It’s getting harder for scientists to collaborate across borders – that’s bad when the world faces global problems like pandemics and climate change

The United Nations and many researchers have emphasized the critical role international collaborative science plays in solving global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss and pandemics. The rise of non-Western countries as science powers is helping to drive this type of global cooperative research. For example, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa formed a tuberculosis research network in 2017 and are making significant advancements on basic and applied research into the disease.

However, in the past few years, growing tensions among superpowers, increasing nationalism, the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have contributed to nations’ behaving in more distrustful and insular ways overall. One result is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for researchers to collaborate with scholars in other nations.

The near-global cessation of collaboration with Russian scholars following the invasion of Ukraine – in everything from humanities research to climate science in the Arctic – is one example of science being a victim of – and used as a tool for – international politics. Scientific collaboration between China and the U.S. is also breaking down in fields like microelectronics and quantum computing because of national security concerns on both sides.

I am a policy expert who studies international research collaboration as it relates to global problems and geopolitical polarization. I understand the need for democratic countries to respond to the the growing strength of authoritarian countries such as China and acute crises like the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But reducing or stopping international research comes with its own risks. It slows down the production of knowledge needed to address long-term global problems and reduces the potential for future scientific collaboration.

Growth of non-Western science

Since the 1990s and the collapse of the Soviet Union, global collaboration in science has increased dramatically. There are several reasons for this development.

First, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to an increased openness in global scientific exchange. In particular, there was growth in the number of students from developing and non-Western countries going to universities in the West. This movement formed networks of researchers from many countries. Second, massively collaborative scientific efforts – such as the Human Genome Project – as well as the ever-growing importance of expensive, large research laboratories and instruments have fueled international collaboration. Finally, the digital revolution has made it much easier to communicate and share data across borders. This all resulted in collaborative and fruitful research in many fields including gene technology, climate science and artificial intelligence.

While Western countries dominated the scientific landscape of the 20th century, globalization has benefited many non-Western countries.

In the latter…

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