Global issues such as climate change, potential pandemics, bio-diversity, and food, water and energy security need global approaches.  Science has a crucial role to play in measuring and predicting impacts, identifying possible responses, and evaluating pathways for mitigation or adaptation, although in choosing and implementing responses social, economic and political perspectives will be equally if not more important.

I hope that the Royal Society’s report ‘Knowledge, Networks and Nations’  will start a debate on how best to harness global science to address global problems in the changing scientific landscape described in Parts 1 and 2 of the report.  As well as the rise of new scientific powers (such as China, Brazil, India and Korea), driven by large increases in funding, the last two decades have witnessed a big increase in international collaboration, which in 2008 formed the basis for 35% of all published scientific papers, up from 25% in 1996.  This increase, which has been enabled by the Web and decreasing travel costs, is driven largely by individual scientists seeking the most appropriate collaborators and facilities wherever they are located (the citation index strongly supports the idea that international collaboration generally leads to better science).  It is also driven by pressure to contain costs by sharing facilities, and the need for global input when analysing global problems.  Industrial research has also become much more global: the closure of big central laboratories, together with the increasing need for multi-disciplinary approaches, has led to increased outsourcing of research to universities, wherever the best researchers may be found, while multi-nationals are setting up laboratories close to markets all over the world: Microsoft, for example, not only has four research centres in the USA, but one each in China, Egypt, Germany and the UK.

As a basis for considering how the emerging global scientific community can best be harnessed to address global problems, Part 3 of the Royal Society’s report presents case studies of global approaches, involving Governments, industry, NGOs and philanthropy.  Looking to the past, there have been some successes.  The realisation in the 1970s that CFCs were generating a hole in the ozone layer, led relatively quickly to them being banned world-wide in 1987.  In this case the science was clear, the threat of cancer easy to gasp, and the solution was simple and relatively inexpensive to implement.  Some of these features are shared by the elimination of small pox, announced by the WHO in 1979, although in this case nearly 200 years had elapsed since the scientific breakthrough, and while the solution is simple, global vaccination was a huge task.

The global threats we now face are, however, much more complex than the ozone hole and smallpox.  In many cases the science is multidisciplinary, while the solutions are not clear-cut, are likely to be very expensive, may require changes in behaviour, and could produce winners and losers.  It is obvious that there is no single prescription for how to harness science to address the diverse potential global threats that we face, but case studies provide some lessons and questions for the future.

The implementation of global policies requires the widespread sense of ownership and buy-in that underwrote the success of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in alerting the world to the potential dangers of climate change.  On the other hand being owned by all, the IPCC has suffered from being governed by none, and the IPCC’s use of ‘grey literature’ alongside traditional peer reviewed science forces it to strike a difficult balance between inclusivity and scientific quality. Furthermore, its reputation has been damaged not only by a small number of errors, but also because some of those involved are perceived to have crossed the boundary between dispassionate science and advocacy, which is a potential danger in analysing all threats.

Improved coordination in addressing global issues looks obviously desirable, but it needs to be done in a way that does not stifle local initiatives and maintains buy-in.  It will be interesting to see whether recent reforms designed to improve governance of the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR), which according to an independent review has raised world food production by 4-5%, have got this balance right.

Philanthropy paved the way to CGIAR, and the Gates foundation has become a major player and force for good in world health, on which it spends almost as much as the WHO.  Philanthropic organisations are often able to respond faster than Governments and take greater risks in supporting research.  The downside is perceived lack of transparency and accountability, and concerns have been expressed that Gates funding has diverted attention and expertise from basic health issues such as maternal health care and common fatal illnesses such as diarrhoea.

One lesson, which comes out particularly clearly from considering ITER, the global fusion project, is that it usually takes much longer than expected to create new joint institutions and create mutual confidence between the different players (seven ‘domestic agencies’, as well as the seven governments, and the central organisation in the case of ITER, which has also raised governance issues).  The case of ITER also illustrates potential conflicts between technical and political interests, in sharing procurement for example.

The involvement of industry inevitably raises intellectual property issues. They are not severe in the case of ITER, as fusion is by no means ready for commercialisation, but could be more serious in the case of the efforts, promoted by the 2005 G8 summit, to share results from the many Carbon Capture and Storage pilots that are needed, with the three different capture technologies in a range of geological conditions.   Industry will of course be responsible for these pilots and the companies involved will wish to gain a competitive edge, although Governments will have to bear the cost (unless a huge in the increase in the cost of producing carbon dioxide makes it look like a good investment).

The tensions that are revealed by such case studies need to be taken into account when setting up global partnerships to address global threats.  This first step is of course to identify the threat and the potential solutions.  Here blue skies research remains crucial (cf Arrhenius’s prediction of climate change, and the case of the ozone hole), although the formulation of possible solutions will require multidisciplinary approaches in many cases, and won’t be simple.  The next question is how to attract the attention of policymakers and potential funders?  This is the responsibility of the scientific community, although – as in the case of the 2004 Tsunami – their voices my not always be heard, and a special responsibility falls on National Academies and government science advisors.  Whose attention should be attracted? Governments will have to be the leaders in many case, although they may not as nimble as Philanthropic bodies, which however tend to have a relatively narrow focus.  If industry is needed to develop or deploy solutions, early involvement is vital – but this will require incentives once any involvement becomes substantial, and may raise intellectual property issues.

When possible it would seem most effective and efficient to use an existing framework to oversee the formation of collaborations or new bodies that are needed to carry out further research or implement solutions (such as the IAEA which mentored the establishment of ITER, or the IEA which is involved in coordinating CCS pilots), if they do not emerge naturally.  The rules of engagement will have to strive to reconcile the desire for simple transparent structures and governance with the need for wide-spread buy-in and joint ownership, and attempt to reconcile technical and political interests.

Buy-in, which will be vital whenever global solutions are needed, will be hard if not impossible to achieve unless as many countries as possible are involved in identifying options and choosing solutions.  This is yet another reason for building suitable scientific and technical capacity in developing countries.  Public engagement will also be essential before voters accept costly solutions which may impact on their life-styles.  Dealing with the global challenges that we face will be technically very challenging, but the political challenge of generating the necessary public support will probably be even greater.

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