Science is going on a journey

internacionalización de la ciencia

This brief note, based on the article of my authorship “Internationalization Strategies in Research Groups: A Case Study” published in the journal Memorias, deals with science, but more specifically with its international dimensions or, rather, its journeys. I start from recognizing that science is an international activity by nature. Now, where can we find the international of science? Let’s give some examples extracted from interviews to physicists and historians conducted during my Ph.D. thesis: “Eduardo, an Argentinian historian, travelled to England to pursue postgraduate studies and obtain his Ph.D. there;” “Magdalena, an Argentinian physicist, published her scientific articles on lasers coauthored with British colleges after jointly performing research work in a laboratory of such country;” “Researchers from Argentina and New Zealand working in the area of environmental physics and chemistry have jointly researched into the emission levels of methane gas, a greenhouse gas.”

Thus, among the main modalities of international research, we find training and specialization of human resources at foreign colleges and research centers; transfer of professors and researchers to laboratories and institutes abroad; realization of joint research projects involving scientists from different countries; engagement in international cooperation networks; publication of research results and progress of international coauthorship; etc.

It is clear that, as time goes by, the presence of internationalization in scientific activity intensifies. The question that immediately arises is why. The following are some indications. On the one hand, international scientific cooperation has become central to approaching global and multi-disciplinary issues such as climate change, so relevant in the last years. For instead, the Antarctic, a territory known as “the planet’s weather regulator” has turned into a large laboratory for researching climate change, receiving researchers from different nationalities and disciplinary training to study the consequences that global warming has had in some areas of the continent.

Additionally, the emergence and expansion of new information and communication technologies (NICT) has strengthened cooperation among researchers from different countries and enabled more frequent contact among them, as well as joint remote work on the same data package by using certain software (to name a few impacts of NICT on scientific work and international scientific cooperation). This is the case of the use of virtual platforms for scientific exchange on planetary research and the construction of virtual observatories for greater access to such information by the general public.

The increased costs of necessary technology equipment for knowledge production has even encouraged governments from different countries to unite resources, favoring the carrying out of research that each by itself could not fund. This is the case of the famous “God machine”, name given to the Large Hadron Collider located near Genève, in the French-Swedish border.

Although, in many cases, journey understood as the transfer of a physical person from one point of the world to another has been replaced by virtual communication, face-to-face work is also fundamental for scientists and therefore they plan and set meetings and encounters with foreign colleges involving travelling to other countries.

While science is an international activity, it influences the society and economy of the country where it takes place. Thus, the scientific knowledge produced in one nation may contribute to solving its major problems, such as malnutrition, pollution, or a particular disease. It can also contribute to the private sector by providing new ideas and technologies for the companies to be more competitive in the world market (Silicon Valley in California is the most common example of a combination of technology companies, prestigious universities, and venture capital).

The same applies to international activities undertaken by scientists. They have understood the relevance of engaging in current discussions at international level, having access to economic resources and equipment not available in the local context, favoring the opening of new research lines and the training of human resources, visibilizing the knowledge produced in the local context, and taking new publication opportunities. In the mid-20th century, for example, Argentina received the first visit of Ken Creer, an English geophysicist, member of the founding group of paleomagnetism and critic of the “fixist paradigm” that postulated the immobility of continents throughout the geological periods. Thanks to his cooperation, the Geophysics area was created at Universidad de Buenos Aires.

However, from a critical perspective, it can also be noted that international cooperation may give rise to exogenous stipulation of research agendas and work methodologies, disconnection of knowledge produced in international networks from national priority issues, and brain drain. A specific example of the above is international cooperation in the genetic sequencing of Plasmodium vivax, a parasite that causes malaria in Latin American and Asian countries. The genetic sequence of such parasite makes part of a larger project on molecular biology carried out in central countries, which seeks to produce knowledge about the wide genomic variability that this parasite allows to study. Nonetheless, the malaria epidemic continues to lash the poorest areas of the world.

In any case, it is understood that capitalization of results from international cooperation depends largely on the capacity of a country to: 1) direct its research activities toward topics and problems relevant to the local context, and 2) privilege international links that are more respectful to the locally defined interests. These two issues are central when considering the journeys of science.

María Paz López

María Paz López has a Master’s Degree in Science, Technology, and Society and works in the Centro de Estudios Interdisciplinarios en Problemáticas Internacionales y Locales (CEIPIL; Center for Interdisciplinary Studies on International and Local Issues) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is currently finishing her Ph.D. studies as part of a scholarship granted by the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET; National Council of Scientific and Technical Research) in Argentina. Her research topics refer to both the international dimensions of sciences and the scientific-technological policies.