Experts Outline Challenges in International Collaboration

When scientists participate in international collaborations, they must contend with a set of challenges that can be far more daunting than those posed by the research itself, according to a new report prepared by the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the FBI, and AAAS.

The percentage of international co-authorships on scientific journal articles has doubled since 1997, reflecting the increasing globalization of science research. The trend has forced universities, nongovernmental organizations and other institutions to reconsider how they vet international researchers and manage safety and security concerns across multiple cultures and legal systems.

“When scientists and security experts talk about global collaboration, it’s almost always about visas and export controls,” said Kavita Berger, associate director of AAAS’ Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy. “But there are so many other issues involved.”

Kavita Berger, associate director of AAAS' Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy

Kavita Berger, associate director of AAAS’ Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy

The report on international science and security emerged from a 4-5 February meeting in Washington, D.C., which aimed to encourage communication between university officials and FBI agents involved in biosecurity outreach. Biosecurity threats, in the broad sense used by both communities, could include the accidental or intentional release of dangerous pathogens such as anthrax or smallpox; laboratory cyber attacks; theft of intellectual property; or the disclosure of national security data.

The meeting was the latest in a series of engagement efforts by AAAS, the FBI, and others to promote greater awareness of research-related risks and support for collaboration between the science and security communities.

This partnership has grown stronger and more productive in the past decade, as many groups including AAAS have convened meetings and established lines of information to help U.S. institutions be aware of and address national and international biosafety and biosecurity concerns. But too often, the report said, institutions have to deal with security challenges “on a case by case basis.”

In some countries, for instance, the intentional theft or misuse of pathogens are not high national priorities, particularly in the face of pressing concerns such as clean water or infectious diseases. Berger said that more research is needed on how key concepts in biosafety and biosecurity can be relayed, understood and accepted throughout the world.

The report also describes efforts involving cross-disciplinary collaborations such as iGEM, the international synthetic biology competition. Berger said iGEM and similar projects are bringing research safety and security concerns “to the attention of a broad cadre of younger scientists and those working in non-biological fields.”

At the meeting, several participants expressed concern about how international partners should be vetted before sending a scientist to work in another country or inviting foreign researchers into their labs. For the moment, vetting takes place mostly by word of mouth or personal recommendation. “Without much access to the information necessary for vetting in many parts of the world,” Berger explained, “it’s very difficult to find out what the credentials are of individuals and of institutions.”

The report offers practical approaches to vetting potential colleagues and institutions, along with advice on promoting research integrity, complying with international rules and regulations, and building trust between researchers.

It’s a complex set of challenges for institutions, but Berger suggested that the price for not addressing these issues could be high. She recalled one discussion from the Washington meeting about an international research collaboration “that took two years just to work through all the operational pieces needed to begin the research. One can imagine how much that delays productivity and the partnership.”

Read the full report, “Bridging Science and Security for Biological Research: International Science and Security,” prepared by the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the FBI and AAAS.

Learn more about the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.