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The United States, Europe and the Globalization of Science (Essay in La Stampa)

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Scientists from the United States and Europe have a long history of working together, but there is a new and important effort underway to further strengthen trans-Atlantic ties, including boosting American participation in a key European Union research program.

Given that all of society’s biggest issues are global in character, and particularly at a time of tight budgets, it is essential for scientists to work internationally to tackle the big questions in such fields as health, agriculture, biotechnology and nanotechnology. More than ever, global issues call for global responses.

While nations are at times territorial about their own research programs, the trend toward a global scientific community is unmistakable. Already half of European research papers and 30 % of American research papers have international co-authors. International research teams are becoming much more common, from one-on-one collaborations to the huge teams involved in projects such as the Large Hadron Collider and ITER.

While high-quality science is now going on all over the world, there is still room to improve and expand the U.S.–Europe partnership, both to increase funding opportunities for scientists and to undertake the next steps toward building a truly global scientific community.

A new initiative by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and its European Union partners called BILAT-USA, coordinated by the Austrian Research Promotion Agency, aims to improve trans-Atlantic dialogue among scientists and increase U.S. participation in the EU’s main program for funding research and development. Of the 7,000 projects approved so far under that seven-year funding program, called the 7th Framework Programme, about 260 of them have U.S. participants.

A complementary effort called Link2US, coordinated by the AAAS International Office, seeks to raise awareness among European scientists about cooperative research funding opportunities in the United States. It is less about match-making between individual researchers and more about creating venues—such as a recently launched electronic portal—where European scientists can quickly learn about funding programs of the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and other U.S. science agencies.

AAAS also is engaged in an exciting partnership with the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. Last year in Ispra, Italy, Roland Schenkel, the director-general of the JRC, and I signed an agreement to pursue cooperative efforts on a range of subjects, with an initial focus on combating illicit traffic in nuclear materials and other nuclear security issues.

Both of our organizations have ambitious international programs, and the new partnership will help us pursue important issues with an eye toward integrating other regions and nations into the collaboration as well.

If we want science to meet its full potential and best serve society, we must move to the next level of internationalization to make it truly a global enterprise. That will involve developing global standards for scientific ethics, intellectual property rights and access to scientific journals as well as harmonizing policies across national boundaries on issues such as embryonic stem cell research and use of animals in research.

Scientific collaboration is not always easy, of course. There are cultural and national differences to contend with and, inevitably, bureaucratic obstacles as well. There have been complaints about the paperwork and reporting requirements for the cooperation programs funded under the 7th Framework Programme. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the new European research commissioner, faces some tough challenges in trying to create a less bureaucratic framework that supports the EU’s research goals.

The problem is not confined to Europe. American researchers spend 42 % of their time on administrative tasks. But whatever the bureaucratic stumbling blocks, the movement toward greater international collaboration – not only between Europe and the United States but across all borders – is one of the imperatives of the 21st century. Many nations now recognize the linkage between high-quality scientific research and the economic prosperity that flows from a commitment to such research.

The globalization of science does not mean there must be “winners” and “losers” in the competition for the best and the brightest. As Mary Minch, director of international cooperation at the European Commission’s Directorate General for Research, noted at a recent AAAS forum, mobility of researchers has become a fact of life. Where once a nation might have worried about a “brain drain” of its young scientists to greener pastures, now the more appropriate model is what she calls “brain circulation,” with researchers moving to take advantage of the best research opportunities, wherever they appear.

With robust international science cooperation, those opportunities need not be constrained. And given the challenges that confront us, there is no alternative to greater international scientific cooperation, both in the laboratory and in efforts to provide governments the best possible advice on urgent issues such as climate change.

As more and more countries invest in science, the quality of global research is converging. So too is the interest in fruitful collaboration across all fields of science and across national boundaries. The ESOF2010 meeting, starting 2 July in Torino, is a celebration of the vibrancy of European research and the promise of international collaboration with colleagues in the United States and elsewhere.

Alan I. Leshner is the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of the journals Science, Science Translational Medicine and Science Signaling.

1 July 2010