The World Should Share Its Science


Aug 25, 2004

By Yee-Cheong Lee and Caroline S. Wagner

This commentary originally appeared in Financial Times on August 25, 2004.

Four decades ago, the "space race" between the US and the Soviet Union was in full swing. The costly competition pitted scientists from the two countries against each other just like soldiers on the battlefield, each working to defeat the other, duplicating research and keeping key information secret to win the cold war competition to be the first to land a man on the Moon. Dominance in science was a key part of the push for political dominance.

In the years since America won the race to the Moon, landing its astronauts in 1969, competition has been replaced by co-operation in space. Astronauts and cosmonauts from the US, Russia and other nations work side by side as partners on joint projects. They live together and learn together in space, expanding human knowledge.

Yet back on Earth, some still see the quest for scientific advancement and technological innovation as arace between nations. A recent report by the National Science Board of the US raised questions about whether America is at risk of losing its role as the world's centre of science and technology innovation.

This is the wrong question to ask in the 21st century. Today science has become a global phenomenon. Nations are part of an expanding knowledge network that has no borders. In the 21st century, security requires sharing rather than protecting knowledge. No country can work at the frontiers of all fields of science. The expanding knowledge frontier means that co-operation is the means of knowledge creation.

Boosted by the steady expansion of the internet and the hyper-mobility of knowledge, the US has been joined in global science and technology circles by new knowledge producers that should be viewed as resources — not competitors — in scientific and technological discovery.

The question for the US and other countries should be where and how to link into the global network — not where they stack up in terms of the quantity of scientific patents or articles they are producing. In fact, the percentage of internationally co-authored articles in scientific journals doubled in the 10 years between 1990 and 2000, and the number of countries actively participating in that network rose from 37 to 54. "New knowledge" has grown exponentially.

Although science output is still attributed to countries, knowledge does not really honour national boundaries. The new kind of knowledge networks are instead found within a global network of colleagues sharing resources, ideas and creativity.

The ability to link to others in a "small world" of knowledge producers is the defining factor of success, and this ability to form linkages depends on one's attractiveness as a partner. For any nation that sees science and technology as a way to build national strength, the knowledge available from the global network is an asset that can be utilised, added to and exploited locally.

The ability to see opportunities, no matter where they originate, and to turn them into products is what will define scientific and technical power in this century.

Funding for science is a key ingredient, of course, but so is the ability to know what is happening in many research locations. To achieve such goals, policymakers need to look beyond their borders and drop notions of national dominance to find ways to use networked knowledge. This also means including scientists from developing countries as equals in collaborative science, forging technology alliances and channelling at least part of research budgets on issues such as poverty.

The US needs to break out of the "dominance" box of the last century and think beyond a national model of scientific or technological capacity. Robust participation in knowledge networks will mark the most vibrant economies in 21st century science, as the European Union is showing by creating and now expanding its European Research Area. This model integrates researchers and scientists across countries to draw together their knowledge.

America stands to benefit more from knowledge and ideas flowing through a networked world than from a world in which countries are competing against each other. That is why encouraging broader knowledge creation and sharing the results could be the best antidote to underdevelopment, poverty and, ultimately, political instability. It could also be the knowledge pool from which new ideas flow into the US economy and technology revolutions emerge.

Astronauts and cosmonauts have shown us that scientific co-operation works out of this world. We will all benefit if scientists, engineers and policymakers can take the same course here on Earth.

Caroline Wagner holds research positions at the Rand Corp and the University of Amsterdam; Yee-Cheong Lee is the former vice-president of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia and president of the World Federation of Engineering Organizations.

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