New Year’s resolution: Research group aims to fix the way the world collaborates on technology

04 Jan 2022 | News

Facing COVID-19 and climate challenges, a group of international research leaders is pushing the G7 to create a new framework for precompetitive collaboration

David Delpy, professor of medical photonics at University College London

With the COVID-19 crisis still underway and a climate crisis looming, an international group of senior researchers is pushing the world’s biggest economies to reform the way they manage collaboration on emerging technologies.

In coming years, argues a group participant, David Delpy, professor of medical photonics at University College London, the world risks conflict over who controls and benefits from a range of emerging technologies from climate control to 6G wireless networks.

“Now, it’s very difficult for countries to make sure that they get at least a fair share of the return on investment” on emerging technologies, he says. “If everybody’s playing by the same rules, it’s fine. But everybody isn’t playing by the same rules.” The issue is, “value capture: how do liberal economies capture value in a world where not everybody is liberal?”

What’s needed is a new global framework for pre-competitive technology development. That framework, starting with the seven biggest developed economies, would produce model, multilateral agreements on sharing and exploiting emerging technologies that companies, universities and governments could follow, and have a chance of enforcement – reducing uncertainty about intellectual property, standardisation, data sharing, researcher mobility and other contentious issues.

Pushing the G7

This lobbying effort, organised through the BRG Institute, a California non-profit founded by the Berkeley Research Group consulting firm, is funded by former UK science minister David Sainsbury, and brings together 27 well-known researchers from the US to China. Of course, they aren’t the only group now thinking about a new, post-pandemic order; the R&D world is blooming with them lately (in the same vein, Science|Business in 2020 formed its Technology Strategy Board to brainstorm global collaboration models).

The Berkeley group is well-connected; Delpy was formerly head of the UK’s Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council, and several participants are well-known in university or tech company management. Using participants’ top-level contacts, the group has been publishing white papers and briefing G7 officials, who at their last meeting in June 2021 in Cornwall, UK, published a “Research Compact” pledging “to uphold and protect the principles that underpin effective international collaboration” in research. Further meetings are planned this year in Germany, which takes over the rotating G7 presidency from the UK.

In a recent essay in the journal Science, Delpy and some of his colleagues welcomed the Research Compact – but faulted it for not going far enough. It focuses on ways to improve collaboration in basic research, which Delpy says isn’t particularly in need of repair.

“If you’re just doing basic science, it (the current system) works very well. However, if you’re trying to undertake the challenge of taking the science into a commercial product, or using it for the benefit of individual nations, or even the UN’s Grand Challenges, it’s more difficult. The arrangements underpinning the science don’t easily enable companies to maximise their engagement. They have to finish up negotiating again with all of the key researchers around the world, to come up with a product. Now that’s very difficult.”

Behind such concerns is a sea change in the way science and technology happen: they are more global than ever before. According to a paper co-authored by group participant Caroline Wagner of Ohio State University, in 1990 only three countries spent more than 2.5% of GDP on R&D: the US, Japan and Germany. By 2018, that list had broadened to 11 countries, including China and Korea. At the same time, collaborations among these and other countries have multiplied: about a third of all natural science and engineering publications are internationally co-authored. And despite their quarrels, the US and China in 2019 were each other’s biggest research partners. As a result, technology trade has boomed – and the potential for conflict has risen. The many messy 2021 disputes over COVID-19 vaccine technology and distribution are prime examples.

Stuck in the middle

The problem, the Berkeley group argues, is that precompetitive work – between basic research and the start of competition – falls into a gap in the current system of international technology management. Scientific collaborations are often organised, on a government level, though bilateral science diplomacy agreements. They are premised on open exchange of information among the scientists and “reciprocity” between the countries involved – but they are usually vague and without any enforcement mechanisms. At the other extreme are government trade agreements, which are (in theory) enforceable but too prescriptive to be of much use on an emerging technology whose applications and value aren’t yet known.

In the middle – between basic science and technology trade – is where a new global framework is needed, Delpy says. Of course, the EU’s Horizon Europe grant agreements provide some answers for the countries participating, though the terms are often criticised as too bureaucratic and costly. And with a new wave of technologies coming, the odds of conflict are rising.

For instance, the group argues in a recent paper, the pandemic highlighted the importance of new digital technologies for epidemiology – but there’s no global agreement on how to handle patient privacy when developing the new tools. Another example: with a climate crisis coming, there will be huge demand for technologies protecting coastlines from flooding. Who will control and profit from those technologies? If there’s no internationally agreed answer, why would multinationals and investors risk their money on the pre-competitive work needed to develop them? And what happens if a third country, not part of the original development group, steals the ideas?

“We’ve got to take the example of China,” says Delpy. “While it was a developing nation, quite rightly it benefited from the investments that the developed world made. But now that we’re in economic competition, we’re going to have to find some form of agreement which connects people in a legally binding way to fairness, the reciprocity of return.”

The G7 to-do list

The answer, Delpy and colleagues say, is to start with the G7 members opening up their Research Compact discussions. Rather than keeping the work inside a small circle of foreign service diplomats, the planning should include companies, universities and ministries handling commerce, technology and other fields – organisations with more direct knowledge of the problems. A resulting, standing task force would set a timeline and goals for the work, such as writing model agreements for handling multilateral, precompetitive technology development.

The G7, says Delpy, “needs to enable companies to know what the rules are when they’re engaging with other companies or governments, or governments with universities. It needs to embed reciprocity and even-handedness, so that everybody knows that in entering agreements they will be treated on exactly the same level playing field as every other kind of company in those countries that are signatories to the agreements.”

Editor’s Note: This article was corrected on 14 January 2022, to clarify the nature of the organisation involved. This effort is advanced by the non-profit BRG Institute, rather than directly by its founder, Berkeley Research Group.

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