The Globalization of Science

The Globalization of Science

Science is becoming an increasingly international effort.

Imagine that a ground-breaking research finding in your field of study comes out of a lab halfway around the world. Chances are good that you will not only hear about it almost immediately, but that your work may have played a role in the new finding. International scientific collaboration is the new norm—from niche projects to large-scale research efforts—and its effects can be staggering. Just consider the incredible success of The Human Genome Project.

"Talent comes from everywhere. There are 6 billion people in the world and therefore at least that number of reasons why it's important to go global in science," says Szabolocs Márka, an associate professor in the department of physics at Columbia University in New York, as well as a past winner of the Academy's Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists.

All hands on deck

Márka is intimately familiar with the benefits of international collaboration because of his work on LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory), which measures the birth and death of black holes and neurostars—good tests for the effects of the laws of relatively on astrophysical objects. Using "exquisitely precise" interferometers placed in the US and Italy, LIGO researchers record distortions in space. The interferometers bounce lasers off of one another to discover the origin of seismic sound. "They are like ears," says Márka, "if you only have one ear, it's hard to decipher where sound is coming from."

Researchers at Columbia University are building part of a new detector that may be placed in India—an ideal location according to Márka. But critical hardware is coming from researchers all over the globe, including France, Poland, Hungary, Japan, China, Canada, and Germany.

Research realities

"The success of the LIGO project gives confidence to everyone in the astrophysics field," says Márka. A side benefit of this is increased interest in astrophysics among a wider array of investors. "In Russia, for example, the government is funding some top-notch instrument engineers who are thinking about what might go wrong with the detectors and how they could fix it."

Indeed, just as a diversity of ideas and knowledge are critical to the success of large-scale research projects, so too are a diversity of funding sources.

"Certainly, we need all of the people in the various countries involved because the experiment is technically complex and we require a variety of expertise," says Howard Gordan, deputy operations program manager at Brookhaven National Lab in New York, where he works on the US portion of the ATLAS Experiment, part of the Large Hadron Collider—the world's biggest particle collider. But, Gordan also cites multi-national funding as part of the recipe for research success.

"There were billions of dollars put towards the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas and the project was later killed. It was not an international project and that's what killed it; it simply got too expensive."

Culture shock

While the benefits of global science are clear, widespread collaboration also brings challenges. Márka has become especially attuned to these challenges through his work in malaria research (in which he uses his background in astrophysics to study the use of optical irradiation, or infrared light, in disrupting mosquitoes' sensory systems so they cannot locate human hosts). "There are both sociological and instrumental challenges when working with people of different cultures—and not just different nationalities, but people from different fields and environments."

These challenges underscore the value of good communication skills. "It's very important to be able to communicate your thoughts and results, not just to the people you work with everyday, but to the broader scientific community," says Márka, who believes that the extra effort is worth it. "In science, one good idea leads to another."


Diana Friedman is executive editor of The New York Academy of Sciences Magazine.

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Global from the Start

1817 Academy logoThe Academy is based in New York City and even contains "New York" in its name, but the Academy has always sought to be global, from its members to its impact on the scientific community. The Academy's original logo (seen here) features a globe and Latin words meaning, "by land, through the sea, through the air, by means of the heavenly"—a good reminder that the pursuit of science knows no boundaries.

 

Working Together for the Global Good

"No one can do science in isolation," says Abdelali Haoudi, vice president for research at The Qatar Foundation, which promotes regional and international scientific partnerships through coordinated top-level efforts. "The Foundation shares the Academy's mission in supporting scientific personnel who work on the cutting edge of science to target problems in the world's poorest countries."

Through its work, the Qatar Foundation hopes to propagate a scientific renaissance in the Middle East that will ultimately spark scientific solutions to global problems in developing countries. "We are working to establish strategic partnerships with elite institutions to help create a research powerhouse attracting high-level scientists," says Haoudi. "This will not only benefit Qatar but the entire region and, through important discoveries, the world."

Haoudi cites the Academy as an important partner for the Foundation in building up areas of scientific research that are currently lacking in the Middle East region. "Working with reputable partners is critical to building a network and credibility in niche areas of science, while bringing different research dimensions to tackle key national and global issues."