The dangers of a zero-sum approach to global science

An international and multidisciplinary research group is trying to make sense of the contemporary global science landscape by investigating and developing approaches to managing the opportunities and risks of international scientific collaboration amidst rising geopolitical competition and the prevailing logic of zero-sum competition.

The world is at a critical juncture, facing global challenges from climate change, food insecurity, biodiversity loss and pandemics that can only be tackled effectively through cross-border scientific collaboration.

However, globalisation is slowing down as Western hegemonic power has been replaced with a multipolar order in which norms for international interactions are increasingly contested. This is no clearer than in global scientific research today where the axiom of openness is challenged.

How exactly geopolitical competition will impact international scientific collaboration in the long term is still not clear. Increased international collaboration in the past few decades has driven scientific advances, as typified in the mapping of the human genome. Deep international science collaboration aimed at understanding COVID-19 was also evident early on in the pandemic.

But soon afterwards it was clear that national interests in the Global North were prioritised when vaccines were developed and produced. Global public health outcomes were especially hampered by geopolitical tensions between Washington and Beijing, which limited cooperation between the world's two largest scientific powerhouses.

In order to sustain global science collaboration, we need to better understand the challenges arising from increased geopolitical competition. Some arise directly from geopolitical competition, such as the increased national focus on aligning science with security, economic, and strategic objectives. Other existing challenges intrinsic to science across borders are exacerbated as a result of geopolitical competition, such as varying concepts of research integrity and research ethics.

Universities, researchers and governments urgently need to understand and develop processes and practices to navigate and mitigate the challenges to science that exist amid tense geopolitics. At present, the logic of zero-sum competition will increasingly dominate many key national science systems, risking the closing down of vitally important future international research collaboration.

An open and robust global dialogue on current geopolitical conditions, responsible internationalisation, ethics and integrity in scientific research will be key for developing norms that are conducive for ongoing reciprocal and inclusive global cooperation in this new geopolitical climate. As a starting point, we believe that it is necessary for the following sets of challenges to be better understood in order to find ways forward:

The pressure to prioritise national competitiveness

The escalating geopolitical competition between countries such as China and the United States is driving the securitisation of science in both nations and across US allies in Europe, the UK, Australia and Japan. While researchers generally seek to collaborate with the best suitable partners due to complementarity in knowledge, resources and access to data, this is now becoming more difficult.

Many politicians and governments now advocate strategic autonomy, decoupling and collaboration with ‘like-minded partners’. The scientific community needs to find appropriate ways of managing the risks arising from international collaboration, but the process of aligning science with national strategic goals threatens to impede global scientific excellence and the capacity to mitigate global challenges.

Academic freedom amidst growing autocratic consolidation

A key challenge to academic freedom exists in international partnerships and joint ventures involving one or more partners located in places where academic freedom is not recognised or practised or is severely limited.

Proceeding with such partnerships can offer benefits, such as access to talent, funding and research technology infrastructure. It can also facilitate greater brain-circulation. Yet, such partnerships may involve compromises, and sometimes potential legal challenges when it comes to institutions' obligations to uphold academic freedom.

These challenges need to be systematically identified, rigorously considered in the evaluation of the costs and benefits of such partnerships, mitigated wherever possible, and offset where compromises are made.

Norms for research ethics and integrity

A broadened and more inclusive global collaboration framework brings with it the challenge of how to reconcile research ethics regimes and standards across different jurisdictions and levels of institutional capacity.

The dynamic of placing increasing emphasis on national competitiveness as a goal for science, coupled with a lack of dialogue at the international level, has restricted the opportunities for negotiating common principles on these important challenges. In the context of geopolitical competition and the rise of new science-leading nations, it is vital to maintain global dialogue and forums on ethics and integrity to maintain high scientific standards.

Inequalities and equity

Nations of the Global North still maintain advantages in international science. Non-English publications are undervalued in global rankings systems and Oxbridge and Ivy League universities continue to hold strong symbolic power.

Scholars and research students from low-middle income nations face substantial barriers to attending global academic conferences, accessing and publishing in top journals, and obtaining visas to study and work in wealthier nations.

Further, a more equitable system would ensure that scholars from low-middle income nations are engaged with and have opportunities to lead research, especially research that focuses on or takes place in the nation where they work. Policy environments which are increasingly shaped by zero-sum competition, in which countries such as the US and China strive for scientific, technological and economic hegemony, can further exacerbate such inequalities.

Making sense of the landscape

To solve global challenges, we need global science collaboration. In a multipolar world, new issues arising with regard to geopolitical competition need to be managed in tandem with the sharpening of challenges that have traditionally been intrinsic to cross-border science. It is important to understand how both sets of challenges can be navigated without resorting to blanket zero-sum approaches to national and global science.

In response to these challenges, our international and multidisciplinary research group is trying to make sense of the contemporary global science landscape. We are investigating and developing approaches to managing the opportunities and risks of international scientific collaboration amidst rising geopolitical competition.

We do this by identifying and analysing trends in international scientific collaboration in the context of rising geopolitical competition; examining and evaluating the responses taken by national governments, universities and research institutes and academics; and promoting best-practice approaches to managing the risks and opportunities of international science engagement.

By examining the global science landscape, we can navigate the challenges of rising geopolitical competition and sustain effective international scientific collaboration for the benefit of all.

Tommy Shih is associate professor at Lund University, Sweden. Diarmuid Cooney-O’Donoghue is associate lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Hedvig Ördén is a researcher at Lund University. Andrew Chubb is a senior lecturer at Lancaster University. Erik Forsberg, PhD, is an expert advisor on Chinese science and higher education and Professor Mei-Chih Hu is based at National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan. More information can be found at