Leaders at World Science Forum in Budapest Urge “Coherent and Compatible” Global Science Standards

BUDAPEST, Hungary—With humanity confronted by pressing regional and global issues, nations should align their research standards and practices to support international cooperation, scientists and policymakers agreed at the recent World Science Forum.

The center of research gravity is shifting away from Europe, Japan and the United States toward Asia and other developing regions, and international efforts are expanding to address challenges in areas such as agriculture, energy, population growth, and health. Global efforts to resolve those challenges will be more efficient and effective if nations, despite their diverse cultures, have common standards in areas such as ethics, science-related education, peer-review and intellectual property, the leaders said.

Changes in the world science environment are “so robust that a new milestone in the history of science has been reached, and a new era of global science has commenced,” said a statement approved at the closing of the Forum. But, it added: “Better international co-ordination is needed for science research projects focusing on global challenges. International co-operation is essential for decreasing the knowledge divide and regional disparities.”

Alan I. Leshner

Alan I. Leshner

AAAS Chief Executive Officer Alan I. Leshner struck a similar theme. “We can only contribute fully to solving global problems if the scientific community itself is functioning in a truly global way,” he said. To maximize the impact of science, he added, it will be essential to “strengthen… the coherence and compatibility” of research practices and ethical standards across the world “so the various national communities can work together easily and with great confidence.”

The fifth biennial Forum, organized by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS), convened leaders from more than 100 nations from 17-19 November under the theme, “The Changing Landscape of Science: Challenges and Opportunities.” Forum sessions covered a diverse range of subjects, including emerging fields of science, the role of higher education, and supporting early career scientists.

But many of the speakers and virtually every session came to focus on ways to develop and expand international cooperation. The Forum’s final document envisioned a world in which researcher exchange programs, more unified ethical codes, and an abiding commitment to public engagement contribute to an increasingly unified science culture. Energetic science diplomacy will be crucial to achieving those goals, it said.

In a AAAS-organized discussion panel, speakers surveyed key elements for building a more global scientific enterprise, from the critical importance of the world’s larges science associations and to innovative uses of informal science education that can build grassroots interest among journalists and the public.

Efforts to make global research practices more coherent and compatible are a key focus for the AAAS International Office and its Center for Science Diplomacy. Last February, for example, AAAS convened more than 30 leaders from Asian and Pacific Rim nations for a day-long roundtable on ways to promote international cooperation. At the World Science Forum, Leshner announced that AAAS in early 2012 will launch a new quarterly online publication, Science and Diplomacy, to encourage dialogue between the science and foreign policy communities.

Building Coherence and Compatibility

Vaughan Turekian

Vaughan Turekian

At the Forum, a two-hour discussion organized by Vaughan Turekian, the AAAS chief international officer and director of the Center for Science Diplomacy, and Tom Wang, the center’s deputy director, explored possible models for increased cooperation.

In opening remarks for the session, Turekian described the dilemma facing the research, policy, and foreign affairs communities: “If you live in an era and a time when science is more and more critical not only for national issues, but critical in every global issue and every global challenge, and yet we live in a world where most of the science is funded by national entities… how do we build a system that actually allows the national to work better with the global? And what does it mean to build coherence and compatibility in the global scientific enterprise?”

Tateo Arimoto, director general of Japan’s Research Institute of Science and Technology (RISTEX), listed several high-profile projects that are models of international collaboration: the International Space Station; the Large Hadron Collider, used by physicists to study the smallest known particles; ITER, the large-scale fusion energy project; and the Human Frontier Science Program, which funds world-scale interdisciplinary research in life sciences.

Tateo Arimoto

Tateo Arimoto

Asia is emerging as a global research power, Arimoto said, and many Asian nations are already active in regional cooperation; for example, Japanese entities have co-organized events with the National University of Singapore, which has ambitious international programs, and the Asian Institute of Technology, which counts enrollment of 2300 students from 50 nations.

Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of Science, noted that more nations, especially in Asia and the developing world, are increasing research investments. While the number of researchers is growing by about 3% annually in the United States and Europe, it is growing at 8% in China and more than 11% in Singapore. The number of research articles out of Asia has risen sharply in the past 20 years; nearly half of the research papers published in Science now have authors from more than one country. [View Leshner’s presentation slides.]

That creates an environment more conducive to multi-lateral collaboration on a range of challenges. Leshner cited more than a dozen, including health, security, economic development, and education. But, he added, a better ecosystem for cooperation is needed: more mobility of scientists; more freedom to take grants from institution to institution and across borders; more consistent national policies in areas such as embryonic stem cell research and animal use in research; and coordinated efforts to bring researchers from developing nations into the global scientific community.

