Four research leaders urge a step-change in international R&D collaboration, starting with challenges in wireless, hydrogen, epidemiology and other fields
At the end of June, leaders of seven of the world’s wealthiest economies will meet in Germany. We urge that they move forward quickly and collaboratively on a focused set of R&D initiatives to help solve some of the world’s most urgent problems – by working together. At stake is the health and prosperity of millions, and the strength of all liberal democracies.
In recent years, the idea of problem or mission-oriented R&D programmes, pursued collaboratively, has spread widely. Climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have moved the G7 nations toward understanding the importance of cross-border cooperation. They are also increasingly concerned about China’s state-directed and often predatory strategy for technological and economic dominance. And now comes the Russian war in Ukraine, waged in the field with advanced weaponry and online with powerful surveillance and propaganda tools. These events should fully awaken the G7 nations to the “techno-economic” character of modern geopolitical competition and confrontation, and to their critical leadership role — as the leading R&D-intensive liberal democracies — in the economic and national security of all democracies.
At the G7’s last meeting in 2021, leaders agreed in general terms to cooperate on pressing issues requiring technological solutions. Here, we propose six specific, detailed initiatives that the leaders can and should launch this month. We also urge the creation of a G7 working group to hash out the details and get things moving. Our list of six collaborative R&D challenges is critical, but not exhaustive. These areas of technology-dependent economic activity are, however, widely recognised as important to the economic and national security of liberal democracies. We believe the G7 must lead. It must allow for, but cannot wait for, full engagement of democracies outside the group.
1. Next-generation wireless and mobile device systems. Wireless technology enables a host of new industries and is the core of AI applications in areas as diverse as autonomous systems, health care and agriculture. The depth and breadth of the existing wireless industry, the critical integration of wireless with optical fiber and satellite systems, and the increasing complementary and substituting role of wifi providers means that this industry is fragmented. While this allows considerable technical entrepreneurship, the future wireless system – knitted together as it must be by standards and interoperability – needs to be a scalable, collaborative, secure platform to maintain the pace of innovation without opening major new vulnerabilities. The G7 democracies need to work together with companies based in and regulated by those nations for both economic and national security. As a first step, the G7 nations should join to establish a problem-oriented public-private research collaboration — designed with close attention to the downstream processes of international standard-setting — for the immediate development of next generation wireless systems.
2. Mobile and stationary hydrogen (H2) power systems and infrastructure. There is an immediate need for crash program in H2 as part of the solution to reduce the dependence of Europe and other nations on Russian oil and gas. The near-term goal of increasing the viability of H2 as a “replacement” fuel for Europe is completely aligned with a global push toward an alternative energy future that incorporates a low-environmental impact fuel to complement renewable, stationary electric power sources. While the exposure of liberal democracies to authoritarian regimes controlling fossil fuel reserves has diminished in recent decades, this process – as the knock-on impacts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have demonstrated – is far from complete and has not translated as completely as it needs to into an approach which also reduces the release of greenhouse gases. As a first step, G7 nations should establish a public-private initiative to develop and license (and provide guidance on national regulation) approaches to scalable green H2 production, distribution, storage, combustion and use in both stationary and transportation applications.
3. Rare-earth minerals security. The consolidation of rare-earth minerals production in a megafirm, China Rare Earth Group, is an upstream value chain oligopoly that threatens production and deployment of technologies as diverse as electric vehicles, wind turbines, many electronics and related defense industries. The G7 should launch a collaborative crash programme of research, development and design of alternative materials, innovative metallurgy, and device-design approaches. This R&D and innovation initiative needs to be launched in combination with near-term G7 collaboration on mining and extraction of rare-earth minerals in market-based democracies within and outside the G7. The shared goal for these G7 activities — one in materials research and another in mining — is the creation and maintenance of supply markets adequate to meet the needs of democracies.
