In the Central African rain forest, a team of researchers and students from the U.S., Cameroon, Gabon, the U.K., Germany, France and the Netherlands is creating a conservation plan for the region that takes climate change and regional economic development into account. This group, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, includes biologists, agricultural experts and social scientists.
Collaboration among people from many different disciplines and nations—sharing goals and resources—is becoming the new normal in science and engineering. Diversity in research teams accelerates innovation, perhaps because researchers with different backgrounds see the same problems through different lenses, and together they can correct one another's hidden biases.
Underneath this growing unity and opportunity, however, there is some tension. A nation gears its public spending for research and education to reflect its own priorities, but the knowledge these efforts yield is not confined to any national boundary. In a borderless, Internet-connected world, how can each nation ensure the sustainability and survival of its engine of innovation? How do nations that must collaborate with one another agree to common principles of engagement, standards for quality of output and free access to that output? And who will ensure that nations adhere to such agreements? These are the urgent science policy questions of our day. Without a way to develop principles of engagement, global science will be hamstrung.
Scientists who work in international teams, especially those new to the global research enterprise, need standards of ethics in research practice and other clear norms about how research is conducted. These include ways of judging the merit of research proposals and ensuring that scientists can share and archive the results of their research while ensuring privacy, confidentiality and intellectual-property rights. We need clear policies and a sustainable financial model for open access to publications and data that involves stakeholders at universities, libraries, professional societies and publishers.
The world's research funding agencies and governments have begun to address these issues. In 2012 the Global Research Council (GRC), a group made of heads of science and engineering funding agencies from nearly 50 countries around the world, met to create common principles for merit review. This group is developing shared norms from the perspective of the institutions that fund scientific research and is now exploring ways of engaging research performers—most notably, the world's great research universities—in the discussions.
This effort to create a consistent and harmonious framework in which diverse scholars can work collaboratively constitutes an important step toward establishing a global culture of innovation. As educators and researchers, we owe it to the taxpayers of the world to generate maximum innovation from public research spending. The team in the Central African rain forest needs standards to effectively accomplish its scientific and social mission. So do all the others who depend on science to benefit our communities and our lives.