Global Connections: Emerging Science Partners

Embedding Equity and Transparency for Collaborations with ESPs

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Challenges for International Scientific Partnerships

So long as scientists work to make new discoveries and meet global challenges, collaborations between U.S. and ESP researchers will be in the interest of the United States, ESPs, and the world. As scientific research becomes increasingly global, international collaborations will be key to unlocking future scientific discoveries in all disciplines. The regional workshops held by the CISP initiative made clear the immense promise of research conducted in partnership with ESPs.

These collaborations should be based on shared goals and mutual commitments to high-quality science, be rooted in shared scientific priorities, and be mutually beneficial for all collaborators. Furthermore, the United States must promote equity in collaborations with ESPs. The United States must respect the local contexts in which ESP researchers are working, including the merit and valuable perspectives that researchers in ESPs bring to the table and the realities of available resources. Concerns from all partners must be addressed if sustainable, long-term collaborations are to be successful. In particular, the United States should seek to engage and support the involvement of women and other underrepresented groups in its collaborations with ESPs. Gender parity is a consistent issue in STEM across the world. UNESCO data show that women comprised less than 30 percent of all researchers worldwide in 2014–2016.219 As the United States invests in collaborations with ESPs to build capacity and develop the global STEM workforce, the United States would be remiss not to put gender parity at the forefront both for the United States and with potential collaborators.

As the CISP initiative held workshops with ESP researchers, the issue of lack of equity or fairness in scientific collaborations was frequently raised. Although workshop conversations were wide-ranging and some issues were specific to single disciplines, localities, or countries, the workshops surfaced common themes that threaten to weaken current and future scientific collaborations:

Defining research priorities: The United States is a main funder of many U.S.-ESP collaborations and is therefore often in a position of defining which research questions are answered. In some cases, these projects are not top priorities for the ESP country, but ESP researchers may feel obligated to participate so as not to jeopardize funding for their laboratories and personnel.

Accessing funding: Even when U.S. funding that matches ESP priorities is available, it may not be accessible. Complicated and nuanced public and private grant-making systems and language barriers can be major obstacles for ESP scientists applying for funds. Well-established scientific enterprises, with accessory support from administrators, are often in a better position to win competitive grants.

Participating in data collection and analy­sis: A lack of local scientific capacity and infrastructure, when not understood and addressed, can limit ESP scientist participation in the research projects. “Brain drain” can further impair ESP involvement if top local scientific talent consistently and permanently leaves for more established scientific enterprises. The UNESCO Open Science movement could be a key opportunity for making data analysis more accessible to researchers in ESP contexts (see UNESCO’s Open Science Movement).


The Open Science movement, which seeks to make scientific research and data more accessible and transparent, is increasingly gaining traction with the international community. The project could be of particular importance to ESPs if it can make essential data more accessible for developing technological innovations and sustainable development strategies that allow for economic development.

In 2019 at the fortieth session of the UN General Conference, 193 member states tasked UNESCO with conducting a study to develop a set of international standards for open science that UNESCO member states could then adopt in 2021.220 These standards would achieve three goals: 1) make data more accessible through open access; 2) make data more reliably collected (open data); and 3) more actively engage stakeholders in the data collection process (open to society).221

In preparation for the implementation of the recommendation in 2021, UNESCO assembled an international advisory group and held extensive consultations with regional representatives from the Americas, Europe, Asia and the Pacific, Arab states, and Africa, in addition to consultations with regional and global bodies, including the Global Young Academy.222 UNESCO engaged and partnered with stakeholders across a variety of sectors, including international science organizations, science academies, research institutes, universities, libraries, citizen science organizations, publishers and data repositories, and the UN system to develop its guidelines and protocols.223

While fostering important international connections to garner support for the Open Science project, UNESCO also surfaced many obstacles to the implementation of its Open Science guidelines. These include a lack of infrastructure for, and expertise in, data processing, storage, and analysis in some regions and contexts; lack of access to journal articles; and the need to shift norms and perceptions of open science in traditional academic and research institutions.224 U.S. input into the initiative was complicated by the absence of the United States as a member of UNESCO. As the largest contributor to global scientific productivity, the United States has enormous influence on the norms and processes of scientific research. Several institutions in the United States, including the NIH, NSF, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are committed to, and in some cases already mandate, open publication, open data, or both and are supportive of the UNESCO Open Science initiative.225 However, major challenges still exist, including costs associated with data storage and publication, which can be significant barriers for researchers in low-resource institutions.

Following an extensive and transparent process to develop the Open Science guidelines, representatives of member states met to negotiate the final wording of the recommendation in May 2021. At the UNESCO General Conference held in November 2021, the recommendation was adopted by all 193 member states.

