The increasing internationalization of science offers many benefits, but also has limitations.
Last week’s Nobel prizes formally recognized scientists from just four nations — but newspaper headlines and press releases were eager to spread the glory further. Whereas France’s President François Hollande called Serge Haroche’s physics win “a source of national pride”, Helga Nowotny, president of the European Research Council, described the same award as affirmation of her agency’s investment in talent.
The Korea Herald, meanwhile, found a local connection to US researcher Robert Lefkowitz’s chemistry Nobel — two Korean scientists, Jihee Kim and Seungkirl Ahn, are currently working in his lab.
And although Japan’s Shinya Yamanaka was personally congratulated by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on his award in physiology or medicine, the San Jose Mercury News preferred to focus on Yamanaka’s training at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, California, which, the paper said, recognized his talents back in 1993, when they hired him (Yamanaka still has a lab there).
Reactions such as these show how national pride and prestige still matter in an increasingly internationalized science system. The ultimate expression of that tension will surely come when the discovery of the Higgs boson — to which thousands of researchers and funds from tens of countries contributed — is rewarded with a call from Stockholm.
This week, Nature examines the globalization of science (see page 325). According to the US National Science Foundation (NSF), almost one-quarter of research articles in 2010 featured authors from more than one country, up from 10% in 1990. The average number of authors on research papers, which now stands at 4.5, has doubled since 1980. Many areas of science are becoming international, not local, pursuits; researchers are increasingly criss-crossing the globe and becoming accustomed to working in two or three countries at once.
Yet although science is increasingly globalized — at least in terms of research outputs and collaborations — it is still funded and managed on a largely national basis. This may need to change. Joining up national priorities could allow economies of scale, possibly to the benefit of research into global challenges such as energy, climate and agriculture.
The head of the NSF, Subra Suresh, offers a vision of the future on page 337 in which some of the barriers to cross-border scientific collaboration have been removed. Suresh hopes that the Global Research Council can begin to collectively steward global science as if it were a national activity.
“ Joining up national priorities could allow economies of scale. ”
If the globalizing trend does continue, it could change the way that national governments view the outputs of science. Countries may even feel that, instead of insisting on making and exploiting their own discoveries, it is more efficient to capitalize on the breakthroughs made by others. South Korea and the United States are rapidly becoming the centres of graphene manufacturing, for instance, despite the 2010 physics Nobel being awarded to graphene researchers at the University of Manchester, UK.
Yet there are limits to internationalization. Mobility cannot stretch infinitely: relationships, families and quality of life put limits on how much researchers want to travel, and for how long. Meanwhile, some national research systems, such as that of Japan, are not particularly flexible and discourage scientists from spending too much time abroad.
And blurring the borders of national priorities may not be all good. Some countries are just beginning to build their own research capacity. Collaboration may allow them to share in the advances of others, but it could also start to dilute their national identity, subjugating local research priorities to the interests of larger nations. Striking the balance between local and global science will be the challenge.