Viewpoint: Time for a global science funder

22 Dec 2022 | Viewpoint

Geopolitics is polarising the world, hampering cross-border science and technology collaboration and slowing progress. Science|Business proposes a few solutions

Richard L. Hudson, editorial director and co-founder of Science|Business

No question, we have had a few lousy years: war, pandemic, stagflation, privation, climate disaster. So as the New Year beckons, we all wonder what’s next. Here are two scenarios that I, as a science policy journalist, see could happen over the next decade or so. I welcome your thoughts.

Option A: The world is divided into four competing blocs: The leading democracies, the Chinese ecosystem, Russia and (few) friends, and loose groupings of non-aligned nations. Trade and migration between the blocs are restricted by tariffs, security and visas. The world’s problems, from a warming climate to warfare, are worse.

Scientific progress and discovery have slowed, and without new breakthroughs the technologies to address humanity’s problems advance only incrementally. Each bloc sets its own R&D priorities, duplicating effort and limiting collaboration. Any significant scientific or technical advances are kept behind high patent, publication and security walls; open science has gone the way of Esperanto. Student and researcher visas are scarce, so most of the great universities are great no longer. We are in a New Dark Age.

Option B: Amidst the permacrisis of the 2020s, world leaders saw the importance of working together. Nations still compete for trade and investment, but they do so on the depth of their talent and the speed of their innovation. The two COPs, for climate and biodiversity, have been strengthened and joined by a third for infectious disease. Progress is still slow and costly, but human civilisation just might survive the century.

One of the engines of this progress has been science. A global science council funds cross-border fundamental research – far removed from trade and technology competition. Another global council funds and manages a few key research infrastructures. They aren’t huge, and don’t overlap existing national programmes; but they are open to every nationality and discipline. They provide authoritative evidence for policy makers, and keep communications open between competing nations. This is the age of science-based diplomacy.

As futurology goes, this is all pretty obvious: today, the dystopian scenario seems more probable. Geopolitical walls are going up everywhere – including in science and technology.

In the world of science, in particular, we are stumbling into a crisis. Total global spending on R&D now stands at more than $2 trillion a year. Today the products of science save lives, power cities, connect societies, feed billions. For good, they transform the fortunes of entire nations like India and China; for bad, they create selfish multibillionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. In short, science and its child, technology, are now so successful that they have become too big, too important, too visible to escape political attention. Science is drawn into every conflict, every trade dispute, every war. Consider:

  • Within the first 10 days of the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, most European governments had suspended formal R&D collaborations with Russian institutions, and leaned on many of their universities to do likewise. In a flash, the Cold War is reborn, affecting science.
  • Just six years ago the EU boasted its science programmes were “open to the world” and in the US the Obama Administration encouraged cooperation with China. That’s dead history now. The US under Trump tried prosecuting Chinese-American scientists for technology treason. The Group of Seven leading nations are coordinating security checks on science. In China, it is ever-more difficult for a foreign researcher to work there or access research data. Both sides, east and west, are putting bricks in a new Great Wall of China.
  • Even among long-standing research partners, politics is taking control. In Brussels, “strategic autonomy” – protectionism by another name – Is affecting trade relations. The EU just excluded researchers in the UK from late-stage quantum computing projects: too sensitive a technology to share. In Horizon Europe, the constant budget battles turn on such purely political issues as eastern Europe v. western Europe, regional v. national funding, renewable v. fossil energy, sustainable v. industrial farming.

All this is dangerous, and has been recognised as such for a while. In 2019, Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, former president of the European Research Council (ERC), put it this way: “Let us not think that scientific cooperation can simply be turned up or down exactly as we wish, like a volume control. Once people no longer feel welcomed. Once every individual visit or project starts to be questioned. Once our default position is suspicion and not trust. Then relationships that have been built over years can break down very quickly.”

A search for solutions

So what to do? This whole trend is bewildering to most of the world’s science leaders, whose careers were shaped by the Great Thaw after the Cold War. In November I sat through a small gathering in Washington of US science leaders, as they wrung their hands over the rising security culture they now face. As one university president put it, he doesn’t believe his faculty members wake up in the morning and ask themselves, “How can I commit treason against the US?”

Of course, I am no politician or scientist. I am a journalist who has followed European and global science and technology policy for nearly 40 years. But I think there is something the scientific world can do, to ensure that the all-important human search for knowledge continues unimpeded.

First, I think we must strengthen the wall between frontier research and applied research. Applied research is about doing things. It should be political, and commercial. Frontier research is about discovering things. It should be kept out of politics, out of trade disputes, out of industrial policy. In the US right now, that’s exactly what is not happening: Congress just ordered the National Science Foundation to set up a technology directorate – far from the NSF’s main mission or institutional knowledge. In Brussels by contrast, when the pandemic began, that is exactly what the ERC did right: it refused to start funding targeted COVID research. Other agencies could and did do it better. So, again, let’s keep frontier science separate away from politics. And we thereby also keep at least a portion of the scientific world working together for humanity.

Second, create a global funding agency for frontier research: disengaged from politics, open to all nationalities, issuing collaborative grants based solely on merit, judged by international review panels. A tentative model for this already exists, at the ERC: its Synergy grants fund top-quality scientific consortia that can include non-EU researchers. A global counterpart would need a bigger budget, perhaps $5 billion a year to start, contributed by participating nations. It would not involve itself in applying its discoveries; that would be for national or multinational funding bodies, public and private. But for its main product, breakthrough science, all would be openly shared, all would be proposed “bottom-up” by the researchers themselves, and all would be judged by other researchers from around the world. And unlike United Nations organisations, it would operate independently of any governments.

Third, create a global funder and manager of multiple research infrastructures. Already, as machine learning and artificial intelligence spread, there are worries about the energy costs and privacy risks of too many uncoordinated databases. In genomics, COVID highlighted the need for easier access to global databases. And for materials, energy and other technologies, the cost and waste of scores of separate and competing lasers and synchrotrons and accelerators will just keep mounting. The simplest answer: select a few of these needs for a global effort, governed and funded by participating nations. Again, we already have a model for this: CERN, the Higgs boson-finding particle accelerator created as an instrument of peace in war-torn Europe.

None of these ideas are new. Many organisations have been talking about something like them, and some international foundations – from Gates to Wellcome – have been doing it in their own way. But how do we get it done officially, globally, with the active support of national governments? I think it must start with the top three science powers, the US, China and EU; they have the biggest budgets, the most to gain or lose, and the critical mass to attract other nations. For this, a concerted campaign is needed, starting with media and the science world, but inevitably requiring the support of the business world – always, the most powerful voice at any policy table. Given how dependent most multinationals are on publicly funded research, that should not be impossible.

But one way or another, we must get these ideas moving forward. After World War II, European leaders wisely seized upon science as a diplomatic tool to help repair a broken world; that was, initially, Euratom and CERN. We need that spirit now.

Richard L. Hudson is editorial director and co-founder of Science|Business. This essay is based partly on a speech delivered to a Forska!Sverige (Research!Sweden) conference 28 November 2022. We welcome your ideas and comments too. Write us at [email protected].

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