The Globalization of Scientific Research

Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

The Globalization of Scientific Research

Caroline S. Wagner's "The Shifting Landscape of Science" (Issues, Fall 2011) is to be commended for its recognition of an important and undeniable trend: the globalization of S&T affairs. We have started to shift from a reliance on so-called "national systems of innovation" to an emphasis on a series of new, globally networked systems of knowledge creation and exploitation. The concept of national innovation systems that was developed out of the research of leading scholars such as Richard Nelson, as well as the S&T policy team at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), has now become largely obsolete. Yet, as Wagner suggests, despite the fact that the data support the notion of this strategic transformation, the U.S. government refuses to make any significant adjustment in its policy mechanisms to accommodate the new R&D world of the 21st century. In some ways, the situation is even worse than Wagner suggests; as the activities of the world's leading multinational firms clearly demonstrate, globalization of R&D activity has become a competitive imperative. U.S.-based multinational corporations, in particular, are establishing overseas R&D installations as a rapid pace; and not simply in other OECD nations, but in new places such as China and India. According to the latest data from the Chinese government, there are now more than 1,250 foreign R&D centers in operation in the Peoples Republic of China. Far from being simply focused on local products and services, many of these R&D units are working on projects tied to the global marketplace.

So what is driving this steadily expanding push to globalize research and build new networked structures across the world? It is the rise of a new, dynamic global talent pool that has shifted the focus of overseas expansion by companies and even universities from a search for cheap labor and lower costs to a desire to harness the growing reservoir of brainpower that is popping up from Jakarta to Mumbai and from Dalian to Singapore. Supported by massive new investments in higher education as well as R&D, many countries that were once S&T laggards are emerging on the international scene as critical partners and collaborators. What gives these efforts at human capital enhancement even more momentum is that they are being complemented by significant financial investments in new facilities and equipment. In addition, many of these nations have benefitted substantially from their ongoing efforts to integrate domestic programs and initiatives with deeper engagement with countries across the international S&T system. The Chinese case is highly illustrative in this regard, as the Chinese government has built a multifaceted array of international S&T cooperation channels and relationships. In spite of lots of verbiage about promoting indigenous innovation, China has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of globalization and shows no signs of closing the door on its highly productive set of foreign S&T relations.

These developments clearly leave the United States in a potentially disadvantaged position vis-a-vis its hungry international counterparts. One of the clearest examples of the U.S. refusal to understand what is occurring in these other countries involves the recent restrictions put on the White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) by Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA), who apparently believes that the United States has gotten too cozy with Chinas S&T establishment. Through budgetary legislation engineered by Wolf, OSTP and NASA are currently restricted from fully engaging with China, putting in jeopardy the mutually beneficial S&T cooperation relationship that has been built by the two countries during the past three decades. Wolf s actions reflect an antiquated perspective that simply ignores the deep level of interdependence that currently exists in S&T affairs as well as in other aspects of the Sino-American relationship. …

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