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International Collaboration in Global Science: Price or Prize?
Edward Derbyshire

At a time when one can be excused for regarding “global” as one of the most overused terms in English, organizing ourselves globally still falls short of our ability to act nationally and locally. This is so common that it can reasonably be considered human nature. Why, then, do global initiatives emerge from time to time, driven by a few fiercely dedicated and apparently altruistic individuals, none of whom stand to gain anything by it?

Mounting a global-scale scientific initiative, set to run for a limited period but without any formal institutional backing or fall-back financial guarantees, raises a mass of potential obstacles. Problems that leap to mind are those concerned with fundraising, the type of management system to be adopted, and diverse logistical questions at all levels. The International Year of Planet Earth 2007 to 2009 is just such a collaborative program.

The United Nations proclaimed 2008 the International Year of Planet Earth. If this statement prompts you to think “yet another U.N. international year,” then think again. This “year” will run as a triennium (2007 to 2009) to allow adequate time to achieve its aim of contributing to the improvement of everyday life, especially in less-developed countries, and by promoting the societal potential of the world’s earth scientists, as expressed in the proclamation’s subtitle, “Earth Sciences for Society.”

This is no ordinary international year. It will challenge the world’s geological community to seek solutions to some of the greatest geoscience-based problems of our age while communicating with the public about what that community is doing. In the Science Programme, geoscientists will address such issues as sustainable use of groundwater, energy and other resources and determining ways of minimizing risk but maximizing awareness of natural hazards. The program will also look at quantifying the natural (non-human) factors in climate change and mitigating the disease burden on communities by focusing on the impact of earth materials on human health.

The challenge will also extend to “improve awareness generally of the huge potential within the earth sciences to create a healthier, safer and wealthier (world) society,” especially through innovative work in education, media relations and liaisons with policy-makers. This Outreach Programme will include both a wide range of activities to involve the public in research (“citizen science”) through such avenues as mass experiments and science exhibitions, and a media program, involving special magazine supplements, competitions and press releases. Thus, the Outreach Programme will be at least the equal of the science initiative, for its effects may very well outlive those of its sister program in day-to-day life.

The triennium “year” is breaking new ground in adopting such a prominent role for its outreach activities. In doing so, it reflects the slow but determined shift in professional scientists’ awareness of the importance of communicating coordinated and, above all, continuous scientific advance, which is a very long way from any “ivory tower mentality.”

Both the science and outreach programs will operate in grassroots mode, with original contributions to both programs arising from geoscientists around the world who have made the effort to team up to tackle key problems. The groups of scientists will receive no material reward, as the program — like its very successful UNESCO precursor and model, the International Geoscience Programme — will provide only starter finance for these teams. It will then be the teams’ jobs to enhance their funds from a wide range of sources, including governments, academia and industries.

One potential obstacle often forgotten — at least in the early stages of setting up a global program such as the International Year — is the assumption that scientific collaboration can be more or less taken for granted at all levels, from small specialist groups to national organizations. This is very naïve and unrealistic in many situations. In general, large-group collaboration is much less common than collaboration in small groups or even pairs of scientists, even in the same country.

We should ask ourselves if collaboration — scientific or otherwise — is even in our genes. Who among us feels the urge to interact with fellow scientists, up to the level of accepting equal partnership in joint operations, especially long-term ones? And who, by contrast, instinctively and habitually ploughs a lone furrow? Are some scientists born collaborators, while the rest must have it forced upon them?

Then there is a related question of group size and effectiveness: Is the productivity of scientific collaboration a function of group size? If so, are most outcomes directly proportional or inversely so? When it comes to a specific but globally distributed population like that of earth scientists, do the potential advances and advantages of collaboration outweigh the communal effort and expenditure required to sustain them over months or years, or is international collaboration a worthwhile product in its own right?

None of these questions are new, nor are they trivial for international organizations and professional communities. The way a majority of earth scientists answer these questions on a daily basis over the next three or four years, however, is likely to have a crucial impact upon the operations, reach and ultimate success of the International Year.

The International Year of Planet Earth’s triennium will thus be a hard grind, requiring much in addition to imagination, determination, and a clear appreciation of its aim and ultimate purpose. Its key requirement will be a huge capacity for collaboration, at all levels and scales, between individuals, between groups of scientists, between national committees of scientists and, last but by no means least, between earth, social and political scientists. This is a fiercely demanding prescription, but one that carries with it some guarantees that any shade of failure will be worthy of the adjective “glorious.” By the same token, even modest achievements along all of these lines will surely qualify, ultimately, for the name of success.


Derbyshire is a sedimentologist in the Centre for Quaternary Research at Royal Holloway, University of London in the United Kingdom. He is also chair of the Science Programme Committee of the International Year of Planet Earth 2007 to 2009. E-mail: edwardderbyshire@myway.com.

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