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HOME > PAST ISSUE > July-August 1998 > Article Detail

FROM THE PRESIDENT

International Cooperation: A Scientific Imperative

Under the leadership of Representative Vernon Ehlers, the House Science Committee has undertaken a comprehensive study of U.S. science policy. The goal is ambitious but admirable: to provide the basis for a reformulation of American science policy, a decade after the end of the Cold War and a half century after Vannevar Bush's Science: the Endless Frontier established the framework for the policy that has been followed ever since.

Representative Ehlers has already held a series of hearings to assess some of the many aspects of this complex set of issues. Among the items addressed to date has been one that is of particular interest to Sigma Xi in view of its recent efforts to develop abroad: international science.

The witnesses in this hearing identified many reasons why international scientific cooperation is important—perhaps more than ever. Research in some subjects has become too costly for any nation to bear alone. Many problems whose solutions require scientific knowledge and expertise do not respect national borders—transborder environmental pollution, health, energy, food, water, national security. Scientific talent and world-class facilities are located in many nations around the globe, and solving leading problems requires the best teams that can be assembled. Certain scientific problems require access to particular geographic sites (the tropics, the polar regions, and so forth, as Tom Ratchford pointed out in his testimony). In an age when technology is of great economic importance, it is in the national interest of many countries to cooperate in science and thereby gain access to new results and remain informed about the latest developments.

Perhaps less widely understood is that the conditions for international scientific cooperation are changing rapidly with developments in international communications. Collaborations may be workable with little or no need for physical proximity, and the identification of potential research partners is much easier than 20 years ago. For this reason, witnesses saw a changing role for the federal government in international cooperation. There is less need for direct government intervention in "small" science. Individual cooperative efforts can be arranged more easily and with less red tape if they are made directly by the individuals involved. For this category of cooperation, the government role should simply be to provide research funding through research grants made by the usual peer-review methods. Of course, in view of the importance of international cooperation, special consideration might be given to proposals that incorporate it.

The important role for government lies in "big" science—in the megaprojects and large-scale research activities that require international cooperation because of their cost. As one witness pointed out, these projects entail significant management problems, to which it might be added that governmental processes seem not to be ideally suited to efficient management of such projects. However, continued progress in a number of fields requires projects on a scale that only government funding can support.

Sigma Xi should take an active role in international scientific cooperation. The Society cannot, of course, provide any substantial support for research itself. But it can contribute in other ways. It can draw attention to issues and opportunities in international cooperation. The 1998 Sigma Xi Forum is dedicated to the subject and will provide many opportunities to explore aspects of cooperation. The Society can also connect scientists throughout the world by expanding membership and developing chapters overseas. In 1991, the Board of Directors endorsed overseas expansion. Since then, efforts to develop new chapters outside of North America have been moderately successful, with new chapters in Hungary, the Czech Republic and New Zealand now in existence. I hope that this work will continue and that we can find ways to make membership even more attractive to overseas colleagues. We must be the scientific research society not only to scientists in North America, but also throughout the world.

John H. Moore
President, Sigma Xi

 

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