Can the International Science Community Find the Balance Between Cooperation and Competition?

Science has a long history of crossing borders, bridging cultures and balancing the public good with private gain. That tradition, the focus of the upcoming Kavli Prize Science Forum, may face a more challenging future.

(Originally published August, 2010)

COOPERATION COMES NATURALLY TO SCIENCE; or at least it should, as the big problems science is called upon to address – from climate change to pandemics – respect no boundaries. And science at its best is a group effort, inclusive and open.

But are competitive forces, now stronger than in the past, working against globally collaborative science? This will be one of the issues addressed at the inaugural Kavli Prize Science Forum, a partnership of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, The Kavli Foundation and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research. To be held on September 6 in Oslo as part of Kavli Prize Week, the Forum is a biennial event aimed at facilitating high-level, global discussion of major topics on science and science policy. This year’s topic: “The Role of International Cooperation in Science.”

An extended interview with Charles M. Vest, president of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and moderator of the 2010 Kavli Prize Science Forum, can be found here.

The inaugural forum will bring together some of the most influential science policy figures in the world. Among them will be John P. Holdren, science advisor to President Barack Obama, and Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, the first head of the European Research Council and now Secretary-General of the International Human Frontier Science Program Organization (HFSPO). Also joining a panel discussion will be the presidents of the Royal Society, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Science Council of Japan, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. Officials from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Max Planck Institute will also be panelists. (For a full list of participants, click here)

Charles M. VestCharles M. Vest, president of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and moderator, 2010 Kavli Prize Science Forum. (Credit: NAE)

Moderating the event will be Charles M. Vest, former president of MIT and now president of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering.

According to Vest, by focusing on international cooperation, the 2010 Forum gets to the heart of some of the most basic issues facing the world’s growing network of scientists. “In isolation, even great scientists don’t produce really great science.” Today, he notes, many undertakings are simply too large for a single country, or are challenges so serious they require a global response. “By definition, these challenges require different perspectives and actions from different parts of the world; and they are things that we truly need to solve jointly.”

Roadblocks to Cooperation

But there are roadblocks for this. As Vest points out, despite a broad agreement on the importance of cooperation, that consensus starts to fray around issues such as funding and intellectual property. In fact, the draw of the market, especially where intellectual property is involved, increasingly complicates efforts to get nations and institutions to work together and share information openly. Vest cites an example from his days as president of MIT. During the 1990s, MIT invited World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee from Europe to work on the formation of the World Wide Web Consortium, the body that maintains Web standards and protocols. The idea got an enthusiastic reception on both sides of the Atlantic. European officials not only gave Berners-Lee their blessing to relocate, but they sent substantial funding as well. There was no talk of selling Berners-Lee’s work, and hence no arguments over who would profit from it. Vest now wonders if anything like this could happen now: “I’m not sure Europe would say, ‘Great, we’ll send him to the U.S., and by the way here’s some start-up funding.’ I’m not sure we would now be able to establish the Web as kind a public good, through an international consortium with no profit-making motives. I suspect the tone among all parties might be more bureaucratic, less cooperative.”

“[W]e wanted to use this opportunity for scientific leaders from around the world to focus on science in a constructive way.It is in everyone’s best interest if science proceeds cooperatively, efficiently, and effectively by engaging more people around the world,”  states Robert W. Conn, president of The Kavli Foundation.

Robert W. Conn, president of The Kavli Foundation, looks forward to hearing whether the Forum’s panelists have similar concerns. Conn led the development and planning for the Forum on behalf of the Foundation, and worked with Vest to fully develop its topical framework. The intent was to select a theme fitting for Kavli Prize Week – a celebration of science, culminating in the awarding of the Kavli Prizes to the 2010 laureates. As for the concept of the Forum itself, Conn explains it was a natural evolution for Kavli Prize Week. “We were already attracting a large number of scientists to Oslo for the Prize Ceremony and lectures. Given this, we wanted to use this opportunity for scientific leaders from around the world to focus on science in a constructive way. The result is this new, joint partnership event between The Kavli Foundation and the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.”

Nils Chr. Stenseth, president of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, agrees with Conn and the importance of the topic for the inaugural Forum. “Science is an international enterprise that opens doors between countries and political systems. We have doors that, as scientists, we can go through and open that ordinary diplomats can’t. So a great deal is riding on the future of cooperation, not just in science but in the relations of peoples and governments.”

Conn also points out that the Forum fits the mission of The Kavli Foundation. “Our mission here involves advancing science for the benefit of all cultures and all people,” Conn says. “As an institution, we’re already focused on the role of international cooperation. So naturally, this topic came to mind.”

Vest believes it is a topic that will reverberate across the scientific community. “It is in everyone’s best interest if science proceeds cooperatively, efficiently, and effectively by engaging more people around the world.”