Scientists have long collaborated with their peers across national boundaries. In the past, however, the reason has been largely scientific: collaboration between the best scientific minds – wherever they live – has been seen as producing the best science.
More recently a different theme has emerged, with particular importance for developing countries. This is the idea that international collaboration is essential for building global scientific capacity; and that the stronger this capacity, the better placed the world will be to solve the problems it faces.
The importance of this new theme was highlighted in a brief but charged address by Thomas Auf der Heyde, deputy director-general at South Africa’s Department for Science and Technology, to the EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration meeting in Brussels.
Auf der Heyde pointed out that in recent years, the European Union – as well as its member states — have played an increasingly important role in supporting science capacity building in the developing world.
“It is essential that the focus of this collaboration should continue under Horizon 2020,” he said – a reference to the new multi-year programme of support for science and technology which has just been approved by the Council of Ministers.
“Why should European researchers collaborate with researchers outside Europe, including developing countries?” he asked. The simplest reason was that it was morally right to do so.
But there were three other reasons.
The first was that international collaborative efforts were “both rational and purposeful”.
“There is no point in Europe opening up its research systems and support programmes to the world, and trying to link together the full human potential for using research to solve global problems, if it does not help to boost scientific capacity in countries which do not have it yet,” Auf der Heyde said.
“It would be like claiming to develop a sport in a country, but only focussing on a small part of the population, rather than the whole population. That would be absurd.”
The second reason was that tackling global challenges required global cooperation. “If we are going to accept that different parts of the globe will contribute in different but equally important ways to solving global problems, the capacity to contribute to those solutions also needs to be distributed globally.”
The third reason for intervening in capacity development, Auf der Heyde said, was self-interest, based on the fact that that research and development capacity was closely linked to economic development.
If the future of the world’s economy depended on the development of economic activity in parts of the world that were currently “economically dark”, it made sense to help build the science and technology capacity of such countries, to enable them to escape their situation.
All arguments that will come in useful in ensuring that the interests of developing countries are well represented in battles over how the Horizon 2020 pie is divided up.
This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.