Competing goals of international scientific collaboration

What started out as a talk discussing scientific research as a tool for strengthening international relations ended in a heated debate about more selfish motives that sometimes lurk beneath a shiny, humanitarian facade.

“Fortunately, the room is well-cooled,” said Philemon Mjwara, of the South Africa Department of Science and Technology, Republic of Africa.

Blue Marble/NASA
Blue Marble/NASA

The purpose of the talk at the AAAS Conference in Chicago was meant to shed light on the ways various nations are working together to “start tackling global societal challenges,” through scientific research on climate change, health issues and other international The Blue Marbleproblems.

Frances Colon of the U.S. state department explained that we need to consider how we can use science as a “cooperation tool so everyone can get what they want.”

Getting what they want was a strong theme in each of the presentations.Mjwara said Africa’s “drivers for international science and technological innovation and cooperation” are to grow the middle class, attract business opportunities and foster South African knowledge and its economy.” Mjwara and his colleagues want to maximize return on national investment.

Strohmeier spoke of improving trade policies and strengthening the EU’s economic competitiveness. “We all want to achieve something out of cooperation,” Strohmeier said.

Countries want to get more out of international cooperation and collaboration than simply solving world issues.

This point was a nuance audience members quickly picked up.

Questions concerning the selfish undercurrents of collaboration arose, focusing on political agendas of the world powers. The speakers explained that many times, taxpayers are not willing to simply provide money for foreign aid and it is not always possible to work “scientific institution to institution.” Sometimes, scientific cooperation on a global level has to be discussed from government to government.

The panelists defended their practical positions.

As with many things, there is a fine line between altruism and practicality. The system is not perfect yet, but the talk at AAAS proved during a provocative hour and a half of conversation that the world is beginning to question just how international cooperation and national interest can work together.

But speakers sincerely and earnestly explained the necessity of working together and the need for all countries to improve their “intelligence and know more what the needs of others are,” as Strohmeier so eloquently put it.

Representatives from the EU, South Africa and America gave short presentations on new initiatives their countries are undertaking and their unique plans of working internationally to solve world issues.

The E.U.’s Horizon 2020 plan, South Africa’s Ten Year Innovation Plan and science diasporas, (international scientists traveling to different countries to form research groups,) in the U.S. were a few of the initiatives discussed.