International Collaborations Face Increasing Hurdles

Policy changes in various countries have put scientists and their collaborative nature under scrutiny, threatening academic freedom and student enrollment.

Four panelists on Lindau panel: Lakshmi Balasubramaniam, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Henry Enninfull and Nobel Laureate Sir Konstantin Novoselov.
Collaborative concern: (left to right) Lakshmi Balasubramaniam, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Henry Enninfull and Sir Konstantin Novoselov. Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Every summer, the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings brings together hundreds of scientists from dozens of countries. In many ways, it represents a typical example of how science is done, as like-minded people gather to discuss their work, learn from others, and forge new and often fruitful collaborations. In addition to talk of laser physics, gravitational waves, dark matter and cosmology, the laureates also address scientific issues that have led to public controversy, such as climate change and vaccines. This year, during the 69th meeting, the scientists waded into more controversial waters, in a press panel provocatively titled “The End of International Collaborations in Science? How Nationalism Threatens an Open Scientific World.

The panel consisted of Sir Konstantin Novoselov, who jointly won the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on graphene; Rolf-Dieter Heuer, former Director-General of CERN; and two young researchers, Henry Enninful and Lakshmi Balasubramaniam. The panel was moderated by Berlin-based science journalist Lea Albrecht.

The panelists noted that collaborations have been the foundation for scientific discovery. Besides gathering at regular meetings, scientists will often visit and conduct research at an institution in another country for a time. As Heuer put it: “Science benefits from collaboration. It has to cross borders.” He added, “Science can only flourish if you have freedom to think.” As examples of successful multinational collaboration, Heuer pointed to CERN, the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration and the synchrotron laboratory known as SESAME, for which he is currently the governing council president. “The members of SESAME include Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Palestine and Turkey,” Heuer said. “SESAME is helping not only to foster collaboration in countries that have historically not collaborated, but also helps encourage young scientists to stay or return to their countries.” Even in historical cases in which nationalism was the driving force (such as the Manhattan Project and the space race), scientists from allied countries were in fact collaborating, leading to success in those projects, noted laureate David Gross, who attended the session as an audience member.

The latest political changes have created new urgency for collaborative scientists. Earlier this year, Russia announced Soviet-style restrictions, requiring its scientists to get permission at least five days in advance to meet colleagues from abroad, to provide copies of their passports and to send sealed reports to Russian officials about what was discussed with those colleagues.

In Hungary, the parliament voted in July to put 15 scientific research institutes under the direct control of a newly conceived state research network: the Eötvös Loránd Research Network (ELKH), whose 13 members will be appointed jointly by the Academy of Sciences and the minister of innovation. Those opposed to the bill fear that the changes will stifle not only academic freedom but also independent research in the social sciences on issues such as migration and the economy. “The planned institutional and funding structure runs counter to the European principles of research funding and jeopardizes scientific freedom,” the academy said.

In the U.K., Brexit could have a lasting effect by shutting British scientists out of projects with their European counterparts — specifically, by cutting their access to Horizon Europe, a strategic framework for innovation with 100 billion euros committed for R&D. “If Britain pulls out of the EU, they won’t benefit from this funding,” said panelist Enninful, a researcher at Leipzig University. Novoselov, who is based at the University of Manchester and is a dual citizen of Britain and Russia, predicted that Brexit will be “a disaster for science in the United Kingdom” by triggering an exodus of talent from England to Europe.*

The next generation of scientists may bear the brunt of these sweeping changes. In England, Enninful noted that “students from Africa and Asia are being denied visas due to Brexit.” Panelist Lakshmi Balasubramaniam, a Ph.D. candidate at the Jacques Monad Institute in Paris, noted that the anti-immigration backlash in some European nations has affected students from Muslim countries who wish to study in Europe. “It is harder as an international student to get a visa to stay in Europe,” she said. “So you’re in a very unstable situation where you don’t know if you should be thinking about your research or visa situation — and in turn that affects the quality of research that you produce.”

A recent report in Inside Higher Ed, a media company that tracks issues in higher education, lends support to Balasubramaniam’s point. The report noted that after Brexit, European students in England will have to pay full-cost international student fees and no longer be eligible for tuition loans. There are already regulations in place that not only increase the cost of student visas but also slow visa processing and require a high level of surveillance for non-EU international students. Such students must, for example, file monthly reports to their universities, or they could lose their special visa status and have difficulty obtaining poststudy work visas.

In the U.S., the Trump administration’s hardened immigration policies have discouraged students. A survey by the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers found that students from the Middle East, Asia and Latin America were becoming fearful of attending college in the U.S. The U.S. State Department reported a 17 percent decline in 2017 in the number of F-1 visas, which allows foreign students to study in the U.S. And of this 17 percent, there was a 28 percent drop in the number of visas granted to Indian students and a 24 percent drop for Chinese students. The U.S. administration has also explicitly revised its guidance for consular officials in order to encourage greater scrutiny of student visa applicants.

Such changes have caused consternation among some U.S. scientists. Steven Chu, former secretary of energy under President Obama, who was one of the 39 Nobel Laureates who attended Lindau 2019, said, “I am very concerned that the United States government may take actions that will deter Chinese students from coming to the U.S. for their graduate education.” Chu noted that the U.S. has greatly benefited from having international students,  many of whom, in his experience, want to stay in the country. “We should cherish these young scientists and engineers and strive to provide employment opportunities in academia, industry and nonclassified government labs to keep the best and brightest,” he said.

The Lindau panelists offered several possible solutions. The scientific community, panelists agreed, needs to present a unified front to governments, be vocal in response to disinformation and be represented in government as elected officials or advisers. Balasubramaniam said educating children about the value of internationalism in science and teaching them media-literacy skills for spotting misinformation would also help. “They’re the ones who are going to run the country in the future,” she said.

“The challenges that face humanity — energy, food, clean water, infectious diseases and climate change — are global,” Enninful said. “They move across borders. The most important thing we can do is to come together as a community of scientists to find the solutions that we need for all of humanity.”

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