Why is scientific collaboration key? 4 experts explain

Published · Updated
Alice Hazelton
Programme Lead, Science and Society, World Economic Forum Geneva

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  • COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of scientific collaboration.
  • We asked members of the World Economic Forum's Global Future Council on Scientific Collaboration why it’s key for the future.
  • Pressing global challenges including the climate emergency, biodiversity loss, food security and future global health crises will all require cross-discipline and cross-sector approaches.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the importance of scientific collaboration. From when first reports of a new disease circulating in Wuhan, China, broke at the very end of 2019, no one knew what was causing it, where it came from or how it would progress. A year and a half later, thanks to the international research community, we know what causes COVID-19, have developed and deployed vaccines in record time and have a better understanding of how to manage the disease, with many therapeutics on the way.

From climate change to health, education, justice and poverty, scientific collaboration – across disciplines, geographies and sectors – will be needed to help find solutions to pressing global challenges if the world is to prosper in a post-pandemic future.

At a time when the future of scientific collaboration matters more than ever, the World Economic Forum asked members of the Global Future Council on Scientific Collaboration to offer their views on why it’s key for the future.

‘Science lies at the heart of solutions to important problems’

Magdalena Skipper, Editor in Chief, Nature

When Nature was first published back in 1869, single-author scientific publications were the norm. They are not only an exception but a true rarity today. Science has become a team activity.

As our knowledge expands, science is becoming more and more collaborative. Practitioners of increasingly distant disciplines come together, recognizing the complexity of some of the most important problems that face us; science lies at the heart of the solutions. COVID-19 pandemic offers a perfect illustration of a complex crisis that has brought together molecular biologists, epidemiologists, clinicians, social scientists, engineers, material scientists and many others.

The pandemic is not the only a complex, global crisis; climate emergency, biodiversity loss, food security, future global health crises will all require cross-discipline and cross-sector approaches.

Fortunately, the new generation of scientists looks beyond the guardrails of traditional disciplines and increasingly defines itself as interdisciplinary.

But future collaborations must also transcend traditional sector boundaries: academia, private sector, policy-makers and civil society must collaborate in an equitable and inclusive way to co-design future solutions and interventions. And here’s an opportunity for the business and financial sectors to support this need and look to collaboration as a guiding principle when considering investments.

Complex global problems will require local solutions; these solutions will only be effective if they are evidence-based and co-designed.

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‘Science needs an open world to thrive’

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, President, European Research Council (ERC)

I have serious concerns about the current mood for reshaping international scientific cooperation without recognizing that scientific collaboration obeys some specific rules. It cannot indeed be confused with economic, if not military, competition.

First, scientific cooperation cannot simply be turned up or down like a volume control. Once people no longer feel welcomed, once every individual visit or project starts to be questioned, once the default position is suspicion and not trust, then relationships that have been built over years, in some cases over decades, can break down very quickly. And maybe even irreversibly in some cases.

Second, the challenges we face are global. Scientists must keep control over the relations that concern them because an open world is the condition for a science of good quality to thrive. This can only be achieved through free exchanges. This is why the European Research Council keeps “Open to the world” as one of its mottos.

This is the message scientists have to carry worldwide because it conditions the impact that research and science altogether can have on the wellbeing of every inhabitant of this planet.

Image: World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2021

‘Science needs to capitalize on a moment of great opportunity and momentum’

Seema Kumar, Vice President of Innovation, Global Health and Policy Communication, Johnson & Johnson

COVID-19 has demonstrated how interdependent our world truly is and how crucial scientific collaboration is to securing the health and futures of people everywhere. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the scientific community has risen to the challenge - mobilizing and collaborating in extraordinary ways across geographies and sectors, public and private, to develop vaccines that bring hope to families and communities.

The scale of COVID-19’s impact - and the global collaboration to discover, develop, manufacture and distribute new vaccines - has inspired renewed confidence and public engagement in science. It has also helped rebuild trust in scientists as essential actors in solving major challenges for society. We stand at a moment of great opportunity and responsibility to build on that momentum. Our hope to end COVID-19 depends on continuing to build trust in the science of vaccines and public health measures and in our ability to scale up collaborative response to other serious societal challenges like cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

‘We need a global code of conduct for data sharing’

Lene Oddershede, Senior Vice President, Professor, Novo Nordisk Foundation.

One roadblock for international collaboration and for mitigating global challenges is sharing, processing and understanding the immense amount of data generated. International collaboration, private-public partnerships and a mutual agreement on how to ethically share and process data are therefore key to overcoming this roadblock.

It is instrumental that researchers across the world, as well as private enterprises and governments, prioritize and respect data privacy and security. Data is valuable, and care should be taken so data is not exploited, neither for profit nor for other non-ethical purposes.

Also, there is a need to establish public-private trust relationships. Such relationships constitute the foundation for digitizing societies, for taking advantage of the digital transformation, and for performing citizen-based digital research.

To build trust and to have ethical data sharing, there is a need for a common understanding of how to define ethical data sharing and processing. Achieving this is not trivial and will require international collaboration and global education building on transparent and trustful relations.

‘Science lies at the heart of solutions to important problems’‘Science needs an open world to thrive’‘Science needs to capitalize on a moment of great opportunity and momentum’‘We need a global code of conduct for data sharing’

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