The ISS, the LHC, SESAME-- some of Science’s biggest projects rely on international cooperation, but what happens when countries cooperating scientifically stop cooperating politically?

SeekerPublished: July 10, 2018Updated: July 11, 2018
Published: July 10, 2018Updated: July 11, 2018

Science asks big challenging questions about the nature of the universe. Answering these questions often requires collaboration across scientific disciplines and national borders. But what happens when countries are isolated, at war, or just don’t get along — what do scientists do then?

In some areas of science it’s impossible to do research without collaborating with another country. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (or UNESCO) reported that in 2015 an average of 1 in 4 published scientific papers listed some form of collaboration with foreign scientists, and that number continues to grow. For instance, the high altitude, lack of atmosphere and dry conditions in certain parts of Chile make it one of the best places on Earth to view activity in outer space. This is one reason that it is estimated by 2020, 70% of the global infrastructure for astronomical observation will be located in Chile.

With the rest of the world’s astronomers dependent on their facilities for sensitive measurements good relations with Chile are critical if research in astronomy is to advance.But consider what happens if countries have a challenging political relationship. US relations with Cuba have been famously strained since the 1960’s. While exchange of scientific information was never expressly forbidden, US embargos on everything from travel to trade between the two countries has made it difficult for Cuban scientists to access instrumentation and equipment that researchers outside the country take for granted.

This is because modern reagents and scientific equipment are often manufactured in, or contain parts, from the United States which exempts them from sale to Cuba. Even with these challenges, Cuba is a superstar of science. They were the first country to receive validation from the World Health Organization for eliminating mother-to-child transmission of HIV, and their lung cancer vaccine was an early success for cancer immunotherapy. These innovations made formalized scientific collaboration between the US and Cuba politically more attractive and in 2014 the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Cuban Academy of Sciences signed a historic agreement to “seek opportunities for sustained cooperation.”

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