Sigma Xi Speaks: Balancing International Scientific Collaborations, National Security, and Economic Competitiveness

by Jamie Vernon | Jun 25, 2021

Jamie Vernon

On November 2, 2000, American astronaut Bill Shepherd, alongside Russian cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko, swung open a bulky door to enter a darkened compartment that would serve as their home for the next 131 days. Their first acts as occupants of their new vessel were to turn on the lights, heat up water for drinks, and activate their lone toilet. And so it began: humankind’s longest continuous presence in space and the start of an unprecedented scientific collaboration aboard the International Space Station (ISS). 

For the next four and a half months, the crew would activate critical life support systems, initiate computer controls, and unpack supplies. During its nearly 21 years of operation, the space station has expanded from its initial three-room design to feature 12 rooms, six sleeping compartments, three toilets, and a lookout tower, where it has conducted thousands of scientific experiments.

The space station is the culmination of a cooperative trend that has come a long way from the competitive nature of the Cold War era “space race.” While nations have historically relied on scientific innovations to drive economic competitiveness and demonstrate military capability, international scientific collaborations are now yielding benefits that would unlikely be achievable by any individual nation. Notable scientific partnerships include the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN, sequencing of the human genome, the establishment of the Millennium Seed Bank, and the discovery of gravitational waves via the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Countries are now incentivized to maintain access to collaborative research or risk incalculable losses.

A small group of countries, bound by mutual linguistics and historical interests, previously constituted the bulk of global scientific cooperation. The traditional partners included the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Canada, Switzerland, and Japan. In recent years, openness among contributing nations has enabled greater access to the global research network and changed the landscape of partnerships.   

The relationship between the U.S. and China has grown under the 1979 U.S.-China Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement. China has replaced the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan as the top U.S. collaborator as measured by co-authored research papers. Chinese students have become the largest cohort of foreign science and engineering doctorates from American universities and the U.S. has benefited greatly from Chinese scientists who have chosen to become American citizens and join the U.S. research workforce. These changes have coincided with major investments in education, research, and development by the Chinese government, which has reduced the technological asymmetry that previously existed between the two nations. The cooperation agreement has expanded from primarily government agencies to include companies, universities, professional societies, non-governmental organizations, and individual collaborations. Overall, the science and technology relationship has become increasingly complex and productive.

Despite the increased cooperation, commercial competition and national politics have threatened the relationship between the U.S. and China. While the U.S. has allowed its investments in research and development to fall to a consistently low percentage of gross domestic product, China has increased its investments. Political uncertainties and budget disputes have also raised questions about U.S. commitment to research, imperiling its global technological leadership. These internal complications have created opportunities for other nations to take the lead on major scientific initiatives and capture the economic benefits of scientific and technological advancements. As a result, there is a growing tension between the U.S. and China on issues of collaborative research and development.

An emerging culture of science and technology nationalism in both nations now threatens global cooperation and scientific advancement. Ongoing challenges to intellectual property rights and criminal dissemination of corporate and national security secrets by Chinese scientists based in the United States have garnered national attention and resulted in legislation governing specific U.S.-China collaborations. While historical openness of the U.S. science and technology community has greatly strengthened China’s research capability and the flow of research talent to the U.S. has allowed for widespread and economically advantageous innovations, the nationalistic approach to research raises questions about the sustainability of the current relationship without adjustments that account for intellectual property and national security concerns.

These issues are not limited to the U.S. and China. International scientific collaborations continue to be the predominant trend in science. Research from international collaborations is regarded as higher quality and papers with multi-national authors are more highly cited. As international partnerships become more prevalent, it will be critical to determine the basis for sharing the benefits of the research products and to foster a culture of trust and cooperation that serves all participating nations.

A recent article in Issues in Science and Technology suggests that research funders are facilitating fair, open, and reciprocal international cooperation by broadening their portfolio of funding measures beyond basic research to mission-oriented and use-inspired research. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a common focus for many nations. Funders have come together across national borders to collaborate on SARS-COV-2 research to understand and resolve the health crisis. For similarly common challenges, such as climate change and global diseases, funders can create the conditions for successful international collaborations. Beyond supporting the technical resources, funders must help establish the cultural and ethical framework for effective cooperation. The authors cite seven general values and principles that must be discussed by funders:

  • A strong research culture and commitment to international scientific standards of excellence
  • Mutual respect, trust, and understanding of different scientific systems
  • Research integrity and ethical conduct
  • Reciprocity and equal access to funding and resources
  • Independence, openness, transparency, and accountability
  • Gender equality (e.g., hiring practices and pay)
  • Free movement of people and ideas

Given these key values and principles, we must recognize the important role that professional societies, such as Sigma Xi, play in cultivating international collaborations that allow for greater peace, prosperity, and security. As a leader in fostering ethics and integrity in the research enterprise, Sigma Xi has promoted effective international scientific cooperation for decades. Although the Society is predominantly a U.S.-based organization, it supports several international chapters, inducts numerous foreign-born scientists annually, and conducts programs that serve international scientists and scientific collaborations.

Sigma Xi members pledge “…to foster companionship and cooperation among scientists [and] to maintain honor, integrity, and honesty in all scientific activities…” These commitments establish a foundation for common values that can serve as the basis for international collaboration. However, there is still work to be done to ensure the definitions of these values are clear and mutually agreed upon. To this end, Sigma Xi is committed to engaging scientists from all nations to discuss the requirements for promoting an ethical framework for international cooperation.

If you’d like to help Sigma Xi engage on this topic, please feel free to contact me at


Jamie Vernon signature
Jamie L. Vernon
Sigma Xi Executive Director and CEO

Related reading:

How National Science Funders Can Strengthen Global Collaboration and Avoid Isolationism
Issues in Science and Technology

International scientific collaborative activities and barriers to them in eight societies
Taylor & Francis Online

The Fourth Age of Research

First Science Adviser in US President’s Cabinet Talks COVID, Spying and More

Trends in U.S.-China Science and Technology Cooperation: Collaborative Knowledge Production for the Twenty-First Century?
U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission 

Barriers to International Research Collaboration due to U.S. Sanctions
International Journal of Critical Illness and Injury Science

What is the International Space Station?

Tourists, Toilets, and 20 Years: Stories From the Space Station
Christian Science Monitor

Op-ed | 20 Years in Space: Lessons in Cooperation From the International Space Station
Space News

10 Badass International Science Collaborations That Will Blow Your Mind

Astronauts Growing New Organs on International Space Station

Chinese Scientists Ensnared in U.S. Visa Fraud Legal Battle


comments powered by Disqus

Blog Categories