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From Authoritarian Threats to Funding Disparities: Key Challenges in Global Science

During the ISC Mid-term Members Meeting, from 10 - 12 May in Paris, scientists discussed adapting to an enduring context: from threats to academic freedom to the loss of valuable data.

Last month, ISC Members explored some of the biggest challenges facing global science at the Council’s Mid-term Meeting in Paris in May. In a wide-ranging conversation during the “Evolution of Science in a Global Context” session, Members examined ways in which scientists can enhance their responsiveness to crises, highlighted the risks posed by global inequity and increasing authoritarianism, and explored collaborative strategies for scientists and institutions to adapt and implement crucial transformations.

Crisis – an enduring reality

Scientists are increasingly threatened by authoritarian governments, said Salim Abdool Karim, ISC Vice-President for Outreach and Engagement. “What impact does that have on free thinking, on the way in which academia can express itself, the way in which scientists can feel free to say what they want and not be constrained by oppressive regimes?” Karim asked. 

Kathy Whaler, President of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics, noted that many of the Union’s members are based in dangerous environments and take great risks to gather data to share with the global scientific community. 

Director General Setenty Shami said that conflict and instability have claimed years of irreplaceable data: “Seed banks, museum collections, demographic data, all sorts of knowledge,” she explained. 

This also robs young researchers of training and institutional support, she said – and creates a “tug of war” for funding and attention, pitting research for immediate humanitarian needs against long-term work supporting broader social transformation, and to achieve sustainable development goals. 

This requires a fundamental re-thinking of how institutions adapt, Shami argued. “Given the climate crisis, the pandemic, all these phenomena which threaten our planet, as well as our everyday lives, we have to think about crisis as an enduring context, not as something that begins and ends,” she suggested. 

Continuing work and maintaining institutions as much as possible is important – because experience shows that getting started from scratch is far more difficult, she said: “Once there’s a rupture, it’s very difficult to rebuild.” 

Solidarity among scientists

One of the most poignant questions came from an ISC Member thousands of kilometres away from Paris – biologist Suad Sulaiman, a parasitology expert and member of the Sudanese National Academy of Sciences Executive Committee, who was supposed to be at the conference but was trapped by fighting in Khartoum, Sudan. 

With the airport in Khartoum closed, she called in a question over WhatsApp, which was repeated by Michael Atchia, the former President of the Mauritius Academy of Science and Technology. 

“How can other countries and academies assist scientists working through crisis?” Atchia asked. He noted Shami’s comments about how difficult it can be to pick up scientific work again after conflict forces scientists to stop working: “The rupture is still on – is there anything one can do in the meantime?” 

Solidarity between scientists is critical, Shami responded: “We have to work together to help each other as institutions.” Scientists living through crises can do their best to preserve or continue work in periods of relative calm – but it falls on scientists around the world to do everything in their power to support colleagues, she said. 

It’s also important for institutions that have dealt with crises to share knowledge, so colleagues can draw on that experience and avoid re-inventing responses, Shami said. 

In other sessions at the Paris Meeting, ISC Members and the ISC’s Committee for Freedom and Responsibility in Science talked extensively about practical solutions that have proved helpful in previous crises – including emergency grants and programs to help displaced scientists, as well as longer-term strategies aiming to encourage rebuilding of national science institutions.  

“We scientists are used to thinking about how to improve people’s lives, prevent diseases and disasters. We teach and train the younger generations, and watch them become better than us,” wrote Sulaiman, reached by email while on the long road from Khartoum to Egypt. 

Inequity – a persistent problem

Inequity in funding between countries in the Global North and South continues to be one of the most significant issues facing global science, ISC Members noted. 

The lack of funding to do research, publish and offer positions that allow young researchers to stay at home and do valuable work is an enduring challenge, said Henriette Raventos, Vice President of the National Academy of Sciences of Costa Rica. 

Funding often comes from high-income countries, who can define research priorities, she pointed out. “This is a basic problem for freedom and academic liberty,” Raventos said. “I would like to see this as a priority in the evolution of science in the global context, to really hear the voices of 90% of the scientists in the world, who are still having trouble just producing knowledge.” 

A lack of funding to publish articles can also lead to a “vicious cycle” where Global South institutions miss out on recognition and opportunities to continue their work, and resulting funding, noted Roula Abdel-Massih, Co-Chair of The World Academy Of Sciences Young Affiliate Network. “We’re all for open science, but how can we ensure authors are paid?” she asked. 

Inequity can also be seen in global data gathering, explained Simon Hodson, Executive Director of the Committee on Data. He noted that a disproportionate amount of the data in some global repositories comes from high-income countries, simply because that’s where most of the observers are. 

“That really has to be flipped,” Hodson said. One reason to be optimistic, he noted: cheaper technology continues to make data-gathering more accessible around the world.

Interdisciplinarity to solve complex problems

“Many of the issues we’re dealing with today are just so much more complex,” said the ISC’s Salim Abdool Karim. “They don’t have just a simple eureka solution.” 

An effective global response must coordinate efforts from scientists from all disciplines and backgrounds, argued Ian Wiggins: “Anything – from AI, to climate change, to biodiversity, global resilience – you can’t have any of those without bringing together all of the sciences. I think the ISC has a really good role in that, as do the National Academies.”  

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