America and the International Future of Science

The Global Nature of Scientific Questions: Advancing Knowledge Often Requires International Engagement

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Challenges for International Scientific Partnerships

Scientific questions, both fundamental and those related to broad societal problems, are not defined by national boundaries, and progress often requires data and expertise from more than one country.

Large-scale scientific projects and technically complex distributed projects are often required to pursue fundamental questions about the universe. To take one clear-cut recent example, to generate an image of a black hole, astronomers relied on globally distributed telescope facilities (See Einstein’s Universe: Exploring Spacetime).13

Likewise, the nature of some scientific questions is so complex that expertise across multiple domains and locations is often needed. The study of migratory species often requires knowledge from morphology, data science, environmental field work, and molecular biology, among other areas; it also tends to cross borders and necessitates the cooperation and collaboration of multiple nations. Infectious diseases such as COVID-19, Ebola, and Zika can begin in one country but rapidly spread across national borders, necessitating collaboration between researchers based in different countries (see A Persistent Global Challenge: The Threat of Pandemics).14 And predictions of hurricane trajectories that steer our national preparations incorporate observations and data from as far away as the Ethiopian highlands.15

Peer-to-peer collaborations at the scientific grassroots level are also strengthened by global collaboration and vice versa. Dementia affects an estimated fifty million people around the world, and high-impact studies are published worldwide that, in combination, are speeding progress toward preventing and curing this terrible human affliction.16  As one example of this effort, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), especially through the National Institute on Aging and the Fogarty International Institute, has developed several international initiatives, including world­wide genomic studies and efforts to use big data to treat and prevent Alzheimer’s disease.17

International peer-to-peer collaborations often result from and rely on the development of different capabilities in different countries. China has established a major program in the development and refinement of advanced materials and can claim leadership in some specialties.18  The United States has outstanding capabilities for fundamental experimental and theoretical studies of these advanced materials. The frequent collaborations of Chinese materials synthesizers with U.S. materials physicists have advanced both understanding and sophisticated applications like quantum computing and quantum information.

In these and other examples, the United States benefits from international collaboration and global data collected and analyzed in partnership with other countries. To effectively advance scientific knowledge and solve the world’s greatest challenges, U.S. scientists must work with their global colleagues, building upon a rich history of U.S. participation in international collaborations and foreign talent coming to the United States (see Preventing Death: Developing a Rotavirus Vaccine).




Einstein’s Universe: Exploring Spacetime

The quest to understand our universe and its governing laws is as old as civilization itself. It drives the development of new technologies and in turn enables breakthrough discoveries. And this global pursuit has increasingly required international collaboration.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), for example, was developed in the United States with the support of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) over several decades.19  LIGO was designed “to open the field of gravitational-wave astrophysics through the direct detection of gravitational waves predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.”20 In the process, it has led to development opportunities and numerous U.S. patents on technologies that span quantum science, cryogenics, and materials science. Yet LIGO is not merely a U.S. project. The LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) carries out the science of LIGO: detector operations, data analysis, and the development of new techniques and future gravitational wave detectors. The LSC comprises over one thousand collaborators from more than one hundred institutions in eighteen countries.21

On September 14, 2015, the LIGO detectors in Louisiana and Washington made the first observation of a burst of gravitational waves produced by the coalescence of two black holes; this discovery came nearly one hundred years after Albert Einstein published his general theory of relativity that predicted the existence of both black holes and of gravitational waves: ripples in the fabric of space and time.22  It took 1.3 billion years for the waves to arrive and be detected at LIGO. The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics was subsequently awarded to physicists Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish, and Kip S. Thorne “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves.”23

Gravitational Waves Erupt from Two Colliding Neutron Stars
Gravitational Waves Erupt from Two Colliding Neutron Stars

Artist’s illustration of two merging neutron stars. The rippling space-time grid represents gravitational waves that travel out from the collision, while the narrow beams show the bursts of gamma rays that are shot out just seconds after the gravitational waves. Swirling clouds of material ejected from the merging stars are also depicted. The clouds glow with visible and other wavelengths of light. Illustration by Aurore Simonnet. Image courtesy of National Science Foundation, Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, and Sonoma State University.

This historic event was only the first of many observations of the most violent events in our universe made through this unique window. On August 17, 2017, LIGO and its European counterpart, Virgo, detected a gravitational wave chirp from the collision of two neutron stars: very compact dead stars, each with a mass slightly greater than the Sun but barely twenty kilometers in diameter.24 Such an event, finally observed, had been anticipated for decades. International coordination and open communication between LIGO and Virgo were key to the determination of the source’s direction. This was vital for enabling the rapid follow-up observations by more than seventy radio, optical, and X-ray telescopes. Indeed, just 1.74 seconds after the gravity wave chirp, the NASA-led Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, itself an international collaboration also supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), detected a gamma-ray burst from the same direction.25 The pulse of gamma-rays was likely radiated by a powerful jet of very energetic particles that emerged from the coalescence event as a black hole formed.