4. Sustainable orbital space. The world is teetering on the edge of complete dysfunction, and potential disaster, in orbital space. The liberal democracies must collectively acknowledge that space-capable authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China will not willingly collaborate, because of the history of national security and intelligence uses of space. They must also act quickly to coordinate data and forecasts on the position of orbiting objects, and to align regulations and licensing, so that orbital space does not become an unmanageable and unusable junk yard of fast moving debris. There are large, long-term research, development, demonstration, and deployment challenges to commercial uses of orbital space. In recent years this largely uncontrolled environment has been a tremendously attractive sand box for inventors and entrepreneurs. But without more regulation, coordinated across borders, the whole system is likely to crash, with serious implications for communication systems, weather assessment and forecasting, environmental sensing, agriculture, marine navigation and more. The G7 nations, recruiting all space-capable liberal democracies, should establish an enforceable treaty-based collaborative activity — going beyond the “lite” regulation of space through the UN — for the sustainable development of orbital space. Exercising sovereign regulatory powers, the G7 nations and other democracies must draw on existing private and public activities in democracies to establish an internationally governed entity to provide robust, reliable data on what is orbiting and where – so-called space situational awareness. This initial collaboration is the first step to enabling effective, safe, and fair commercial research, experimentation, and development of orbital space.
5. Cross-border digital epidemiology. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it apparent that the epidemiological tools necessary to track and halt, or more effectively manage, infectious diseases have not kept pace with globalisation, travel and migration. Data privacy and data sovereignty concerns have been a barrier to cross-border collaboration on these approaches; but technological advance in this field is such that “design for privacy” is an obtainable R&D goal. Such approaches can protect privacy and national security. If effectively implemented in cross-border applications, it would also allow national and regional public health organisations to improve their ability to contain and respond to disease. The G7 must quickly launch an R&D collaboration entity with cross-border access to health data, and a wide range of other epidemiologically-relevant information – first for applied research and then for operations – in a way that maintains personal privacy and preserves national security. This is a need shared by all liberal democracies, where consent of the governed is a matter of law and practice. So a G7 initiative is not the final word but an exercise in leadership.
6. Petroleum-free and carbon-negative plastics and precursors. Energy dependence on imported petroleum and natural gas is a recognised and immediate vulnerability of G7 nations. But there is an additional dependence on oil and gas, as dominant feedstocks for petrochemicals and plastics critical to any modern industrial economy. There has been steady progress on both bio-derived and inorganic approaches to non-petroleum-based plastics and their precursors; but we need more cross-border research, development, production prototyping and scale-up investment to displace petroleum with more environmentally benign feedstock. To the extent that these approaches create new “sinks” for greenhouse gases, the pursuit of alternative processes can contribute to climate change mitigation. The G7 nations should establish a large-scale public-private research consortium for such approaches. A key feature of such a consortium, besides R&D, is to prosecute the work in such a way that there is adequate incentive for private companies to participate. This means structuring intellectual property ownership and licensing approaches that encourage market competition and speed the diffusion of new knowledge developed.
The G7 is a forum for leaders of our most advanced liberal democracies to meet and coordinate strategy; it has no permanent secretariat or legal powers of its own. What we suggest will require collective action, and perhaps treaties, by and among the nations. By formally adopting these goals and approaches at the group’s meeting at Schloss Elmau in Germany, they can set off an avalanche of topic-specific, action-oriented negotiations. While the seven governments must conduct these negotiations, they should broaden their consultations to include their national research funding entities and companies, research and technology organisations and universities.
What is needed now from the 2022 German leadership of the G7
To drive toward effective collaboration on these topic the leaders should immediately form a standing G7 Working Group on Problem-Oriented R&D made up of representatives of the major public research funders from each of the G7 nations. Publicly-funded R&D in the G7 nations totals approximately $225 billion annually. Although only 20 to 25% of total R&D, publicly funded R&D has structural characteristics that mean it often leads economic change. These characteristics include taking risks individual companies will not, integrating with government procurement, being less inherently proprietary than private R&D, and linking to higher education and a nation’s research-capable workforce.
