Global Solutions to Global Problems

After the kick-off with Countess Bettina Bernadotte the first debate of the Online Science Days 2020 started. Photo/Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Kicking off the scientific programme of Online Science Days 2020, a panel of scientists debated the need for better international scientific cooperation in turbulent times.

Facing a worldwide threat to society in COVID-19, the international scientific community has locked arms. Early on, Chinese and Australian researchers made the COVID-19 genome freely available. Online repositories, such as medRxiv and bioRxiv that openly share academic research before it has been reviewed and published in journals, have been inundated with studies on the virus from all corners of the Earth. And hundreds of clinical trials have been launched, bringing together hospitals and laboratories around the globe.

However, this unity demonstrated by the scientific community is at odds with the global political response to the crisis, which has been at best disjointed and at worst calamitous. Moreover, as scientists have been collaborating and openly exchanging knowledge to find a vaccine, some governments have been attempting to horde knowledge for their own advantage and squabbling over who should be first in line if and when a vaccine is discovered.

Political self-interest like this always exists to some extent. But the related recent surge in nationalist sentiment and isolationism has not been seen for a generation – closing countries off at a time when scientific openness is the key to successfully fighting the pandemic.

And it is not only problems with nationalism that the pandemic has shone a light on. At the same time as Black Lives Matter protests seek to highlight and end the injustices, racism and biases faced by black and minority ethnic (BAME) people, the BAME community is suffering disproportionate deaths from COVID-19 as a direct result of those same deep systemic biases.

Science Without Boundaries?

In such a toxic atmosphere of distrust, prejudice and bias, can international scientific collaboration flourish? Can science live up to its principles of having no boundaries or biases? And is our current level of international cooperation sufficient to deal with global crises? This was the focus of the Debate ‘International Scientific Collaboration’, the first session at Online Science Days 2020 on Sunday 28 June.

Steered by moderator Jan-Martin Wiarda, each of the six panellists began with one core message they wanted to highlight about international scientific cooperation, and immediately, a difference in priorities between the Laureates and non-Laureates became clear. For David J Gross (Nobel Prize in Physics 2004), Barry C Barish (Nobel Prize in Physics 2017) and the two titled knights – Sir Konstantin Novoselov (Nobel Prize in Physics 2010) and Sir Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2009) – international collaboration is most threatened by restrictions to the free movement of ideas and people.

“The increasing forces of nationalism and economic and military competition that are beginning to strangle free flow of movement of ideas and people is a significant danger to science,” said Gross. “It is especially a problem in the United States, unfortunately, since my government is now making it increasingly difficult for people as well as ideas and collaboration to flourish.”

 “As long as we talk about science, not individuals… we’re dealing with a subject that inherently doesn’t have boundaries,” agreed Barish. “Therefore, we can do it best if we do what we can to eliminate those boundaries.”

Discussion Between Nobel Laureates and Young Scientists

In contrast to the Laureates, the two young scientist panellists – Yeka Aponte and Toby Brown – see the greatest threats to open and inclusive international scientific collaboration coming from within the scientific establishment itself. Aponte is a Lindau Alumna who attended the 2005 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. She is Chief of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Neuronal Circuits and Behavior Unit, USA, and Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkins University Neuroscience.

Aponte envisions international cooperation as key to breaking the glass ceiling for women in the sciences: “If we work together as an international global team on issues like changing institutional cultures, making sure that women are included, recognised and heard; if we stop being active bystanders when it comes to bullying and harassment type behaviour; if we take some time to think about our conscious and unconscious biases and, moreover, if we re-educate ourselves on these issues, we will definitely be able to attract and retain females in science at the leadership level and we will be promoting gender equality.”

Lindau Alumna Yeka Aponte and Young scientist Toby Brown discussed with Nobel Laureates, among them Sir Venkatraman Ramakrishnan

Brown, who was selected to participate in the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, is an astrophysicist at McMaster University. He also sees bias and endemic problems in scientific institutions as barriers to opening up science to everybody around the world: “There has to be more young people coming into science from diverse backgrounds, but we should also ensure that every step of the way, those people are supported because, at the moment, they face an uphill battle compared to their peers,” he said. “No one is saying science itself is racist, but the institutions and the way in which we operate clearly have a problem.”

Scientists Must Become More Visible

Moving on to the impact of COVID-19 on international cooperation, all panellists agreed that right now, during the pandemic, scientists must be more visible and push for greater international cooperation.

“Scientists don’t tend to be very active politically,” said Barish. “But in a time like this, I think it’s very important that we be voicing our opinions and trying to influence as much as possible.” One suggestion made by Aponte was to push for an international legal obligation to share genetic sequence data or resources during pandemics in order to ensure the fastest possible response from the scientific community.

Another view shared by Brown and Gross was to campaign for the formation of international institutions that can deal with international crises. “COVID has lifted the bandage and shown us a lot of the existing wounds of society across the world,” concluded Gross. Now that we see those wounds, perhaps we can build more open, inclusive and comprehensive international scientific cooperation to help heal them.

You can rewatch the debate in the Lindau Mediatheque.

About Ben Skuse

Benjamin Skuse is a professional freelance writer of all things science. In a previous life, he was an academic, earning a PhD in Applied Mathematics from the University of Edinburgh and MSc in Science Communication. Now based in the West Country, UK, he aims to craft understandable, absorbing and persuasive narratives for all audiences – no matter how complex the subject matter. His work has appeared in New Scientist, Sky & Telescope, BBC Sky at Night Magazine, Physics World and many more.

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