Though many challenges still remain in implementing the recommendation, UNESCO’s momentous success in gaining widespread approval for its Open Science guidelines could be revolutionary for ESPs seeking to leverage scientific investment and technological innovation as a means of development. Countries with strong scientific enterprises should play a key collaborative role in developing this infrastructure and capacity for the future.


Benefiting from research findings: Once scientific findings have been reported, ESP researchers may not equitably benefit from them. This effect can manifest in myriad ways, including unfair authorship attribution, a lack of intellectual property (IP) ownership, and inequitable application of research findings.

Diverse and inclusive participation: ESP researchers described obstacles to full participation in science as particularly pronounced for women, racial and religious minorities, and early career scientists. To ensure success, efforts must be made to consider the specific motivations and barriers faced by these groups.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced the world, including its scientists, to adapt to a new way of operating. Nearly overnight, it has produced a vast expansion of our ability to hold productive, digitally based, remote workshops and conferences. It has also generated many new, small-group, virtual meeting collaborations. These new abilities make possible many new types of collaboration that can seamlessly include scientists and engineers in ESPs—greatly facilitating many of the goals of this report.

Progress toward diversity and inclusion in the scientific enterprise is an essential component of building scientific partnerships. For each of the mechanisms described in this report, policies should be created or bolstered that promote gender equity in scientific research endeavors, both in the United States and in ESPs. Particular attention must be paid to the inclusion of young researchers, who are the future of science, technology, and innovation and tend to include greater numbers of women and members of underrepresented minority groups. Truly excellent science cannot be conducted if it is not open and inclusive of all backgrounds. Talent in science can stem from anywhere and is not related to race, ethnicity, religion, or other aspects of identity or affiliation.

In the United States, the disruption caused by the pandemic is occurring among other major shifts, including a renewed attention to the need for racial justice; an increased understanding of the value of diversity, equity, and inclusion; and widespread yet unequal access to digital infrastructure (see Justice in Science). All of these developments have implications for the workings of the U.S. scientific enterprise, and each of them presents the scientific and academic communities with a unique opportunity to rethink and reinvent how research can be conducted, shared, and applied to be more inclusive, more collaborative, more transparent, and more significant. Although further discussion of these broader trends is beyond the scope of this report, creating more accessible methods of collaboration  and information exchange between established and emerging science partners will help build strong relationships that can accelerate the work of solving the pressing challenges of today and the future.

While dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States has also been reckoning with a renewed call for racial justice prompted by, among other deaths, the May 26, 2020, killing of George Floyd by police in Minnesota.226 This crime spurred a global outcry for systemic change, as the history of centuries of oppression and decades of violence against racial minorities joined with growing frustration at the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on Black, Native, and Hispanic communities.227

Recent circumstances, while not novel to the era, have pressed a new sense of urgency and a growing demand for diversity, equity, and inclusion within the U.S. scientific community. These efforts should extend to considerations of building equity in international collaborations as well.

In doing so, U.S. collaborators should also bear in mind the history and broader context that inform their collaborations. In many regions of the world, the impacts of colonialism continue to this day.228

Patterns of Collaboration: Former colonies tend to collaborate with their colonizers, including in science.229 The reasons for this prevalence in collaboration may be based in practicalities, such as shared languages and institutional ties, that are mutually beneficial. At the same time, fraught histories that inform the relationships between high-income countries and LMICs, as well as the ever-changing dynamics within countries, can pose challenges for building sustainable and equitable partnerships. Although most ESPs are not former colonies of the United States, other colonial histories may still pervade scientific practices and influence the shape of collaborations between U.S. and ESP researchers.

Present-Day Mistrust: In some cases, histories of unethical research can have lasting repercussions in the minds of ESP researchers and study participants. As one example, in the 1950s, U.S. researchers conducted trials of birth control pills on women in Puerto Rico, a former U.S. colony and current unincorporated U.S. territory. In these trials, the researchers dismissed side effects reported by the study participants and failed to inform them that they were part of a clinical trial or that the drug they were taking was experimental.230 Decades later, many of these women continue to decry the role they unknowingly played.231

Breakdowns in Collaborations: In times of crisis, historical legacies can present major challenges to successful partnerships. In May 2021, Mount Nyiragongo erupted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, killing dozens and prompting an estimated one million residents to flee.232 Prior to this disaster, the Goma Volcano Observatory’s leadership was accused of embezzlement, which prompted the World Bank to pull its funding. This decision left staff volcanologists without Internet connections for remote sensors or fuel for transportation, inhibiting their ability to warn of impending eruptions. Following the disaster, staff at the observatory not only condemned the corruption of Congolese leadership but also accused the World Bank’s European leadership of taking a “neocolonial” approach that contributed to the eruption’s devastating effects.233

Scientists are working to develop best practices for ensuring ethical conduct in future research.234 The ongoing movement for racial justice in the United States presents a unique opportunity to rethink how the scientific enterprise can restructure international scientific collaborations to meet this goal.235