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  • The case against scientific protectionism

Caroline S. Wagner and Calestous Juma argue that scientific cooperation, not competition, must be encouraged as a key ingredient of technological innovation and healthy economies round the globe.

In the report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, issued this month, a 20-member panel of the US National Academy of Sciences warned that the United States "could soon lose its privileged position" in science, and that competitors are just a "mouse-click away".

True. But the world's best scientific talent is also just a mouse-click away.

The steady growth of scientific capacity, the expansion of the Internet, and the hyper-mobility of knowledge has enabled new knowledge producers to join the United States in global science and technology communities.

The issue here is whether the United States can come to see this as a resource rather than a source of competition.

In a networked world, no nation leads or lags in some competitive race. Thankfully, that 20th century technological paradigm is swiftly changing.

Space research is a case in point. In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States and the former Soviet Union were both racing to win the big prizes in the field. When the United States eventually reached the Moon first in 1969, it was seen as a validation of US scientific prowess, which had been shaken by the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite.

Cooperation in space science has since replaced this competitive mentality. Today, scientists from Russia, the United States and many other nations work side by side as partners on joint projects. They live and learn together in space, expanding the frontiers of human knowledge.

Back on Earth, however, some persist in seeing the quest for scientific advancement and technological innovation as a race between nations. The National Academy report says: "We fear the abruptness with which a lead in science and technology can be lost..."

This kind of "us and them" mentality couldn't be more wrong — or more dangerous for both the United States and for the parts of the world that can benefit from the fruits of science and technology.

There is no escaping it: today's science is a global phenomenon. Nations are part of an expanding knowledge network that has no borders. In the 21st century, security and competitiveness requires sharing, rather than protecting, knowledge.

As we moved from an era of knowledge scarcity to one of knowledge abundance, access to knowledge has grown exponentially, and there is a distinct trend to make it openly available. Witness websites such as Slashdot.com and Opensource.org, and databases such as the human genome project and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.

Every country's knowledge base should be viewed as a resource in scientific and technological discovery rather than a threat. For instance, recent US advances in nanoscience have built on exciting work from China and South Korea — two relatively new entrants into the ranks of scientifically advanced countries.

Cooperate to compete

The most vibrant economies in the 21st century are those that are immersed in knowledge networks, as the European Union is showing by creating and now expanding its European Research Area (ERA).

The ERA encourages researchers and scientists across countries to pool their knowledge and infrastructure. By focusing on cooperation, dissemination, and leveraging, ERA participants stand to have a lower cost of R&D, and a greater pool of knowledge upon which to build competitive industries.

Indeed, leading-edge corporations perceive research as a global enterprise. Kevin Schofield, general manager for research at Microsoft, recently explained the reasons for the company having laboratories in different countries: "One is that different regions of the world do research differently and with different research expertise … and secondly, great people are there … We are going overseas because, for us, there is one key factor: Are there really great researchers there? It has got to be all about the people ..."

The movement towards global science is abundantly clear for anyone who wants to see it. For instance, the number of internationally co-authored articles in scientific journals doubled between 1990 and 2000. Even the smallest countries are now players in global science.

Although each countries' individual scientific output is still duly attributed to them, knowledge transcends national boundaries. And the new knowledge networks are being continually created within global networks of colleagues sharing resources and ideas. It would be highly inefficient for every country to recreate the entire infrastructure needed for a robust knowledge economy.

Success is defined by the ability to forge links that largely depend on one's attractiveness as a partner. And this is a two-way street. Any nation that sees science and technology as a way to build national strength discovers that the knowledge available from the global network is an asset that can be used, added to, and exploited locally.

Scientific protectionism, on the other hand, denies nations access to knowledge that forms the lifeline of any innovation system.

Funding is a key ingredient in the success of scientific activity, of course, and so is talent. But the third ingredient is networking effectively. And to achieve that, we need to look beyond borders and make effective use of each other's resources.

An antidote to poverty?

The 'beyond borders' approach also means including scientists from all countries as equals in collaborative science, and channelling at least part of research budgets to tackling issues such as hunger, disease, and poverty. Surely, we cannot expect the poorest countries to build all the institutions that characterised a 20th century 'national innovation system'! Yet, these countries have a great need for knowledge, and they have useful experience to share.

They could also be a pool from which new ideas flow into the economy, sparking new technology revolutions.

The National Academy of Sciences report encourages an 'us and them' mentality within knowledge systems that can only exacerbate political instabilities and resentment.

This is not to say the rules of the game have not changed. Indeed, they have. The new ones are: One, create opportunities that allow students to study where they have the best chance of improving their skills. Two, attract and build investment in new industries. Three, open up science funding to collaborative opportunities. Finally, find effective ways to disseminate knowledge and information.

The interdependence of the knowledge economy means that the path to progress must be cleared by opening lines of communication and forging more links to others. The United States should now lead the world in championing greater scientific cooperation among nations. This is where real victory lies.

Caroline S. Wagner is at George Washington University, Washington DC, and is writing a book about global science with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Calestous Juma is professor of the practice of international development at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He is editor of "Going for Growth: Science, Technology and Innovation in Africa", to be published by The Smith Institute in London at end of November.