What was learned? Not only did the observations of this event solve a decades-old mystery about the origin of very short duration gamma-ray bursts, the optical telescope observations of the afterglow spectrum revealed that the merger event also produced heavy elements, notably gold and platinum. The amount of gold produced in that one merger was about equal to the mass of Earth. This confirmed a long-standing, but unproven, theoretical speculation that neutron-star mergers are the main source of heavy elements in the universe. The results were published in a series of papers, with over three thousand authors from thirty-five countries on every continent except Antarctica.26

On a related front, a U.S.-led international collaboration of radio astronomers and computer scientists accomplished what was once thought to be impossible: imaging the event horizon of a black hole or, more precisely, imaging the hot gas from the surrounding region as it falls into the black hole, and capturing, for the first time, the silhouette of the actual black hole.27 Working for more than a decade, the team developed the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) by extending a technique known as Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) to an intercontinental scale. The EHT utilizes an array of radio telescopes on several continents that are precisely synchronized using the Global Positioning System to create an aperture comparable to the size of Earth. Thirteen partner institutions worked together to create the EHT, using both preexisting infrastructure and support from a variety of agencies. Key funding was provided by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), the European Research Council (ERC), and several funding agencies in East Asia.28 European facilities played a crucial role in this worldwide effort, with the participation of advanced European telescopes.29 In addition to $1 billion in funding for foundational investigators, teams, and U.S. research facilities that are part of the network of the EHT, the NSF awarded $28 million over nineteen years to the EHT directly.30

On April 10, 2019, the EHT collaboration, with more than two hundred members from fifty-nine institutes in twenty countries, released the first image of the black hole at the center of Galaxy M87.31  Using EHT observations, the collaboration determined the black hole’s mass to be equal to 6.5 billion Suns. This finding also made the M87 black hole an impor­tant test case for other methods of estimating the masses of supermassive black holes.32

First Image of a Black Hole at the Center of Galaxy M87
First Image of a Black Hole at the Center of Galaxy M87

The Event Horizon Telescope utilized radio telescopes positioned across continents to capture the first image of a black hole, a supermassive black hole at the center of Galaxy M87. Image courtesy of the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration.

An important lesson learned from these scientific breakthroughs is that they were only possible because of sustained international collaborations. Future discoveries and enhanced capabilities will likewise depend on such collaboration. In this regard, it is notable that the Kamioka Gravitational Wave Detector (KAGRA), Japan’s gravitational wave observatory and the newest addition to the worldwide gravitational wave network, became operational on March 3, 2020.




Preventing Death: Developing a Rotavirus Vaccine

Rotavirus is a universal childhood infection that, prior to the introduction of a safe and effective vaccine in 2006, resulted in the hospitalization of 55,000 to 70,000 children in the United States annually. As the most common cause of diarrhea in infants and children worldwide, the rotavirus remains responsible for more than 215,000 infant and child deaths every year.33  Today, a range of vaccines is available for prevention of rotavirus-induced diarrhea; one of these is currently widely used in India, where nearly one-third of all babies in the world are born. This vaccine was developed from a collaboration between Indian scientists and researchers at the NIH.

Following World War II, India owed the United States for a series of loans made during the war. One mechanism for repayment was to fund grants to U.S. scientists collaborating with Indian scientists, who were supported by the Government of India. Two of these grants were awarded to Maharaj Kishan Bhan, an Indian gastroenterologist and researcher at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences who formed a collaboration with Roger Glass at the NIH, and to Durga Rao, a researcher at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore who collaborated with Harry Greenberg at Stanford University, to develop a vaccine for rotavirus.34 Their research, which ultimately selected the candidate studied by Bhan and Glass, led to the development of a Phase I rotavirus vaccine, which was safety-tested in the United States before wider Phase II and III trials in India. Rao and Greenberg continued to work in collaboration with Bhan and Glass and a new Indian company, Bharat Biotech, as they moved from the basics of virology to real-world development.

Given the high poverty rates in India, it was important to manufacture a vaccine that was readily accessible to the Indian population. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was essential in bringing in funding to launch this Indian initiative.35 A major challenge undertaken in this collaboration was to create capacity at Bharat Biotech to manufacture the rotavirus vaccine for broad deployment in India.

