Around the World in 80 Trials: A New Paradigm of Global Research

In April 16, 1917, in the waning years of the first World War, the Kaiser of Germany
smuggled a devastating weapon from Switzerland to Russia through Berlin in a sealed train
boxcar. At that time, Russia still posed a significant threat to Germany’s eastern flank, but in six
short months, the delivered weapon would directly result in the utter demolition of the Russian
government and the end of Russia’s involvement in the war. This weapon was not a bomb or a
gun or poison, it was an idea in the hands of a man named Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov; better
known to us today for his alias: Lenin.

The story of Lenin’s infamous return to his motherland is a prime illustration of what I
want to talk about today: the immense power of movement of thought. History is ripe with such
examples. It was the translation of greek texts of antiquity to arabic via Eastern Orthodox monks
that initiated the golden age of Islamic science and philosophy, and it was the subsequent transfer
of these arabic translations (and original work, such as of the great Islamic philosopher Averroes)
into Latin via the Crusades that was the genesis of the European renaissance. Or, to turn again to
the 20th century, we could examine Operation Paperclip, the American intelligence program that
recruited more than a thousand german scientists following World War II (many of them former
leading members of the Nazi Party), who subsequently built the foundations of NASA and the
Space Race that was to follow between the USSR and the United States.

Note that all of these are examples not only of the movement of thought, but also of the
movement of people. It is easy for us to ignore what used to be a pre-requisite of thought
transfer: physical migration. In our modern, technology-oriented, globalized world however, this
component is no longer necessary for intellectual and cultural interaction, and this freedom has
exponentially increased the amount of scientific collaboration in the past 20 years.
Let’s look at a few of the relevant statistics: in 1996, only about a quarter of scientific
papers were authored by researchers from two or more nations; at the present, that number is
closer to 40 percent. In 2008, the ratio of publications authored together by American scientists
and researchers from other countries was 30 percent, as compared to only 16 percent of the same
ratio in 1996. South Korea today ranks third in the list of countries who file patents at the United
States Patent and Trademark Office, whereas 25 years ago they would not even place in the top
10. Turkey, in that same time frame, has multiplied its research and development budget by six
and increased its number of researchers by 40 percent. In the past decade, China, India and
Brazil each more than doubled their spending on R&D – which enlarged their collective
contributions to global research spending from 17 to 24 percent. One could list these sorts of
figures for a long time, but all of them lead to an undeniable truth: there has been a monumental
increase in the capacity of scientific research to reach across sovereign borders and into nations
previously underrepresented in the global science field.

Though we began this article with the story of an infectious idea bringing down a
government, it is difficult to deny the increasing intensity of research collaboration in the 21st
century has been anything but positive. In fact, we take many of the finest products of this
paradigm of international cooperation for granted: the Human Genome Project, the Large Hadron
Collider in Geneva (with which the God Particle, the Higgs Boson was officially discovered), the
Rosetta spacecraft (the first to land on a comet), the International Space Station, and many more.
In this regard, globalization has been a benefit to science and to our species. We must be careful
not to overstate this case however, as the great fruits of this phenomenon does not mean that
there are not equivalent dangers to overcome in the new global research paradigm. Although we
have increased in our capacity to collaborate and organize, there are still many risks and
challenges we will continue to face in the years to come.

Ironically, one of these issues has to do with the very thing globalization was thought to
solve: increasing impediments to international migration. Though, as I mentioned prior, this is no
longer a requirement for collaboration, isolationist immigration policies (like those the president-
elect of the United States wishes to implement) can still severely limit the workings of global
research. Although virtual communication has never been easier, many colleges and research
institutions face increasingly strenuous problems associated with immigration—from
collaborators unable to obtain visas to graduate students accepted into programs but unable to
enter the country because of their nationality. Security is (and should be) a top priority for every
nation in the world, but I believe we will need to re-examine and renegotiate the costs and
benefits associated with more conservative national policies if we are to maintain and extend all
the enormous achievements of scientific collaboration.

Another major issue the global research community faces is the corrupting influence of
external power-brokers on the research process itself. This is nothing new of course, for
thousands of years, state governments have been using and abusing the products of science to
their own ends; however, modern science is undoubtedly less starkly divided along nationalist
lines than it ever was. This does not mean it has lost its power to disrupt the status quo. One only
has to look at the enormous pushback on research into climate change by Big Oil to see how
threatened some factions are by scientific thought. There are a number of methods that
corporations, governments and other interests looking to subvert the power of research utilize:
they can reduce agency effectiveness by hindering regulatory processes and pushing for
censorship, they can influence political and legal systems into forced ignorance of scientific
work, and most effectively, they can corrupt the science itself; often through publishing flawed
scientific articles of their own, with very specific agendas and biases in mind. Modern
researchers and scientists have to be aware of this external influence and guard against it;
perhaps even more importantly, public regulators must fulfill their mandate and protect their
citizens from these negative effects without falling victim themselves.

There is an ancient greek proverb that reads: society grows great when old men plant
trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in. Exactly 102 years from the day I write these
words, Lenin passed away at the age of 53, never to know the full impact of his train car journey
on the 20th century and beyond.

In my time, I no longer have to spend 9 days in a boxcar to share a powerful thought. We
enjoy an unprecedented capacity to collaborate and communicate, to move and share our ideas
with one another, regardless of location, ethnicity and creed. The effects of globalization, as
much as it has been a mixed bag in many contexts, in the realm of science, it has been an
emphatic success. It is a success, however, the continuation of which will require careful
overwatch and protection. From guarding against the malicious influences of government and
corporate actions to finding workarounds for changes in state policies, all scientists and
researchers share the responsibility for the maintenance of the tree of global community, to allow
the next generation of thinkers and shakers to enjoy its shade.

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