Patrick Cunningham

Patrick Cunningham

The effort also requires a “genuinely new mind-set,” he said, including “lowered levels of cross-national competitiveness.”

When each nation has its own research enterprise, inefficiency is a likely result, suggested panel speaker Patrick Cunningham, chief science adviser to the Irish government. That’s especially true, he added, on energy and climate change and on health.

“I do think we need more concentration and more pooling of resources for some of the major issues that face us in society,” he said. There is “duplication and wasted effort” when every country has its own research and development priorities and systems, he added. “These are challenges, particularly the energy one, I think, that require a concentration of firepower greater than we’ve had in Europe.”

The Crucial Role of Science Organizations

Tracey Elliott [Photo © World Science Forum]

Tracey Elliott
[Photo © World Science Forum]

But it will take a concerted effort by scientists and science organizations to help shift the habits of national orientation, said Tracey Elliott, head of International at the Royal Society’s Science Policy Centre.

“We know that science is likely to continue to be delivered overwhelmingly through national infrastructure and funding systems,” Elliott told the Forum audience. “Even in the European Union, only a fraction of research conducted in Europe is delivered through the framework programme for regional cooperation.” The question, she said, is: “How do we optimize national strategies so that they are fit for purpose in an ever more globalized world?”

The Royal Society has explored the world’s science base and issues around international science cooperation in its 2011 publication, Knowledge Networks and Nations. The Society also runs a number of initiatives designed to encourage international engagement among scientists, such as International Exchanges programme, and the Newton International Fellowships, organized with the British Academy. The Newton program funds top early stage post-doctoral researchers from all over the world to work at UK research institutions for two years and then continue networking with the UK research community for up to 10 years thereafter.

But much more could be done. Elliott advocated “minimizing barriers to the flow of talented people,” by optimizing migration and visa regulations, where practical; recalibrating assessment of research funding to support international research; and implementing “flexible and adaptive” national research policies.

In addition, Elliott stressed the important role of science organizations in working with governments, education and research institutions, and researchers themselves to encourage international cooperation and coherence of practices.

Other speakers on the panel echoed that point. Leshner cited major science organizations and initiatives—UNESCO, the International Council for Science (ICSU), the Inter-Academy Council, the biennial EuroScience Open Forum, and AAAS. “Every global, multinational organization ought to be working toward the same set of goals,” he said. “Globalization should be discussed at all global fora.”

Arimoto noted that in Asia and other regions, there are already significant efforts to promote cooperation and collaboration for solving the social challenges. But improved coordination is needed to tie these regional efforts into the greater global effort, he said, suggesting that a “system of systems” may be needed beyond the existing boundaries of traditional disciplines, organizations, and national borders.

High-Impact Grassroots Initiatives

Bud Rock

Bud Rock

Bud Rock, chief executive officer of the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC), suggested that informal science education can drive international cooperation from the bottom up. Museums and community science events that engage students, seniors, and others can build awareness that sustainability is a global issue, and thereby build support for international cooperation.

And with 600 member institutions in 44 countries, ASTC and its partners can galvanize researchers and educators worldwide on public engagement projects.

A prime example: A recent series of “international years,” such as the 2007-2008 International Polar Year and the 2011 International Year of Chemistry, have tremendous power to bring scientists and their organizations together with the public, Rock said. For the 2010 International Year of Biodiversity, science centers around the world provided 1300 programs and events, many with a focus on the need for international efforts to protect biodiversity.

When such creative efforts attract news coverage, the effect is amplified, he said.

Rock offered one remarkable example: In 2008, as part of the International Polar Year, the ASTC helped to organize a public experiment to explore how the reflection of the sun’s rays by polar regions—the albedo effect—influences the Earth’s climate.

At various locations, teams placed white spots of 15 square meters on the ground; three NASA satellites passed over and measured the reflectivity of the spots. The experiment attracted 2000 students from kindergarten through high school and 20 science centers from around the world. The story was covered by 60 publications worldwide, with a total circulation of 1.7 billion readers, Rock said.

Next up for ASTC: a series of pilot programs connected to the United Nations’ 2012 Rio +20 conference on sustainable development. Rock said his organization would again work with science centers around the world, collaborating to “identify a common set of [sustainability] themes and identify how local concerns are global at the same time.”

Edward W. Lempinen

5 January 2012