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Politics growing problem due to internationalization of science

STANFORD -- As science becomes increasingly "internationalized," it also becomes more vulnerable to global politics, Burton Richter, director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, told the advisory council of the Institute for International Studies on Nov. 14.


Richter, along with David Burke, professor and assistant director at SLAC, and Dr. Julie Parsonnet, associate professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Stanford, updated council members on the latest wrinkles in international scientific collaboration.

Science always has been international, Richter said, with scientists freely exchanging information and attending meetings all over the world. Such worldwide collaboration proceeded largely independent of national and international politics. Scientists in the United States and the Soviet Union, for example, continued to exchange information throughout the Cold War.

But in recent decades three factors have contributed to making international collaboration more subject to political interests, Richter said.

  • Growing numbers of scientists, particularly in fields such as archeology and medicine, are conducting research in foreign countries because that is where the data they seek are available.
  • Important new scientific problems, such as global climate change, are inherently international and cannot be understood by studying them from one location.
  • In certain fields, like high-energy physics, scientific facilities are becoming much too costly for any one nation or region to support.

Parsonnet cited her own research in Chiapas, Mexico, as an example of the first trend. She studies whether stomach cancer can effectively be treated by antibiotics ­ research she cannot conduct in the United States, because the stomach cancer rate is too low. The rate is considerably higher among elderly people in Chiapas, where nearly everyone is infected with the bacterium that is now known to be a leading cause of this disease, she said.

But working in a foreign country is difficult, she said, because of the time required to earn the trust of government officials. It took seven years in Chiapas before she could begin her study, and she has been unsuccessful in starting similar programs in other countries. Such delays, she noted, postpone development of treatment and cures that could benefit people worldwide.

Burke outlined the issues involved in conducting "big science" internationally, specifically the Next Linear Collider (NLC), a linear accelerator 10 times the size of the one at SLAC that high-energy physicists would like to build.

Such collaborations are a mixed blessing, he said, resulting in:

  • Reduced costs to each of the partners, but higher total cost.
  • Increased financial/political stability, but decreased scientific flexibility.
  • Greater availability of people with scientific and technological expertise, but less advantage to individual nations from the science and technology that is developed.
  • Support for foreign policy objectives at the cost of distortion in scientific priorities.

Differing national goals, priorities, policies and procedures make major international projects extraordinarily difficult to manage, he said. While some countries emphasize short-term benefits, others are willing to wait for long-term returns. Some countries actively promote the participation of their private sectors, others don't. Some countries bring considerable technical and scientific capabilities to a project, others do not.

For these reasons, it is essential that all the participants in an international project be involved in its planning from the early stages, he said. Unfortunately, this is difficult to achieve because of countries' natural nationalism and the fact that the government agencies that support large scientific projects often do not have established procedures for including such collaboration.

"The Supercolliding Superconductor was a case where one country, the United States, planned and designed the project and then went looking for international support. They were not very successful," Burke said.

Over the years international projects have been structured in a number of different ways, he said. One of most elaborate was CERN, the European high energy physics center in Geneva, which was established by an international treaty.

"I don't think that it would be possible to duplicate CERN these days," Richter said.

A more modern example is the European Synchrotron Light Facility in France, which was set up as an international corporation with the participating nations designated as shareholders.

-David Salisbury-


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