On 15 September 2023, as part of the Science Summit at the 78th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA78), COST co-organised a session with the U.S. National Science Foundation AccelNET Program, in New York City, to discuss global scientific networking collaboration. For the first time, this concrete initiative joins two funding schemes and their projects.
International collaborative research
International scientific collaboration involves cross-continent teams that share interests, conduct research, and promote results to advance knowledge. It is crucial for scientific progress since no single country has access to all the necessary facilities and expertise. AccelNET and COST help teams make connections to leverage resources, exchange talent, and coordinate efforts in an unprecedented way. Such cooperation reduces fragmentation that arises from replicating efforts, it pools knowledge and resources, and identifies most productive pathways forward. It also lifts barriers to science by diversifying participation and removing inequities to research infrastructures.
The session opened by Ronald de Bruin, Director of the COST Association, and Anne Emig, Section Chief from the U.S. National Science Foundation which was followed by a keynote and roundtable with researchers affiliated with both funding schemes on how networking can break silos.
The keynote by Prof. Luciano Rezzolla, emphasised the importance of international cooperation for achieving breakthrough scientific results. Through the lens of his own experience he highlighted the success in capturing the first ever image of a black hole, and how none of these amazing results could have been achieved without a global science collaboration.
“Networking is essential – breakthrough science needs collaborations. 100 years ago, I could work on my own, individually. This is not the case today! A scientific network is key as there is too much data to collect from my peers in order to develop the work and save crucial time. Networking brings up other benefits such as tolerance; diversity; friendship; and faith on top of all the sociological advantages of working with scientists from other continents” said Prof Luciano Rezzolla, NewCompStar COST Action and Institute for Theoretical Physics in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.
In the pursuit of advancing scientific endeavours on a global scale, researchers encounter common obstacles, mainly that securing funding and expanding networks is time and energy consuming. Another key challenge, is political interference with scientific aims which harms scientific progress. By highlighting successes obtained through international networking policymakers may see reason to find ways to continue and open up support for international collaboration.
The challenges posed were acknowledged as ubiquitous across continent but often addressed separately. “Climate change is an area with many silos. There is no point with us dealing with our issues in Europe while Africa and the US deal with them separately” explained Prof. Chrysi Laspidou, Chair of the NexusNet COST Action.
Panelists also highlighted how even establishing the foundations of networking and collaboration can be a major challenge, particularly in regions like Africa, which grapple with unique challenges not present in the US and EU, such as post-colonial legacies, linguistic diversity, and resource constraints.
Sharing research outputs with others and working with people from around the world helps scientists learn from each other and improve their research output. It’s not always a fast process, but it’s important for progress. This learning and collaboration process helps gain more knowledge and skills.
The aspiration to forge meaningful connections is evident, but it is essential to establish a robust framework and extend financial support to address prevailing inequalities. There is a clear need for more opportunity and funding available for international scientific networking, allowing researchers to talk face-to-face and get inspired across interdisciplinary teams with both basic and applied researchers on board.
The teams, funded either by COST or NSF’s AccelNet, provided specific examples of how international networking funds have advanced their science in way that would not have been possible with an ordinary research grant. The ChETEC COST Action developed an infrastructure sharing platform that opened access to data across networked teams. AccelNet’s IReNA has managed to leverage resources to partners who previously were scientifically isolated. NexusNet COST Action and AccelNet’s SustainFood highlighted the importance of the interactions between these systems through the Water-Energy-Food Nexus concept. They were focusing on recognising the interconnected risks to water, energy, and food security and connecting the research and policymaking communities over continents.
These networks of networks are growing exponentially and creating a global web of researchers directly focused on meeting the SDGs in their applied multi-disciplinary fields of research. Without the time and space to bring together leading experts taking different approaches to different aspects of the problem, the science will not advance as rapidly.
Looking to the future
International scientific cooperation has helped many young researchers to integrate into networks and gain valuable experience, thus boosting their careers. It is fostering spheres of collaborative spirit instead of placing them in a competitive mode. Through training, workshops, and other activities researchers also have the opportunity to meet senior peers and renowned scientists.
“Collaboration teaches you to be a good scientist, to learn, to cooperate and to interact with your peers and promotes respect among colleagues” added Prof. Luciano Rezzolla.
Another question raised during the debate was how to continue working when the project ends. Collaboration and international cooperation are the crucial stepping stone to sharing expertise. In many cases, thanks to the networking opportunities, some projects managed to receive additional or further funding. “Networking accelerates the opportunities to go further. Collaboration teaches us keep trying despite failure. Ambitious goals and a vision brings people together and the group always wins versus working isolated and alone. Networks facilitate contacts and communication for future opportunities” highlighted Prof. Raphael Hirschi, Chair of ChETEC COST Action.
This article was first published on 25 September by COST Association.