Biden administration gears up to expand global science cooperation

23 Nov 2021 | News

Reversing Trump-era isolationism, Washington announces new science collaborations with funding agencies in Bern and Ottawa – and upcoming meetings with Brazil, France, India, Japan and Korea

Eric Lander, Director of the US Office of Science and Technology Policy and Advisor to the President. Photo: Wikimedia

A new US strategy to expand international science diplomacy gathered speed, as the Biden administration announced collaborations with the Swiss and Canadians, and upcoming discussions with France, Japan and other science partners.

The US-Swiss agreement, between the two countries’ national science foundations, is intended to make it easier for researchers to work together – with each getting funding from their own agencies for joint research projects. The deal was announced on 19 November after negotiations in Washington.

And the day before, as President Joe Biden met with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Washington, the White House said the two governments are working on a broad agreement, “to address the most pressing science-based priorities faced by our two countries,” including climate change and the pandemic. It added that the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, “aim to launch a collaborative initiative to fund research projects in the areas of artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum science.”

But the Swiss and Canadian deals are only part of a US science diplomacy campaign now gathering steam. When asked about the overall strategy, an official of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) said the agency’s boss, Eric Lander, in the next few months “has upcoming bilateral engagements with Brazil, France, India, Japan, and Korea. That’s not all. What you are seeing is just the beginning of this administration’s efforts to strengthen international scientific networks.”

New-look science policy

The intensity of the US charm offensive contrasts with four years of the Trump administration ignoring much climate and pandemic science, and nixing new science collaborations. But it isn’t just national politics driving this. There’s also the now-dominant view among global leaders that science collaboration is essential to address climate change, recover from the pandemic, and manage the introduction of artificial intelligence, quantum computing, gene editing and a string of other disruptive new technologies. The record speed with which COVID-19 vaccines were developed is partly credited to global science collaboration. And at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow earlier this month, a fleet of new science and technology partnerships was launched.

Of course, the change in Washington science policy goes well beyond diplomacy, with R&D playing a big role in Biden’s signature infrastructure and social legislation. But with the elevation of Lander to cabinet rank, the administration has also been quick to seize new science opportunities. Earlier this month the OSTP publicly welcomed a move by the European Commission to make US collaboration easier in its flagship Horizon Europe research programme – potentially ending years of transatlantic static over the issue. And in a recent speech, Lander cited “the need to include, elevate and embrace the unique perspectives of people doing science all around the globe.”

Elaborating on background, an OSTP official said, “The US is blessed with unique financial and scientific resources. We must make sure that our international programmes endure, expand, and receive more funding.  And we must continue to welcome and exchange global scientific talent, with renewed commitment.”

But how much in grant money or scientific results actually results from all this science diplomacy depends on a lot of pesky details that can take months or years to sort out. Broad science and technology agreements of the kind now underway between Ottawa and Washington are fairly common in science diplomacy; the EU alone has dozens of them with various countries. The reality is that differences in national contracting rules, university governance and finance systems are perennial obstacles to cooperation, and if they are overcome, it’s usually by individual research teams working quietly with sympathetic officials in various funding agencies around the world.

The Swiss card

The US-Swiss deal is intended to lead eventually to that kind of nitty-gritty cooperation, supporting “long term cooperation in promoting research” between the two countries’ basic science funding agencies, according to a statement from Bern. It also comes at a tricky moment, when the Swiss and EU are at a stalemate in their own broad trade negotiations and for the first time in years, Swiss researchers are excluded from key parts of EU research. Both Swiss and US officials, however, called the timing of their negotiations coincidental, rather than a signal to Brussels.

US-Swiss collaboration in science has been going on for years. But with the new, more-formal arrangement “we hope to see that grow,” said Kendra Sharp, the NSF’s head of international relations, in an interview. “Swiss research is very strong.”

The memorandum of understanding aims to set up the first “lead agency” arrangement between the two national science funders. Under this, researchers in the two countries who want to collaborate on a project would file similar applications to their respective funders, and just one of the agencies would lead the review for grant award. Then each agency would handle the grant contracts with its own researchers, side-stepping legal or regulatory differences in the way the two systems normally operate. The aim, said Sharp, is “reducing barriers to collaboration.”

The two countries are already close scientific partners. While the EU is Switzerland’s biggest scientific partner, the US ranks second, according to UNESCO, with 28,241 scientific papers jointly published from 2017-19. Switzerland has two of the highest-ranked science centres in the world, the two Swiss federal research universities in Zurich and Lausanne, and is home to international particle accelerator CERN. Swiss companies invest on average 7% of sales on R&D, the highest percentage in the world, according to UNESCO.

Canadian talks

The Canadian negotiations, however, are much broader and build on intense cross-border collaborations in every field from health to energy. With Trump as president, the Canadians started looking more intently at deals with Europe, and have been considering the possibility of becoming a paying member of Horizon Europe. Lately, however, internal EU politics has made that prospect less certain. But Canada-EU collaboration continues, most recently with the announcement on 22 November of plans to work together on the development of compatible systems for digital credentials, a technology for verifying the identity of parties in an online transaction.  

According to a joint statement on 18 November from Lander and the Canadian innovation minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, “We intend to advance a shared science, technology and innovation agenda to drive progress on key initiatives.”

The planned joint NSF-NSERC call for research proposals on AI and quantum science was the most concrete step they cited. They didn’t mention any budget estimates for it, and neither Canadian nor American officials were immediately willing to elaborate. But in both AI and quantum there are already extensive cross-border industrial research projects underway, and both countries have named those technologies as among the most urgent for development.

Other details are scant. The statement said the two sides are currently negotiating a general science, technology and innovation agreement, and listed several hot-button topics on which both sides want more collaboration: climate change, the pandemic, social inclusion, semiconductors, security, AI, quantum and emerging technologies generally.  But timing, budgets and programmes went unmentioned, with the statement saying, “Officials are engaged in discussions to drive this work forward, with a view to concluding an agreement at the earliest possible opportunity.”

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