Who says the world is falling apart?

12 Jan 2017 | Viewpoint
Science and technology remain our strongest hope to unite people, and keep the peace. Science|Business will do its small part to keep cross-border collaboration alive

Following the news lately, it’s easy to think the world is falling into a swamp of prejudice, xenophobia and conflict. But in at least one area, science and technology, cross-border collaboration is greater than ever. As we at Science|Business mark the 500th edition of our main newsletter, it’s an occasion to reflect a moment on this.

Massive international collaborative projects, some old and some new, are thriving. The 22-nation CERN lab is pushing on to its next discovery after the Higgs Boson. The EU’s Horizon 2020 programme is at a record high of multi-country projects, despite some relatively minor budget cuts; and planning for its next Framework Programme is already underway (read our special FP9 report) China, rushing to seize the mantel of leadership in climate research, is reaching out to new partners across the world.

In the corporate world, companies like GE, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, Siemens and Rolls Royce (see our article) have made open innovation on a global scale part of their basic R&D strategy. International vice president or vice rector has become a standard job title at most major universities; and many have set up satellite or affiliated campuses outside their home countries. Indeed, one bizarre consequence of Brexit could be a profusion of UK satellite campuses and partnerships in Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden and other friendly countries. (See our interview with Trinity College Dublin Provost Patrick Prendergast).

It’s routine now for academic papers to bear multiple authors from institutions scattered across the globe. The universal language of science, English, permits multinational conferences in every possible scientific topic. In December, I flew from (near) the top of the globe to the bottom – from the Slush entrepreneurship conference in Helsinki to the South Africa Science Forum in Pretoria; and both events were a scrum of researchers, entrepreneurs, policy makers and students from scores of countries, joined by common technical interests.

The Science|Business story

The growth of Science|Business itself reflects this mega-trend. We started in 2004, as an attempt by three science and technology journalists to track the earlier signs of this cross-border, and cross-sector, movement in European science and technology. As we announce today, we have in the past year added a record 15 members to our Network of universities, companies and public-sector partners – bringing the total to 52 institutional members in 17 countries, with 17,000 individuals registered as subscribers to our main newsletter. Their motivation is pretty simple: They want more contacts, more partners, more knowledge outside their home countries.

I, like many, have been dismayed by the fragmentation and conflict we are seeing in international politics. I, like many, have wondered what I can do about this, personally.

The answer is pretty simple for those of us in science and technology: Keep at it. Our politicians may be fractious and Twitter-happy, but our researchers and engineers have a professional need to stay in touch, to work together, to travel abroad, to share their data.

Our R&D policy leaders can help. The European Commission’s plan for a science cloud, data-sharing and all the infrastructure that supports it are critically important. Improving and expanding collaborative EU R&D projects – and figuring out a way to keep UK scientists in the loop – is essential. Continuing, despite new static from Washington, the work of the International Panel on Climate Change, is vital. And creating new opportunities for networking, sharing knowledge and starting new collaborative projects is what we at Science|Business plan, as our own small contribution in the months ahead.

We have seen all this before in history: In the so-called Dark Ages, it was a small core of literate clerics and, later, scholastics who kept communications open among otherwise quarrelsome peoples in Europe. Alcuin, the Venerable Bede, Duns Scotus and others – while seldom read today – were at that difficult time among these roving ambassadors of knowledge. Today, we have the likes of Steven Hawking, Bill Gates, and Jack Ma (I include technologists, not just scientists, in this category). And, according to the OECD, about 3 per cent of the work force is now directly employed in some aspect of science and technology. That’s a small but solid base on which to build peace.

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