The New Invisible College: Science for Development

Graham Farmelo admires the philosophy of a scientist who advocates cross-border research

December 18, 2008

Scientists jealously guard their autonomy, but are their hallowed methods of administering science flawed? The organisation of science needs a radical overhaul, with less emphasis on parochial national interests, and a greater recognition that science is an invisible global network, impossible to control in a centralist way. That is the argument of Caroline Wagner, a senior policy analyst at the Centre for International Science and Technology Policy at George Washington University.

Part of Wagner's motivation for The New Invisible College is the terribly uneven distribution of research activity. In 2004, 90 per cent of the world's scientific research and development was done by just 15 countries. Yet, given the many vested national interests that want to maintain the convenient status quo, it is hard to imagine how poorer countries could get in on the act, at least in the short and medium terms.

Wagner believes nonetheless that there are grounds for optimism. The most important thing, she believes, is that global scientific activity should be overseen in ways that take into account its true nature, as a gigantic network capable of changing and learning from experience. Networks like this - and others such as forest ecosystems and the market economy - are known generically as self-organising complex adaptive systems.

The invisible global network of science is not best administered using old-fashioned "command and control" strategies favouring the national self-interests of the strongest players, Wagner argues. Rather, broader governance should be introduced, aiming to nurture centres of local expertise adept at making contributions crucial to the entire community of their peers. Less developed nations have most to gain, Wagner says, if they wise up and tap into this network as nimble, productive partners.

Wagner attempts, using a complicated but apparently sensible algorithm, to rank countries according to their ability to participate in the new "invisible college", by assessing their ability to absorb, apply, create and retain knowledge about the natural world (their "scientific capacity"). Below the predictably top-rated US are quite a few surprises: the UK ranks only 11th in the world, just below Denmark, Australia and Israel. Singapore, Ireland and New Zealand are in the top 20.

As Wagner is well aware, in some big science projects, several of her policies have been implemented. The European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern), for example, has an excellent record of involving dozens of countries outside its most munificent contributors. Although there are often tensions between the national groups working there, a spirit of international collaboration prevails, enabling the achievement of goals that would otherwise be beyond every participating country.

By reversing a cliche, Wagner summarises her challenge to policymakers: "Think locally, act globally". This philosophy is at the heart of the approach she advocates in The New Invisible College, with patience and clarity. This short, thoughtful and easy-to-read book invites us to rethink our prejudices and to abandon practices more appropriate to the world as it was decades ago. All science policymakers should read it, especially those who believe that science is a public good and who want high-quality, big science research to be truly global.

I suspect, however, that the kind of science governance that Wagner would like to see will be a long time coming. Science's burgomasters know that, when they are giving high-minded speeches to international conferences, it is wise and tactful to praise the virtues of global collaboration. But when they return home to plead with government officials for more money, national self-interest is more often than not a trump card.

The New Invisible College: Science for Development

By Caroline S. Wagner
200pp
£15.99
Brookings Institution Press
ISBN 9780815792130
Published 1 June 2008

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