form,” I was told. Gobsmacked, I was determined to prove this bigwig wrong.

It would take a job change to get the chance, but with a request from the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, as a RAND analyst, I began researching the nature of US collaborations with foreign countries, particularly developing countries.

I began the work by conducting a survey. I collated a list of 100 U.S. government-funded scientists who were working with people in foreign countries. I asked them a simple question: why are you working with a researcher in Egypt, Turkey, Malaysia, Argentina, and so on? The surprising finding was that, in one-third of the cases, the U.S. based scientist was from that country originally. In other words, they had come to the United States to study or work, stayed to become a world-class scientist, and were identifying people in their home countries to work with them. In another third of the cases, a researcher had worked in the U.S., gone home, and continued the work with a U.S. partner at a distance.

Further, I learned that rarely were these limited to two-way connections. Often, the cooperating pair involved researchers in yet another location, linking to another person in another place. One connection led to others. What I had found was a network.

Networks are extremely interesting phenomena to study. It has only been within the past 20 years that we have had the data, the computing power, and the algorithms to develop quantitative theories of the social interaction of scientific researchers. Networks have regularities that can be revealed, and these, in turn, can be used as predictive methods. Researchers at the international level are connected by only one or two degrees from each other.

The finding that international collaboration in science is a network led me to conduct many more studies about these connections. In Vietnam, I had the opportunity to study their science system and advise them on how to join into the global system. It is usually just a matter of making your capabilities or interesting research question visible to others in the network. Similarly, I found that researchers in Mozambique and in Uganda had interesting data, critical problems, and good people who could work at the international level, although they were not integrated into the global network. Many times, people are misinformed about international collaboration: they thought was that signing a diplomatic agreement with the United States would open doors. This is simply not the case—no international agreement signed by the United States commits funds for collaboration. One older gentleman in Mozambique entreated his co-nationals to focus on “patents, not papers.” This is similarly misinformed: Protecting and hiding your work does not make you visible to others who could effectively link to you.

The European Commission asked me to analyze their networks to see how well they were integrating for scientific excellence across Europe. This project had similar results as the other work I conducted: the inclusion of less developed countries into research partnerships resulted in raising up all the countries involved in terms of productivity and quality. Policies to encourage openness and open sharing had much greater payoffs than efforts to protect, shield, or shelter knowledge. Further research showed that countries that are more open to international exchange have stronger science. Countries that are not engaging are losing ground in research.

The global network of science is largely an invention of the United States, initiated through the openness of its system. The attractiveness of that system is evident as we see super-smart people and motivated foreigners who have come there, over the past 60 years, to study and research. The majority of those people have remained in the U.S. Many of them have reached back home and connected with super-smart folks in their original countries. Today, many more countries of the world produce good science than was the case 30 years ago.

The openness of the system presents a paradox, however. Openness is important, but so is leadership. While more knowledge is good for everyone, leadership in science ensures that the best people come to your shores to work. They in turn invite the best people to work with them. The network grows and provides a real resource to the leading country. Losing this leadership position (as has been done by other nations in the past) will have real and serious consequences for the United States. A renewed commitment to basic scientific research, to openness, and to leadership is required.

When I started this line of research, I expected to show that international collaboration is not just “foreign aid in another form.” What I found is that, through the openness and collaborative networking of researchers within and beyond our border, it is the United States that has been aided.

Caroline S. Wagner is the Ambassador Milton A. and Roslyn Z. Wolf Chair in the John Glenn School of Public Affairs and an advisor to the Battelle Center for Science and Technology Policy at the Ohio State University, USA. Previously, she served as deputy to the director of the Science & Technology Policy Institute at the RAND Corporation. She is the editor of the journal Science and Public Policy, a Distinguished Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and an elected member of the Council on Foreign Relations.