Bhan was able to bring in the support of the Indian government, while Glass represented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Eventually, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation negotiated a price of one dollar per dose, and the vaccine developed from this collaboration has since become the default treatment for India’s poor. It has prevented the deaths of tens of thousands of babies.

Due to this collaboration, capacity and expertise in virus manufacturing grew substantially at Bharat Biotech, which has since expanded to develop Typhoid fever, rabies, and hepatitis vaccines, and is currently working to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Today, most measles vaccines in the world are manufactured in India thanks to expanding scientific capacity.




SPECIAL SECTION – A Persistent Global Challenge: The Threat of Pandemics

In December 2019, doctors in Hubei Province, China, documented the emergence of a new respiratory disease, now termed COVID-19. The virus soon made its way across the globe, with the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring a public health emergency of international concern on January 30, 2020, and a pandemic on March 11, 202036 . COVID-19 is forcing shelter-in-place orders across nations, dismantling societal norms, shaking global economies, and prompting economic contraction and job loss not seen in the United States since the Great Depression.37

Scientists often collaborate with international colleagues to face challenges to global health, including the threat of pandemics. To successfully fight the SARS epidemic in China in 2003, an international response coordinated by the WHO developed a network of thirteen laboratories in ten countries, including the United States, that worked together to characterize the SARS agent and develop a diagnostic test.38 The resulting infrastructure was instrumental in implementing a rapid response in China to COVID-19.39

Ebola, a highly contagious zoonotic disease spread through person-to-person contact that emerged in West Africa, was difficult to contain due to a lack of infrastructure, limited medical capacity, and high levels of poverty and mistrust.40 Scientists and medical professionals around the world worked together to increase testing capacity, and contributions from African diaspora populations in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere were instrumental in securing further institutional support for providing expertise and assisting communities in confronting the disease.41 Nigeria, Senegal, and Mali received strong praise from the WHO for their vigorous response and success in containing the outbreak in 2014.42 The lasting infrastructure and capacity for pandemic preparedness, while challenging to maintain, has been essential for facing new health threats, including COVID-19; the international community can learn from their successes.43

Infectious diseases like COVID-19, SARS, and Ebola are not constrained by national borders, and pose a threat to all people.44 As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages the planet, scientists around the globe are collaborating at unprecedented levels with their international colleagues to better understand the virus, SARS-CoV-2, and the disease it causes and to develop treatments and vaccines (Figure 2).45 These efforts have allowed natural and social science communities to rapidly gain information about the virus to widen our understanding of its transmission and possible treatments and vaccines.

Figure 2: Map of International Collaborations on COVID-19 in Scientific Literature as of April 2020
Figure 2: Map of International Collaborations on COVID-19 in Scientific Literature as of April 2020

Map of international scientific collaboration on COVID-19 indexed in Scopus on April 7, 2020. 
Source: Marion Maisonobe and Netscity. 

U.S. scientists’ enthusiasm for international collaboration stood in contrast to the U.S. federal government response, which, among other actions, announced an intention to formally withdraw funding and terminate its relationship with the WHO as of July 6, 2021.46  Despite this disengagement, U.S. collaboration with both well-established scientific powerhouses and emerging scientific partners continues to be critical for developing mitigation and treatment strategies for COVID-19.47

COVID-19 has impacted international scientific partnerships beyond scientists working directly to fight the pandemic. Some disruptions, such as increased use of virtual platforms, have presented opportunities for collaborators that expand accessibility across time zones and continents. Other aspects have been major obstacles for scientific collaboration. The pandemic has disrupted travel, supply chains, scientific conferences, and daily scientific operations as researchers work to adapt their projects to this new context. In the medium to long term, economic downturns may pose a major threat to funding for international scientific projects.

COVID-19 has also brought the debate regarding the need for openness and transparency in science to the surface. China was criticized for its delay in releasing information about virus emergence, though it was also praised for quickly publishing the viral genome to an open access forum.48 Researchers from around the world have made use of shared genomic information, learning more about the virus and developing new treatments and vaccines.49 However, despite an increase in data sharing, “vaccine nationalism” is gaining traction, increasing tensions between the United States and China.50 This nationalism could inhibit efforts by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the WHO to coordinate an equitable global vaccine campaign as governments, including the United States, Russia, and China, refuse to take part.51 To address a global problem like COVID-19 rapidly and in a coordinated manner, nations must commit to science, transparency, and cooperation.52

As the global pandemic unfolds, with disproportionate effects across nations and populations, it is difficult to predict long-term effects on international scientific collaboration. Policy-makers must ensure that partnerships are supported as the global crisis evolves, and future collaborations should be designed with resiliency in mind for when the next pandemic arises.