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Author Caroline Wagner Urges More Inclusive Global Science Cooperation
International scientific cooperation in the 21st century is growing at a spectacular rate, but because the structure emerges from the decisions of scientists to collaborate, it is largely invisible to the outside observer. Scientists in developing countries are often frustrated in their efforts to participate, and policymakers from those countries have difficulty working with a system that is quite different from that of just a few decades ago, scholar and author Caroline S. Wagner said at a AAAS seminar.
Caroline Wagner (right) speaking wih a participant in the seminar
Photograph by Harvey Leifert
Wagner, lead research scientist at George Washington University's Center for International Science and Technology Policy in Washington, D.C., and senior policy analyst at SRI International, says the present-day system by which scientists work together may be thought of as a "new invisible college," an updated version of a 17th century model. At that time, European scientists, who mostly worked alone, exchanged ideas and discoveries among themselves by post, constituting what they called the "Invisible College."
Wagner delivered her talk recently during the 4th annual AAAS Leadership Seminar in Science & Technology Policy in Washington, D.C. Having been asked to address the seminar on the role of science and technology in U.S. foreign policy, Wagner told participants that the topic is in fact largely passé.
Wagner's talk at AAAS was based on research for her new book, The New Invisible College: Science for Development, scheduled for 30 January 2008 publication. Her own brief career in the State Department some years ago convinced her that science and technology were not high priorities for U.S. diplomacy and that U.S. Foreign Service officers would not advance their careers based on their scientific knowledge. Although some scientists do serve one-time tours as science attachés in American embassies, their effectiveness is limited, she said, as they typically lack foreign policy expertise and the foreign policy apparatus has little knowledge of scientific cooperation.
The week-long AAAS Leadership Seminar brought together 36 participants from government, academia, and the nonprofit world, representing the United States and four other countries. The annual seminar offers candid insights into how the U.S. policy-making process works—and sometimes doesn't work. It is a compressed version of the renowned two-week orientation session given every year to AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows before they begin their year-long assignments in government staffs and agencies.
Wagner told the participants that science has evolved considerably since the era of the original Invisible College. She cited the rise of professionalism in the 18th century, the expansion of distinct scientific disciplines in the 19th century, and the era of big, nationalistic science in the 20th century, when some scholars suggested that 80 to 90% of all scientists in human history (up until that time) lived. National science reached its epitome during the Cold War, she said, when the U.S. and Soviet Union built redundant scientific systems on a competitive basis.
This national innovation system, which operated through the 1990s, has become dysfunctional from the point of view of the governance of science, Wagner said, because knowledge creation does not honor national borders. In the 21st century, science mostly self-organizes, she emphasized, including and most influentially on the international level. It functions through networks that are generally informal, she said, but they do have structure, norms, and rules that scientists must understand if they are to participate successfully.
Although large, government-funded, international science projects are highly visible, they are just the tip of an iceberg in terms of overall international scientific activities, Wagner said; they are not in fact typical of international collaboration. "The bulk of international collaboration in science and technology happens below the waterline," she told the seminar, as scientists organize themselves into teams and conduct research of mutual interest, without regard to national boundaries or government agencies.
Wagner identified four kinds of collaborative scientific activities, based on a combination of how projects are initiated and where they take place. In the first category, she described top-down and bottom-up projects:
Top-down science includes large, directed programs, usually based in an office that one can visit, such as NASA programs, CERN, and polar research.
Bottom-up science is based on the interests of individual researchers who contact colleagues all over the world to work ad hoc on a self-generated project; their partnerships are often invisible to outsiders.
In the second category, there are centralized and distributed projects:
Centralized projects depend on specialized laboratories or installations, such as the earthquake shake table in Japan, or the Rain Forest Research Institute in Costa Rica.
Distributed projects take place all around the world by individuals or small teams, such as happened in the Human Genome Project; they do not depend on large facilities.
Each area of scientific research combines one aspect of each of the two categories. Policy-makers must understand each of the resulting four types of international collaboration in their efforts to assure that taxpayers, who fund most of the research, get their money's worth and that the knowledge produced "comes home" and is usable at the local level, Wagner said.
Science operates on a reward system, in which researchers are seeking to enhance their reputation and gain recognition from their colleagues in their fields, their own countries and worldwide. As a result, Wagner said, in many developing countries where she has worked, government officials complain that local scientists are better connected with colleagues abroad than with the needs of their own society. For example, she was amazed at how much "great science" is being conducted in ethnobotany in Mozambique—and how little it impacts Mozambique. Mozambican scientists are working with colleagues at Stanford University in the U.S., but their research has little impact on local farmers.
The scientists are not against improving the lives of their countrymen, Wagner said, but they realize that "the more you gain recognition within science, the more you are able to access the resources of science. And ultimately, scientists the world over are seeking freedom—the freedom to pursue their own interests."
Some parts of the United States government do understand how international collaboration in science works and use the knowledge to their advantage, Wagner reported. They recognize that many international scientists want to work in the U.S., because they know that their achievements will be widely recognized, and they enjoy greater freedom than in many other countries.
Wagner gave the example of the Department of Energy's Center for Nanoscale Materials at its Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. Argonne had recently hired 15 scientists recruited on a worldwide basis for this cutting edge nanotechnology laboratory. They were seeking the best scientists they could find, regardless of nationality, and 10 of the 15 chosen were from outside the United States, Wagner said. This select group includes Yugang Sun, a 29-year-old Chinese postdoctoral scientist who, in his first year at Argonne, published a seminal paper that has already been cited in the literature over 1,500 times.
The Department of Energy offered Sun additional laboratory resources he needed to continue his research, Wagner said, "but these people are free agents; they can go anywhere." Sun is, at 29, "an unbelievable superstar in nanosciences," she said, and is—so far—still at Argonne.
16 January 2008