Global scientific research must not be used as stooge in diplomacy

Global scientific research has always been used as a tool in international relations, but more countries are using it to further their geopolitical or geostrategic objectives.

Global scientific research must not be used as stooge in diplomacy

Global scientific research is being used as a bargaining chip in international politics. This must not become an impediment to countries cooperating on climate change, biodiversity loss, pandemic prevention, and other pressing issues.

The US National Academy of Sciences and Polish academies have teamed up to provide more funding support for researchers from Ukraine. The European Commission confirmed that work is under way on a ‘science diplomacy’ strategy, to be finalized next year. On 13 December, representatives of the United States and several African countries committed to expanding cooperation in space science.

International cooperation in science tends to take the form of projects and programmes initiated and led by researchers at universities or scientific academies. Projects such as CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory, and the James Webb Space Telescope are exemplars.

The Fifteenth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (COP15) concluded in Montreal, Canada, with an agreement on a new blueprint to halt and eventually reverse the decline of species.

Global scientific research has always been used as a tool in international relations, but more countries are using it to further their geopolitical or geostrategic objectives. Hard-nosed political initiatives must not be allowed to crowd out the kind of ‘no strings’ cooperation that leads to discovery and invention. There’s a real danger of science getting trapped in political projects, and researchers need to be vigilant and stand firm when necessary.

The COP27 climate summit in Sharm El-Sheikh brought some movement on the crucial sticking point of ‘loss and damage’ finance transfers from higher- to lower-income countries, but little further progress on decarbonization.

Had they heeded the words of World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, more people in low- and lower-middle-income countries could have been vaccinated more quickly – and fewer lives lost.

This year, Russia held the rotating chair of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation in the region. The invasion of Ukraine has halted all official research cooperation between Russia and Europe and the United States.

At the same time, supporting Ukraine’s research community has become a priority for Europe and the United States, working with campaign groups such as Scholars at Risk and the Council for At-Risk Academics.

Russia shares the vice-presidency of the Alliance of International Science Organizations, the science-cooperation arm of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

China has invested more than US$900 billion since 2013 in this initiative, which aims to build infrastructure in other countries, many of them along the route of the original Silk Road towards the West.

Next year is likely to see further reductions in US–China scientific collaboration after two decades of growth in science and technology collaborations. Tensions have been ratcheting up on both sides for a while. In 2018, the administration of former US president launched its ‘China Initiative’, a poorly thought-through surveillance programme to counter what the government regarded as intellectual-property theft and economic espionage.

This led to the investigation of many researchers from China or with Chinese heritage and resulted in completely innocent people being arrested and brought to trial. The initiative ended in February, but by then the damage had been done.

Two years ago, China’s government ended incentives for its researchers to publish in international journals. It’s in no one’s interests if China’s researchers become more isolated from their international counterparts (Nature 579, 8; 2020). Sadly, this is starting to happen.

In 2021, the number of co-authored papers between researchers in the United States and China fell for the first time in 20 years. There has been a drop in the number of authors reporting dual US and China affiliations on their research papers, too.

The United States is restricting sales by US companies (and non-US companies that use US technology) to China of the types of microchip that are used in artificial intelligence and supercomputing. It has placed restrictions on US citizens and residents working for Chinese technology companies. Last week, China retaliated by lodging a dispute with the World Trade Organization.

Countries are working to stop these tensions interfering with ongoing talks to agree new treaties on preventing pandemics and ending plastics pollution. Tensions have also been high between China and Canada over the past few years, but policymakers and researchers from the two countries worked constructively at the COP15 biodiversity summit.

World faces “a new uncertainty complex”, with an ongoing pandemic, war, climate risks and associated economic shocks, writes economist Pedro Conceição. As a result, we are likely to see more instances of countries raising trade barriers and making moves to protect their economies, he says. Governments must accept that they have responsibilities to ensure the integrity of international cooperation in science-based policymaking.

There is little doubt that 2023 will increase the pressure on international scientific cooperation and science-based cooperation to protect the environment and public health. When this happens, researchers and their representative organisations must be more vigilant, not least because they will be asked to do the heavy lifting.

They should spend time researching the implications of what they may be asked to do. And they should consider whether they want to participate in science that is aligned with foreign policy if it weakens the vast cooperative networks required for both global scientific research and science-based international treaties.