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Collaboration and Competition: International Scientific Links in a New Order

Sebastian Wright

This is a time of change in international affairs. The relations between countries are increasingly marked by confrontation and distrust. The dominance of the US, present since the end of the Cold War, is being undercut by the emergence of new powers, particularly China. Meanwhile, the international institutions created at and since the end of the Second World War, such as the Bretton Woods institutions, decline in relevance. This has led to talk of the rise of a ‘New Order’ in international relations.

All of this contrasts sharply with the picture in the scientific community, where international collaboration is widespread and has rapidly grown. Between 1990 and 2015, the number of multiple-author papers with authors from more than one country grew from 10 percent to 25 percent. The migration of researchers is common and international campuses and institutes are proliferating.

This therefore raises the question of how this trend is co-existing with the increasingly fraught state of international relations, and how this collaborative enterprise will affect and be affected by the emergence of a ‘New Order’. Since such a ‘New Order’ looks likely to involve more antagonistic and perhaps more openly self-interested interactions between nations, there may be significant impacts on research. An example is the impact that many fear Brexit will have on research in the UK, due to its potential effects on funding and the ability of researchers to move to and from the UK.

There are clear mutual benefits to countries for allowing and encouraging such international collaboration. Using the expertise of scientists across multiple countries, and sharing results between countries, allows research to progress more rapidly, as confirmed by studies which show that papers resulting from international collaboration have significantly greater impact. This can have further directly beneficial effects such as encouraging economic growth or improving healthcare. Moreover, endeavours like international campuses can enable the countries they are in to benefit from the success of educational institutions and systems elsewhere, while giving countries with successful education sectors a chance to project soft power. More generally, success in scientific research may contribute to soft power and be a source of national pride. The resultant risk of economic or diplomatic loss if openness towards international collaboration on research were abandoned may be the cause of the continued acceptance and promotion of these links between the research communities in different countries.

However, this does not mean that these links are immune to the effects of an increasingly tense international scene. Research which might have military applications, most notably nuclear weapons research, has always been restricted or classified by national governments but one might expect to see this tendency increase, reducing collaboration in certain fields. A recent example is the implementation of a more restrictive visa policy for Chinese graduate students in certain fields by the US on national security grounds. Other changes are also likely to have an effect, even if unintentionally. A particularly important example is that of increasing antipathy towards migration between states. Restrictions on migration may hinder the ability or inclination of academics to travel and particularly to work in other countries, which might have a considerable impact on collaboration. This is particularly the case as the formation of informal links between researchers and institutions which might lead to collaboration might be somewhat inhibited.

It is also worth considering the potential effects of a ‘New Order’ on the consideration of scientific evidence in policy and on international collaboration on problems identified by research, particularly climate change and environmental policy. In some cases, there appears to be an increasing tendency for ideological or political concerns to outweigh scientific evidence in decision-making, and even for scientific funding to be allocated and removed on the basis of such considerations, an accusation that has been levelled at the current US administration in particular due to its cuts to NASA’s Earth Sciences budget, which funds missions to study climate change. On the other hand, the Chinese government, for example, has been increasingly committing resources to combating climate change, with renewable energy goals outlined in the most recent Five-Year Plan and sharp increases in electricity generation from solar power since (although it remains a tiny fraction of the total). Furthermore, one might argue that many nations have in any case previously failed to take proper action against climate change for economic or political reasons, and that there has always been a political component to funding allocation (in particular, research likely to have applications is more likely to have funding supplied). Therefore, a ‘New Order’ may have less of an impact in this area than expected. Nevertheless, there may be some impact, especially since international co-operation entails reliance on research happening abroad, where funding is controlled by a different government and different institutions.

Commitments to treaties on international scientific research or based on its results may also come under threat, something that has again been seen particularly with the current US administration, with its notification of intent to withdrawal from the Paris agreement as soon as it can. Were this tendency to extend more widely, something that seems possible given, for example, the rise of politicians sceptical about climate science or international climate change co-operation in various countries such as newly elected Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (who supported the idea of also withdrawing from the Paris agreement at one point in his campaign), there might be an impact on international scientific research projects with governmental involvement. Therefore, there are a number of potential threats that the rise of a ‘New Order’ might pose to international scientific collaboration, but the extent of the impact may be hard to gauge for a while.

Similarly, we can ask about how international scientific collaboration might affect an emerging ‘New Order’. The mutual benefits of allowing such collaboration may stop states from discouraging or cutting off such ties, especially for disciplines with economic applications and those which do not arouse strong ideological or political views. Instead, competition between states within a framework of international collaboration may become more pronounced, and lead to greater spending on science and education as countries try to increase their output. This may especially be the case as not all countries appear to wish to dismantle the wider international economic system, with China, for example, being keen to maintain it as the US and others begin to question it.

Some hope that rising tensions in international relations may be moderated by international links between the scientific community. However, the impact of such ties may not be strong enough to significantly moderate these tensions. It is worth noting that scientific co-operation, such as in Antarctica, occurred during the Cold War and that there was an awareness of the importance of openness to scientific research during this time, but that tensions were, regardless, often very high.

Nevertheless, scientific research acts as a clear incentive for states to co-operate and such ties may be able to act as a moderating force on confrontation. There may be some hope that interactions between states on scientific matters can continue even when relations break down in other respects, as indicated by a recent agreement on scientific collaboration in the Arctic signed by the Russian Federation and multiple NATO countries. Therefore, while international scientific collaboration might be under threat from an emerging ‘New Order’, it also has a role to play in reducing the extent to which it is based on confrontation between states.

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