Bold Ambition: International Large-Scale Science

Executive Summary

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Challenges for International Scientific Partnerships

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences undertook the Challenges for International Scientific Partnerships (CISP) initiative to assess both the importance and the challenges of international scientific collaborations for the United States. CISP began well before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that has swept across the globe and continues to devastate individuals and societies as this report goes to print. The pandemic has reinforced CISP’s principal conclusion that the benefits of international scientific collaboration for the United States and the world are substantial and growing, including with nations with which the United States has strained relations, such as China. These benefits eclipse the challenges that international collaborations can present. The findings that led to this conclusion are presented in the CISP report America and the International Future of Science.

Bold Ambition: International Large-Scale Science focuses on international large-scale science partnerships hosted at or dependent on a large-scale research facility, investigations coordinated across multiple national research facilities, or investigations dependent on extensive networks of scientists pooling data to conduct a coordinated research effort. CISP has identified three principal benefits of U.S. engagement in international large-scale science: 1) enabling discoveries that are otherwise impossible; 2) improving lives; and 3) promoting international understanding. These benefits would keep U.S. science at the forefront, would lead to technological advances, increased competitiveness, and solutions to national and global problems, and would promote the values, ethics, and norms that can positively influence the conduct of science worldwide. As other countries promote increasingly large international projects, the United States runs the risk that future U.S. scientists may be excluded from some of the world’s leading scientific projects and associated technological advances. To avoid this isolation, the United States must participate in these advances and prepare strategically to commit to collaboration on the funding, planning, development, and operation of new large-scale scientific research capabilities at home and abroad.

Initiation of, or participation in, international large-scale science has associated complexities not faced by other research efforts that do not require large-scale instrumentation and facilities, multiple international partners, or vast data collections. At the onset of large-scale collaborations, the government should ensure that participation does not conflict with national security or other national goals. From examination of many examples of successful and not-successful large-scale science partnerships and from several workshops and consultations with government funding agencies, the CISP study identified guiding principles for the formation and organization of international large-scale science partnerships to ensure their value and success.

The principles identified in this report provide mechanisms by which the United States can effectively and beneficially participate in these partnerships. These principles include: prioritizing scientific excellence, properly scoping projects, meeting its commitments, and promoting ethical collaborations with strong values across cultures.

1. Prioritize Scientific Excellence and Impact

The scientific rationale for a proposed large-scale project should be compelling and well-supported by the relevant U.S. and international scientific communities. Participation in large-scale science by the United States must be driven by the potential for significant scientific benefit.

2. Develop Well-Defined Project Scope and Effective Project Management

For candidate projects that are scientifically compelling, it is important to provide sufficient resources during a project formulation phase of sufficient length that partner relationships can be established and a detailed implementation plan—including scope, budget, schedule, assessment of risks, and management plan—can be developed. The formulation of the project implementation plan should involve all major international partners, provide clear understanding of the goals and parameters of the project and the responsibilities of each partner, and establish mechanisms for dealing with the major challenges that inevitably arise in implementing a complex project. Project partners should share understanding about project decommissioning responsibilities at its conclusion.

Most important, trust among partners and transparency should be established early in a project’s lifecycle. Openness and trust among international partners are critical for developing a successful project and are best established during project formulation. Scientific partners should recognize their mutual interdependence, and they should agree on how risks will be managed, how project reviews are to be conducted, and how technical problems and disputes will be addressed. The project must have a strong and diverse scientific leadership team. All problems, along with all successes, should belong to all partners.

Before a project proceeds past the formulation phase, the sponsors must independently assess the project implementation plan. Project management and capability to carry the project out must be part of the assessment. Regular independent management and project reviews must be scheduled and implemented as the project proceeds; such reviews can often identify problems at a sufficiently early stage to remedy them effectively.

3. Meet Commitments

Successful initiation and maintenance of international scientific collaborations require long-term, steady financial and political commitments. Further, once made, it is essential for these commitments to be upheld, both for the realization of the project in question and for generally building and maintaining trust that the United States will remain a reliable scientific partner.

Once the United States, through its agency and interagency review processes, has committed to a project, the Congress, U.S. agencies, and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) should bolster mechanisms to ensure that the United States can meet its financial commitments. While this is sometimes very hard to do, it is important to have a clear, documented decision process to reference, should difficulties arise.

4. Establish Ethical Standards for the Conduct of Research

Building a large, international team of researchers links all partners to each other, and scientific success depends on generating and adhering to ethical codes of conduct that reinforce values of fairness and strengthen inclusive engagement. Codes of conduct, ideally summarized in a written document, are essential and need to be developed jointly by partners, not prescribed, during project formulation. They should anticipate the implementation phase of a project as well as operations in the case of a facility. To be successful, ethical codes need shared buy-in and collaborative development by the scientists and scientific institutions involved, including partners from all nations involved. This is especially true when there are issues of trust, such as strained geopolitical relations or between developed and developing nations. Project leadership must take an active role in cultivating ethical norms and standards, and coming to terms with differing stances through transparent and open dialogue. Relevant stakeholders need to be engaged in this development as well; these groups may include the interested public, local and regional governments, and others.

U.S. government organizations act as major leaders in many international large-scale science endeavors, including those with explicit scientific responsibilities, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), as well as mission-driven agencies for which science is critical to their overarching goals and operations, such as the Department of Energy (DOE), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

From workshops and examination of many examples of successful and not-successful large-scale science partnerships involving U.S. government agencies, CISP has concluded that these federal agencies are successful in most cases in managing large-scale science projects and partnerships on behalf of the nation and have demonstrated that they can manage the inevitable challenges and crises that arise in a complex project. The foundation for success in the face of challenges is a clear understanding of the scientific priorities that are supported by the scientific community, a carefully conceived governance structure, and a robust oversight and management review process that is cognizant of these priorities and identifies risks and mitigation strategies as early as possible.