Answering these questions often requires collaboration across scientific disciplines and national borders. But what happens when countries are isolated, at war or just don’t get along. What do scientists do then?
In some areas of science, it’s impossible to do research without collaborating with another country. The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization or UNESCO reported that in 2015 an average of 1 in 4 published scientific paper listed some form of collaboration with foreign scientists and that number continues to grow.
For instance, the high altitude, lack of atmosphere and dry conditions in certain parts of Chile make it one of the best places on Earth to view activity in outer space. This is one reason that it is estimated by 2020, 70% of the global infrastructure for astronomical observation will be located in Chile. With the rest of the world’s astronomers dependent on their facilities for sensitive measurements, good relations are critical if research in astronomy is to advance.
But consider what happens if countries have a challenging political relationship. India’s relationship with Pakistan or China. US relationships with Cuba, for instance, have been famously strained since the 1960’s. While the exchange of scientific information was never expressly forbidden, US embargos on everything from travel to trade between the two countries has made it difficult for Cuban scientists to access instrumentation and equipment that scientists outside the country take for granted. This is because modern reagents and scientific equipment are often manufactured in, or contain parts from the United States which exempts them from sale to Cuba. Even with this challenges, Cuba is a superstar of science. They are the first country to receive validation from the World Health Organization for eliminating mother to child transmission of HIV and their lung cancer vaccine was an early success for cancer immunotherapy.
These innovations made formalized scientific collaboration between the United State and Cuba politically more attractive. In 2014 the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Cuban Academy of Science signed a historic agreement to seek opportunities for sustained cooperation. In order for them to fulfil that promise, the two countries had to agree to work together outside of the laboratory and this new found scientific relationship coincided with a general easing of restrictions between the US and Cuba, including a relaxation of travel restrictions and historic visit to Havana by President Obama himself.
Anyway, the public may perceive hostility, but scientific collaboration still thrives because scientists find greater value in science. International collaborations like the Human Genom Project and the Particle Accelerator SESAME in the Middle East (which includes unfriendly countries like Iran, Pakistan, Israel) are pushing humanity’s knowledge of universe forward and creating havens of cooperation in a time of increasing nationalism.
When it comes to highly visible international Moon Shot projects like CERN’s Large Hadron Collider or the International Space Station, A project reliant on cooperation Russia, The US and others. The whole world is watching. The sheer scale of investment puts these massive collaborations in a delicate diplomatic position that can make them critical points of de-escalation and compromise in otherwise gridlocked negotiations. They can also inspire us to acknowledge that we are all just bunch of humans stuck on a rock racing around the sun all day and night.