The charge to this G7 Working Group — which should be assembled and start work under German leadership of the G7 in 2022 — is to work out the “how” of cross-border collaborative public and private R&D funding. To address the challenges outlined above, G7 collaborative public R&D investments need to function — at minimum — for fundamental applied research; the construction and management of multinational applied research infrastructure; public-private pre-competitive R&D consortia; and one-off activities such as collaboration to establish an entity providing and pushing the frontiers of Space Situational Awareness. To accomplish this the major public research funders from G7 nations will need to figure out how to issue multiparty paired solicitations, structure attractive multi-sovereign working relations with companies in pre-competitive research, and handle paired pre-award and post-award grant and contract management.
Public research funders from the G7 nations will need to work through a set of international operational challenges that mirror those in their current domestic activities. These include how to select specific areas for investment, ownership of intellectual property, the relative benefit of research investments to citizens vs. companies, and the relative weight put on research advances vs. talent development. And, of course, they must also justify taxpayer-funded expenditures.
Further, as publicly funded problem-oriented R&D activities in G7 nations broaden to include these cross-border collaborations, the nations must deal with additional operational issues rooted in adequate alignment among their industrial, economic, privacy, and regulatory policies. Harmonising the establishment and implementation of export controls on core technologies and components is a particularly important aspect of this work.
The need to work out the mechanics of international collaboration is not an insurmountable barrier to action, but the solutions will require some new principles and plenty of operational innovation. Some of the principles can be drawn from a long history of trade and investment treaties, anchored around national treatment and reciprocity. Another principle, important to taxpayers and politicians, is that public funds support primarily activities that clearly benefit national interest, such as buying access for national researchers and companies to research facilities located in other countries, the support of domestic researchers, and the research-focused education of those who will remain engaged in the national economy.
The good news is that the needed operational innovations for internationally collaborative problem-oriented research can be drawn from a deep and broad history of public-private R&D collaborations and company-company collaborative R&D ventures. While out of sight for most policy makers, there is a robust capability in this regard in places such as the US National Science Foundation, the German research ministry, the Japan Science and Technology Agency, UK Research and Innovation, as well as in more industry- and innovation-oriented operations such as the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Germany’s Fraunhofer Institutes, Innovate UK or Japan’s economy ministry. The international operational challenge is for these groups to work together, and with economic and regulatory agencies in their respective nations, to make cross-border initiatives work.
The importance of Japan’s leadership of the G7 in 2023 and widening beyond the G7
Hosting the G7 meetings is a privilege that rotates annually among the group‘s members. The G7 agreements and actions called for in this brief piece reflect a substantial expansion of G7 scope firmly built on, among other things, the G7 Research Compact and Space Debris agreements from the 2021 summit in Cornwall when the UK was in the lead. Effective German leadership in 2022 can make sure that this and further agreements at the 2022 summit are quickly converted into positive actions. But solidifying 2022 progress in any or all of the initiatives depends on an effective hand-off to Japan when it assumes leadership for 2023. And it is important that the the German and Japanese G7 leadership treat initial steps in this new direction as a quick-start activity which opens the door for problem-oriented R&D collaboration with other democratic technology powerhouses such as Sweden, South Korea, the Netherlands and Israel.
Operational challenges aside, the ideas articulated here can help address the blended technical, economic, and geopolitical challenges facing democracies today. Further, each of these initiatives — properly structured and launched — can help the G7 nations make common cause around national and economic security with all democracies.
David T. Delpy is emeritus professor at University College London and former CEO of the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Resesarch Council. Bruce R. Guile is project lead, Global Innovation and National Interests, BRG Institute; Albert P. Pisano is dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering, UC San Diego; and Thomas Schuelke is president of Fraunhofer USA. All four authors are members of the International Working Group of the project on Global Innovation and National Interests supported by David Sainsbury at the BRG Intitute in Emeryville, California..