The global health crisis and political uncertainties have considerably affected scientific collaboration. Laureates and senior scientists were gathered at the 4th World Laureates Forum held in Shanghai this year to discuss the opportunities and challenges pertaining to the current international collaboration landscape. While laureates expressed concerns over the lack of trust and the rise of fake news, they all agreed that international collaboration is more crucial than ever to achieve a healthy and productive scientific community for the common good.
Online discussion | 图：WLF
Being cooperative and building relationships are part of human nature. Unlike modern manufacturing businesses – where machines can work alone and make products without much human contact – conducting complex experimental projects to develop breakthroughs requires interpersonal interaction with collaborators. This has been iterated by Professor Lap-Chee Tsui, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong and winner of the Canada Gairdner International Award in 1990. He went on to explain that it is essential to know who your collaborators are; how they have been trained, and how they might approach a problem differently than otherwise.
Professor Lap-Chee Tsui | WLF
Indeed, solving highly complex scientific problems such as climate change and inequality requires reaching out to those with different experiences and alternate viewpoints. This is much more than gathering people, assembling things, and hoping they work together. It is about sharing and trust. Trust cannot develop without meeting our collaborators in person, listening to their needs, and knowing their concerns.
Covid-19 has shown the power of international collaboration in a healthy scientific community. Collaboration depends on the local political setting. In the US, for instance, after 40 years of science leading the country, tensions have risen. For the past four years, science has been viewed as unfavorable, recalled by Professor Don Cleveland who won the 2018 Breakthrough Prize in life sciences as an extremely unpleasant experience he had ever encountered. For example, In life sciences, scientists and physicians globally work around the clock to create vaccines expeditiously to save millions of lives. Two awardees of the 2022 breakthrough prizes and the 2021 Lasker Awards were recognized for their contribution to inventing the Covid-19 vaccines, including the mRNA vaccines. However, some may have argued that their experiments by the two not-then-recognized young scientists were crazy when, in fact, they contributed to changing the Coronavirus response entirely.
Katalin Karik&Drew Weissman | Courtesy Karikó/University of Pennsylvania
But this kind of discovery does not occur overnight or only in one place. It depends on scientific skills developed worldwide and reflects the breadth of science and the value of international collaboration.
Participants all agreed that although the pandemic has been terrible, it would have been much worse without the vaccines and those who made them possible. Yet, that has unfortunately been rejected by parts of the populations across the United States and Europe. Therefore, we as a community need to acknowledge the efforts of scientists and make the public know that science can deal with this pandemic. Collaboration is the key to advancing science.
International collaboration is the key to achieving prosperity for the entire mankind. While the fight against Covid-19 remains ongoing in most parts of the world, scientists believe that in the coming years, humanity will face much greater challenges in health, environmentally, socially, and culturally. Although we have achieved several positive developments, we are still falling short of the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals. For example, an additional 100 million people and families are being pushed back into extreme poverty; job opportunities were hugely reduced; increased xenophobia and the spread of misinformation destroy interpersonal trust and trigger racial discrimination. 、As the problems that we face are worldwide and transcend borders, it demands scientists, policymakers, governments, and the local community to think out of the box, cooperate, and recognize the pitfalls that we must work to overcome. Remember, this is not for just a small population. Humanity, regardless of geopolitics and ethnicity, will benefit from an open innovation ecosystem.
That said, challenges remain for international collaboration. While collaboration among scientists was expected, cooperation among governments faltered early on. This is shown in the delay in providing vaccines to the countries that suffered the most from the Covid-19 pandemic.
As Professor Don Cleveland recalled for almost his entire career, international collaboration must be encouraged and always considered a positive within the American system. It is unfortunate that when science was intentionally interrupted by politics, it changed into something that now had to be defended. If science is under attack, the well-being of humankind will have to suffer.
Professor Don Cleveland | WLF
Although it is not the responsibility of scientists to solve political issues, scientists can play a significant role in educating the public about the advantages of sharing science. As Professor Don Cleveland continued to emphasize that it is the time for us all to take an active role in communicating, building a bridge across disciplines and people who hold opinions other than ours, and accelerating the shift towards a better and fairer collaborative practice that may strengthen solidarity.
While it seems inevitable that we will still go through a phase of uncertainty for a while, it is essential for us to be optimistic, keep working hard, be willing to share and support each other, and actively strive for more equitable modes of collaboration. The miserable context of the pandemic offers us an opportunity to take the challenges of equitable research partnership seriously in the context of efforts to decolonize knowledge and strive toward the best possible outcome for the well-being of humanity together. Hopefully, this will become the ‘new normal’, and we can all look forward to it soon.