Suggestions from OTA on Internationalizing Big Science Projects

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Publication date: 
3 November 1995

As budgets get tighter and science experiments get bigger,
international collaborations will likely become more common.  How
can policymakers decide which projects are good candidates for
internationalization?  In a 132-page report released in July,
before it had to close its doors, the Office of Technology
Assessment examined this question.

According to the foreword, "This background U.S.
experience with collaborative projects in many different fields and
their implications for future activities.  It assesses the factors
that facilitate international partnerships in big science projects
and those that, conversely, favor the pursuit of purely national
projects.  [It] also reviews and identifies several important
issues to consider in structuring future collaborations."  The
paper points out that the end of the Cold War and advances in
communications and information technologies have increased
interaction across national borders.  In addition, the scientific
expertise of other nations has improved, providing the U.S. more
opportunity to benefit from the sharing of knowledge.  The global
nature of research in areas such as climate change, also, has
necessitated an international approach.

Among the potential benefits of collaboration, OTA lists:
increasing the likelihood of scientific success; sharing costs and
risks; taking advantage of other countries' expertise and
facilities; and addressing issues with global implications.  It
warns of possible disadvantages, too: the need for more complex
management and logistical arrangements; the uncertainty of ensuring
long-term commitments from all partners; the difficulty of
distributing costs and benefits equitably; as well as possible
conflicts with U.S. economic and national security interests, and
the goal of world leadership in science.  Noting that "some U.S.
science goals are difficult to reconcile with international
collaboration," the paper remarks that "future U.S. participation
in large-scale collaborative projects may necessitate a
redefinition of what constitutes scientific leadership."

The paper offers a number of suggestions for evaluating future
partnerships.  If finds that projects must be considered for
internationalization on a case-by-case basis, within, rather than
across, disciplines.  It recommends that for large projects
Congress require an upfront analysis of the pros and cons of
internationalization, as well as an accurate estimate of project
cost and performance to "permit policymakers to weigh more
accurately the technical and financial tradeoffs."  It notes that
while the U.S. has a reputation as an unreliable partner, other
countries are beginning to feel more budgetary pressures as well,
and suggests a more formal structure for partnerships.  While the
flow of technologies to other countries is a concern, the report
states that "building up national scientific capabilities and
joining international partnerships are not necessarily mutually

OTA concludes that the above-mentioned problems "are almost always
outweighed by the benefits that can be derived by pooling
intellectual talent from around the world and by the increased
understanding that results from the close interaction of diverse
groups of people."  The report, "International Partnerships in
Large Science Projects," OTA-BP-ETI-150, can be purchased from the
Government Printing Office, phone: 202-512-1800; fax: 202-512-2250.

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