Briefing: “Science builds bridges” by Adam Tyson, Head of Research and Industrial Infrastructures, European Commission
It has been my great privilege, and indeed pleasure, to be a first-hand witness to a most remarkable change happening in the public policy in generations: science – a topic traditionally seen as technical, opaque, difficult to approach, better left to the "geeks" – is coming to the spotlight of public attention.
Where previously it was discussed only in highly technical groups, far from the focus of the newspaper headlines, we now see an unprecedented exposure to scientific topics by all parts of our society.
From the digital transformation, to climate change, the exploitation of space, the understanding of the fundamental building blocks of our universe and the challenges of artificial intelligence, the citizens have never been closer to how humanity pursues new knowledge.
We need the best scientific minds to tackle these challenges. That is why the EU designs its research and innovation programmes with excellence at its core and that is also why the EU R&I programmes are always open to the whole world. However, to explore ideas, theories and hypotheses in more detail, the best scientific minds require the best scientific tools.
Research infrastructures are essential to science. Without them, even the best theory cannot be tested; without the knowledge they unlock, our best ideas will forever remain only ideas.
When we look at projects like CERN, ITER or the recent Event Horizon telescope breakthrough, or, in other fields, archives of viruses, rare diseases or knowledge of the social situation of our people, one thing is clear: the scale of much of our science is now such that no single country has the resources or the knowledge to act alone. Whether we are talking about financial resources, human resources, technological expertise, or access to specific study sites or to data, our progress is now naturally pushing us – obliging us – to cooperate beyond our national borders.
This trend is especially important for research infrastructures. Traditionally, many of them have been seen as strategic national assets, with the result that access to them was restricted, so reducing opportunities to engage with the world's brightest minds.
Thankfully, this is now changing. The openness of the EU to the cooperation with all the regions of the world is a natural result of this change.
In research and innovation, the EU is working with Latin American and Caribbean countries to develop a common research area that will connect scientists in both regions more closely than ever before. This project is built on three fundamental pillars – and one of them is cooperation on research infrastructures.
In the EU, much of the coordination is done through fora like the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures – well recognised by the stakeholder community and with a clear mandate from Ministers. The coordination effort on the LAC side has begun only recently.
The European Commission is supporting this effort, leading to the launch of a joint working group on research infrastructures, where all the EU and LAC countries have been invited to participate. A dedicated support structure has been created – the 'International Service Facility' – that now follows closely the work of the group.
In the two years since its creation, I have been hugely impressed by the energy and enthusiasm of the group. The progress made at the inter-regional, but also at the LAC level, is nothing short of impressive.
The work of the group is organised at two levels. On one side, a broad coordination is pursued by the delegates at regular EU-LAC meetings, with focus on topics such as road mapping, access policies or governance. In parallel, study visits are organised for experts and managers working for research infrastructures in both regions, to start direct contact and to explore concrete cooperation opportunities.
However, it would be a mistake to see this work as a purely technical matter, isolated and to be left to a few specialists.
Cooperation in research and innovation can lead the way, unblock complex issues and even when relations between regions and countries are at a low point, it is often science that keeps the dialogue active. It is a topic that is usually seen as mutually beneficial and less controversial or confrontational than others.
This natural tendency to unite where other topics divide has led to research and innovation being increasingly recognised at the political level as a powerful instrument in international relations and diplomacy. In the recent Joint Communication on the EU-LAC cooperation, research and innovation are highlighted as having an important role to play in the broad partnership between both regions.
It is therefore all the more important to support and encourage the opening up of our domestic research infrastructures to the cooperation with their potential partners abroad. Whether it is physical access of researchers or their virtual involvement – remote cooperation or data sharing – this necessity to cooperate and to share the work will become increasingly more important in the coming years. I am delighted to say that the EU-LAC cooperation on research infrastructures is creating a template for collaboration across the world.
This article was initially published in EURAXESS LAC Quarterly newsletter Q3 2019