From where I sit, as head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), I’m repeatedly struck by a series of converging trends.
Virtually all of today’s major issues—climate change, renewable energy, the environment, health care, terrorism, national security—have a science and technology (S&T) component, either as a cause or cure. Concurrently, more and more countries are investing in science and science education, including many whose goal is to “build their economies on their brains,” since they lack sufficient natural resources and other commodities. And I’m also observing that more and more scientists are involved in international collaborations.
This globalization of science provides an unprecedented opportunity to bring the enormous power of S&T to bear on our major societal issues. However, to do so most effectively, it’s imperative that the scientific community functions in a coherent, integrated way. For that to happen, scientists on every continent must share common norms, values, standards, and policies surrounding the conduct of science itself.
A significant step toward developing that coherence was initiated in 2012 when the director of the National Science Foundation at that time, Subra Suresh, convened the Global Research Council (GRC). The GRC brings together the heads of the world’s major research funding agencies to work toward making the policies and practices surrounding S&T more compatible and coherent globally. The underlying vision is that this will both accelerate the advance of science and better enable the S&T enterprise to contribute to solving global societal problems. At its third annual meeting in Beijing earlier this year, the heads of the research funding agencies of 40 countries convened to continue discussions of such topics as promoting open access to scientific data and journal publications, fostering scientific integrity, using common standards for peer review of research proposals and papers, and supporting the next generation of researchers.
To ensure that the perspective of research performers is fully taken into account in the GRC discussions, Dr. Suresh, now president of Carnegie Mellon, and I organized a workshop that was cosponsored by CMU and AAAS. It took place last April in Washington, D.C., and included a renowned group of university presidents, directors of research institutes, and leaders of private philanthropies, along with the GRC executive committee. The workshop had wide-ranging discussions; among them were promoting global collaboration, leveraging costly and unique scientific facilities, providing access to publications and data, and promoting mobility and shared environments for the training of students.
The group didn’t shy away from thorny subjects, either, such as how to balance the need for collaboration with the competition we all commonly experience in science, or how to deal with demographic changes and the substantial imbalances across the world.
Implementing policies eventually advocated by the GRC on a global scale won’t be easy, as entrenched governmental bureaucracies and long-established traditions within national scientific communities will be difficult to change. However, articulating and promoting consistent norms, standards, and policies—as well as developing new policies to foster global collaboration—can do much to increase the contributions of science and technology to solving the world’s most difficult and pressing problems.