Two New International S&T Organizations Reflect “Momentous” Shift to Global Science

There are a couple of new kids on the block in international science: two umbrella organizations aimed at fostering more collaboration across borders and a more unified approach to funding and managing research in an increasingly global scientific enterprise.

Paul Boyle, president of the newly established Science Europe, which is comprised of Europe’s national research funding and research performing organizations, described his organization’s goals in 15 May talk at AAAS. They include reducing duplication and inefficiencies in the European research system and boosting cooperation within Europe and beyond on important scientific challenges.

The talk was co-sponsored by the AAAS International Office and the Washington offices of Research Councils UK and the German Research Foundation.

Subra Suresh
Subra Suresh

On the same day Boyle gave his presentation, representatives of science-funding agencies from 47 nations concluded a meeting at the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) with the establishment of another new body called the Global Research Council (GRC). The council also is meant to increase global science cooperation and grapple with issues such as merit review, scientific integrity, and open access to data and publications.

NSF Director Subra Suresh said in remarks at the AAAS session that the new council is essential. “It’s very important for us—while we develop our own national strategies—to keep in mind a global perspective,” Suresh said. He said that half of all scientific papers in science and engineering are now co-authored across national boundaries. He also noted that one-third of global R&D funding is now spent in Asia.

It is important to bring funding agencies from emerging scientific powers into the conversation, he said. China and India were represented in the inaugural meeting of the council. “For this first gathering we were able to get pretty much everybody we invited,” Suresh said. He said the second meeting of the GRC will be co-hosted next year by Brazil and Germany in Berlin, and they plan to invite twice as many countries.

Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of Science, praised the launch of the GRC. “It is a very momentous step, from my perspective, in the process of helping to build a truly global scientific community,” Leshner said. He said the establishment of Science Europe also was an important step toward that end.

Boyle, a geographer and chief executive of the United Kingdom Economic and Social Research Council, said Science Europe, based in Brussels, Belgium, will allow its members, who between them fund the majority of public research in the European Union, to better address European science policy development. The organization will facilitate information sharing, and it will establish six scientific advisory committees in various disciplines to give “bottom-up” recommendations on big questions in science and how best to allocate research money.

The organization, launched in October 2011, is still getting on its feet and hiring staff. It currently has 49 member organizations from 23 countries, including seven from the United Kingdom, eight from France, and four from Germany. The membership includes both research funding organizations and research performing organizations whose budgets are derived primarily from public funds. Collectively, they account currently for about 30 billion Euros ($38.2 billion) in research funding.

About 85% of Europe’s research funding comes from national governments, but the European Commission (EC) also provides substantial research funding. Boyle said the EC wants the multitude of funding agencies to work as efficiently as possible, a message that resonates during tough economic times.

“We clearly have some collective interests,” Boyle said. “We are keen to encourage people to work together more.”

Science Europe also will be outward looking, with an eye toward helping European scientists and their institutions work more closely with international partners. Boyle noted a study which found that papers by United Kingdom scientists with international co-authors had a higher average impact, in terms of citations, than those without international collaborators.

Paul Boyle
Paul Boyle

“In our view, collaboration across borders is absolutely vital,” Boyle said. “We are increasingly seeing that the big scientific questions require, at the very least, a European approach but often a global approach.”

Science Europe was founded, after lengthy discussions among the partners, to take over the work of two other bodies with overlapping membership and often similar goals: the European Science Foundation (ESF), founded nearly 40 years ago, and EUROHORCS, an informal group consisting of the heads of European research councils that has been meeting for about two decades.

EUROHORCS dissolved itself upon the creation of Science Europe and ESF will wind down its activities over the next several years, Boyle said, as it reduces its budget and phases out it staff. Science Europe is expected to have a staff of about 35 to 50 eventually, Boyle said. It will provide a strong, single voice for science based in Europe, he said, supporting collaboration among its member organizations and providing strategic advice to the European Commission on science-related issues.

“It’s sensible for us to work along side the commission where we agree with them,” Boyle said. “But it’s also essential that we’re a constructive critic.”

Science Europe also will play an important role in helping to shape the so-called European Research Area (ERA), an EC initiative to develop essentially a science open market in which researchers, scientific knowledge, and technology circulate freely across borders.

Among the potential benefits: reducing duplication of research effort in European countries and developing a critical mass on challenging questions that might be beyond the research capacity of a single nation. Science Europe will be working on a roadmap, which Boyle called “evolving, flexible and dynamic” to help make the ERA a reality.

Among the mechanisms for enhanced collaboration, Boyle mentioned a “money-follows-researcher” approach in which scientists who win grant money in one European nation can take it with them if they move to an institution in another nation. Boyle said that 24 European research organizations currently are using this approach. The same number of organizations has also agreed to allow open funding applications in which grant applicants in one nation can include collaborators from other nations. Although the money can go to researchers in multiple nations, the application is subject to a single peer-review process in the host country.

“It seems like a really useful way to encourage collaboration,” Boyle said. But there are issues, including legal obstacles in some cases. Organizations in France may not legally be allowed to spend grant money beyond the French border, he said.

There also are brain-drain concerns. A scientist who has won substantial grant and is able to move that money freely across borders becomes an attractive hire for another country, Boyle said.

There also can be problems with an unbalanced flow of funds across borders. Boyle said Austria has found that its grant money has been flowing into Germany and Switzerland with little coming the other way. “Eventually, it raises the question of how long do you keep spending money that disappears, “Boyle said, “when you are not getting money coming back in the other direction.”

Even so, he said, “we are keen to encourage these kinds of activities, and we will continue on with them.”

Boyle noted that some of the cross-border funding mechanisms being pursued by Science Europe also might be useful elsewhere, including in joint programs with funding agencies such as NSF in the United States. And the better the collaboration among European scientists, he said, the easier it will be for European groups to establish workable funding mechanisms with partners abroad.

Through it all, he said, “we’ve got to make sure, simply, that everything we do is driven by the central aim of trying to produce better science. The whole point is we’ve got to introduce mechanisms and policies that, in the end, improve the science that we’re doing.”


Learn more about Science Europe.

Learn more about the Global Research Council from ScienceInsider.

Learn more about the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy.