Science Diplomacy and Subtle Ways of Discouraging International Collaboration

August 28, 2014
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

Yellow fever killed hundreds of thousands of people and sickened many more throughout the 19th Century, and nobody knew for sure how it was spread or how to contain it. It was the most dreaded disease in the Americas, creating mass panic and destroying commerce.

In 1881, Cuban scientist Carlos Finlay proposed that a certain type of mosquito was the disease vector. But he wasn’t able to provide adequate proof for his hypothesis until he collaborated with Walter Reed and other American scientists in a series of risky yet pioneering experiments in Cuba. The Walter Reed Commission received significant credit for establishing that the mosquito spread the disease, a discovery that would not have been possible without collaboration among Cuban and American scientists, enabled by their respective governments.


In the 19th Century, international scientific collaboration enabled public health researchers to confirm that mosquitoes spread yellow fever. While collaboration across boundaries has been made easier in some ways, there are a number of current challenges that threaten international partnerships. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This kind of collaboration between Cuban and American scientists would be considerably more difficult today.
“Sometimes, we need to collaborate despite problems with diplomacy,” said Vaughan Turekian, editor of AAAS Science and Diplomacy, on Wednesday at the Science Advice to Governments conference, a gathering of more than 200 science policy experts that kicked off Wednesday in Auckland, New Zealand.

The strained relationship between Cuba and the United States is obvious. But there are a number of other more often more subtle internal government policies that make it more difficult for scientists to collaborate across borders.

After some questionable conference spending by a U.S. government agency, Congress clamped down on employee travel, with the unintended consequences of preventing scientists from attending and presenting at scientific meetings, where much collaboration takes place. In May 2013, 64 science and engineering associations (64!) asked Congress to change existing travel rules so that scientists may participate in technical conferences. Recently, a congressional committee recognized this problem and encouraged the Department of Defense to make the necessary funds available for scientists to be able to travel to meetings.

U.S. government scientists at times have also faced challenges publishing research in a timely manner, and have faced retribution for doing so. Just a few weeks ago, a 17-year veteran at the Los Alamos National Laboratory was fired after he published an academic article on his own time that made the case for eliminating nuclear weapons. Current Department of Energy policies are severely inadequate to protect the rights of scientists to pursue politically contentious research.

The situation in Canada is far worse. Federal government scientists who responded to a 2013 survey reported significant difficulty collaborating with peers. From PIPSC, the union that conducted the survey:

Approximately three-quarters (73%) of federal scientists are concerned that new departmental policies on intellectual property, permission to publish, and collaboration compromise their ability to collaborate with international colleagues. Only 36% say they are approved to attend conferences, and less than one-quarter (24%) feel the approval process for attending conferences, courses and other events is fair, transparent and performed on a timely basis.

“Scientists from my department are regularly declined to attend conferences in which they are invited to give keynote lectures, and/or are convening scientific sessions,” wrote one Canadian scientist. “This is creating a reputation for Canadian government geoscientists in the international community that it is not worth the trouble to collaborate with us.”

Government instability can also create hazards for scientific collaboration. During the U.S. government shutdown in late 2013, thousands of government scientists halted work on critical experiments, creating data gaps and undermining international partnerships. Plans to send research vessels and equipment to Antarctica during the short research reason were scrapped, leading one scientist to lament that “millions of dollars that will have been squandered on lost work and hollow plans, sending a ripple effect into the future as researchers are forced to wait an entire year.”

I learned last night that the cancellation of the Antarctic research had ripples around the world, including here in New Zealand. “Almost all Antarctic research today is collaborative, so most national programmes will feel some consequences, but especially those with traditional close links with the US, such as our own,” said Peter Barrett of the Victoria University of Wellington at the time (one of several reactions cataloged by the Science Media Center of New Zealand).

The scientific challenges we face are ever more complex and international in scope. And the institutional challenges scientists face can be equally sophisticated. When attempting to break down barriers to international scientific collaboration, we need to take a comprehensive view.