Coping in an Era of Disentangled Research
A DISCUSSION OFAn Age of Disentangled Research?
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In “An Age of Disentangled Research?” (Issues, Fall 2023), Igor Martins and Sylvia Schwaag Serger raise interesting questions about the changing nature of international cooperation in science and about the engagement of Chinese scientists with researchers in other countries. The authors rightly call attention to the rapid expansion of cooperation as measured in particular by bibliometric analyses. But as they point out, we may be seeing “signs of a potential new era of research in which global science is divided into geopolitical blocs of comparable economic, scientific, and innovative strength.”
While bibliometric data can give us indicators of such a trend, we have to look deeper to fully understand what is happening. Clearly, significant geopolitical forces are at work, generating heightened concerns for national security and, by extension, information security pertaining to scientific research. The fact that many areas of cutting-edge science also have direct implications for economic competitiveness and military capabilities further reinforces the security concerns raised by geopolitical competition, raising barriers to cooperation.
Competition and discord in international scientific activities are certainly not new. Yet forms of cooperation remain, continuing to give science a sense of community and common purpose. That cooperative behavior is often quite subtle and indirect, as a result of multiple modalities of contact and communication. Direct international cooperation among scientists, relations among national and international scientific organizations, the international roles of universities, and the various ways that numerous corporations engage scientists and research centers around the world illustrate the plethora of modes and platforms.
From the point of view of political authorities, devising policies for this mix of modalities is no small challenge. Concerns about maintaining national security often lead to government intrusions into the professional interactions of the scientific community. There are no finer examples of this than the security policy initiatives being implemented in the United States and China, the results of which appear in the bibliometric data presented by the authors. At the same time, we might ask whether scientific communication continues in a variety of other forms, raising hopes that political realities will change. In addition, what should we make of the development of new sites for international cooperation such as the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia and Singapore’s emergence as an important international center of research? Further examination of such questions is warranted as we try to understand the trends suggested by Martin and Schwaag Serger.
In addition, there is more to be learned about the underlying norms and motivations that constitute the “cultures” of science, in China and elsewhere. Research integrity, evaluation practices, research ethics, and science-state relations, among other issues, all involve the norms of science and pertain to its governance. In today’s world, that governance clearly involves a fusion of the policies of governments with the cultures of science. As with geopolitical tensions, matters of governance also hold the potential for producing the bifurcated world of international scientific cooperation the authors suggest. At the same time, we are not without evidence that norms diffuse, supporting cooperative behavior.
We are thus at an interesting moment in our efforts to understand international research cooperation. While signs of “disentanglement” are before us, we are also faced with complex patterns of personal and institutional interactions. It is tempting to discuss this moment in terms of the familiar “convergence-divergence” distinction, but such a binary formulation does not do justice to enduring “community” interests among scientists globally, even as government policies and intellectual traditions may make some forms of cooperation difficult.
Richard “Pete” Suttmeier
Professor Emeritus, Political Science
University of Oregon
In Australia, the quality and impact of research is built upon uncommonly high levels of international collaboration. Compared with the global average of almost 25% cited by Igor Martins and Sylvia Schwaag Serger, over 60% of Australian research now involves international collaboration. So the questions the authors raise are essential for the future of Australian universities, research, and innovation.
While there are some early signs of “disentanglement” in Australian research—such as the recent mapping of a decline in collaboration with Chinese partners in projects funded by the Australian Research Council—the overall picture is still one of increasing international engagement. In 2022, Australian researchers coauthored more papers with Chinese colleagues than with American colleagues (but only just). This is the first time in Australian history that our major partner for collaborative research has been a country other than a Western military ally. But the fastest growth in Australia’s international research collaboration over the past decade was actually with India, not China.
At the same time, the connection between research and national and economic security is being drawn more clearly. At a major symposium at the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra in November 2023, Australia’s chief defense scientist talked about a “paradigm shift,” where the definition of excellent science was changing from “working with the best in the world” to “working with the best in the world who share our values.”
Navigating these shifts in global knowledge production, collaboration, and innovation is going to require new strategies and an improved evidence base to inform the decisions of individual researchers, institutions, and governments in real time. Martins and Schwaag Serger are asking critical questions and bringing better data to the table to help us answer them.
As a country with a relatively small population (producing 4% of the world’s published research), Australia has succeeded over recent decades by being an open and multicultural trading nation, with high levels of international engagement, particularly in our Indo-Pacific region.
Increasing geostrategic competition is creating new risks for international research collaboration, and we need to manage these. In Australia in the past few years, universities and government agencies have established a joint task force for collaboration in addressing foreign interference, and there is also increased screening and government review of academic collaborations. But to balance the increased focus on the downsides of international research, we also need better evidence and analysis of the upsides—the benefits that accrue to Australia from being connected to the global cutting edge. While managing risk, we should also be alert to the risk of missing out.
Executive Director, Innovative Research Universities
The commentary on Igor Martins and Sylvia Schwaag Serger’s article is closely in tune with recent reports published by the Policy Institute at King’s College London. Most recently, in Stumbling Bear; Soaring Dragon and The China Question Revisited, we drew attention to the extraordinary rising research profile of China, which has disrupted the G7’s dominance of the global science network. This is a reality that scientists in other countries cannot ignore, not least because it is only by working with colleagues at the laboratory bench that we develop a proper understanding of the aims, methods, and outcomes of their work. If China is now producing as many highly cited research papers as the United States and the European Union, then knowing only by reading is blind folly.
These considerations need to be set in a context of international collaboration, rising over the past four decades as travel got cheaper and communications improved. In 1980, less than 10% of articles and reviews published in the United Kingdom had an international coauthor; that now approaches 70% and is greatest among the leading research-intensive universities. A similar pattern occurs across the European Union. The United States is somewhat less international, having the challenge of a continent to span domestically. However, a strong, interconnected global network underpins the vast majority of highly cited papers that signal change and innovation. How could climate science, epidemiology, and health management work without such links?
The spread across disciplines is lumpy. Much of the trans-Atlantic research trade is biomedical and molecular biology. The bulk of engagement with China has been in technology and the physical sciences. That is unsurprising since this is where China had historical strength and where Western researchers were more open for new collaborations. Collaboration in social sciences and in humanities is sparse because many priority topics are regional or local. But collaboration is growing in almost every discipline and is shifting from bilateral to multilateral. Constraining this to certain subjects and politically correct partners would be a disaster for global knowledge horizons.
Visiting Professor at the Policy Institute, King’s College London
Chief Scientist at the Institute for Scientific Information, Clarivate
Founder and Director of Education Insight
Visiting Professor at the Policy Institute, King’s College London
Former UK Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation