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International collaboration in geoscience: the great fracturing

Mike Stephenson describes the successes of geoscience collaboration, as well as the challenges geoscientists may face in an increasingly divided world

Words by Mike Stephenson
28 February 2024
A broken globe

The world is becoming more divided. How will geoscience fare in this new fractured world?

International collaboration in science is vital. Humanity continues to face complex issues that governments and communities cannot solve alone. COVID, for example, highlighted the need to reinforce cooperation, and the record speed with which COVID vaccines were developed is testament to what global scientific collaboration can achieve. But the world is becoming more divided, and geopolitics is interfering with science’s attempts to solve problems. How will geoscience fare in this new fractured world?

There are numerous examples of fruitful global geoscientific collaboration. To continue to foster cooperation and navigate potential future divisions requires recognition that while we may see the world differently, we must identify shared goals and talk to build trust across different scientific cultures.

Collaborative successes

Science collaboration is essential for tackling imminent threats such as global warming, biodiversity loss, pollution, poverty, and the impacts of potentially disruptive new technologies like artificial intelligence. In the past, organisations have been set up across the world to foster cooperation. An example is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). UNESCO helped to create: CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, in 1954; the UNESCO Food and Agricultural Organisation Soil Map of the World in 1971; and the first international framework on open science, which was adopted by 193 countries, in 2021.

In geoscience, international collaboration has been no less important. The International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG) was established in 1919, and the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) was created in 1961. Both are part of the International Science Council, alongside 40 other scientific unions and associations. Organisations like the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program have also led groundbreaking scientific programmes like the Chicxulub Scientific Drilling Project, Mexico, and the Early Jurassic Earth System and Timescale (JET) programme, UK. Perhaps the most successful is the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (now the International Ocean Discovery Program), which has been responsible for a wide range of Earth science research topics, including past climate and ocean conditions, monsoon systems, seismogenic zones, the formation of continental crust and ocean basins, and major extinction events. The European Plate Observing System has built a multidisciplinary, distributed research infrastructure for volcanological and seismological hazard in Europe. Finally, the Deep Carbon Observatory, a global community of more than 1,000 scientists, has developed new research on the forms and origins of carbon in the Earth system.

Big data

My own experience of fostering international collaboration stems from more than twenty years at the British Geological Survey and as Founding President and Director of the IUGS Deep-time Digital Earth programme (DDE; www.ddeworld.org). DDE began in 2019 and had all the factors needed to get an international collaboration going: a clear vision of the problem to be solved, trust between early partners, and an understanding of the stakeholders. These factors were helped by having strong support from the then-President of IUGS, some good early publicity, and funding for meetings.

A graphic showing how the IUGS Deep-time Digital Earth programme (DDE) was set up to deal with the ‘long tail’ of geoscience data.

Figure 1: The IUGS Deep-time Digital Earth programme (DDE) was set up to deal with the ‘long tail’ of geoscience data – the large number of less accessible, smaller datasets held in geological surveys and institutes, universities, and on individuals’ computers.

DDE was the first big-data programme of the IUGS and it had a very clear vision to reform geoscience data. For a long time, the IUGS and other geoinformatics specialists had been discussing how geoscience data is being held back by its insularity and poor interoperability – at least in comparison with sciences like physics, astronomy, and genomics. The problem is the ‘long tail’: the idea that, in geoscience, there are a small number of very large datasets that are internally homogeneous and generally very accessible, but also a large number of less accessible, smaller datasets held in geological surveys and institutes, universities, and on individuals’ computers (Fig. 1). DDE was set up to link these data and improve accessibility in order to upgrade the science of geology.

At the start of DDE, interesting comparisons were made between the challenges for geoscience today and challenges in medical informatics that were overcome between the 1950s and 1990s. During this time, medical and health scientists began to integrate, manage, and use enormous amounts of data to solve medical problems, and heralded the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to diagnose and cure health issues. These advances in medical informatics showed how geological informatics could develop by integrating data better. We already know that medical informatics is being used in complex epidemiological problems such as during the AIDS and COVID epidemics, but it is also being used to accurately analyse data from electrocardiograms using machine learning. What might be in store for geoscience? This was one of the motivations for DDE, which has now grown into a movement involving thousands of geoscientists and new data centres, such as the Carnegie-DDE Centre for Geomaterials Informatics in the USA, and the DDE centre in Suzhou, China.

Geopolitical divisions that we are seeing across the world are beginning to affect scientific collaboration

The Great Fracture

But today, in many areas, geopolitical divisions that we are seeing across the world are beginning to affect scientific collaboration. Perhaps the most obvious in geoscience is the way that research into critical raw materials and metals has changed in the past few years. My colleagues and I researched the harmful effects of geopolitics where national self-interest and security of supply concerns are hindering key science questions, such as mineral genesis and sustainable mining (Stephenson et al., 2023). Our study showed that research is geopolitically influenced by the concerns of nations like Japan, USA, and China, and the regional grouping of nations, such as the European Union (EU). Many research networks and programmes are aimed at resource security and where collaboration does exist it is along geopolitical lines, potentially disadvantaging developing countries and their efforts to implement the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This contrasts with efforts in research, such as those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that are more collaborative and suited to tackling global challenges.

There is growing concern around ‘data nationalism’, which in the past year has seen many countries tighten regulations that prevent data from being stored and shared, and lead to data ‘lock in’. These concerns have been raised amongst research groups who suggested that the era of a ‘global internet’ may be passing (Chander & Lê, 2015). Driven by unease over privacy, security, surveillance, and law enforcement, governments are erecting borders in cyberspace, breaking apart the World Wide Web. The first generation of internet border controls aimed to keep information out of a country, but new controls aim at keeping data in. Many of these barriers are no doubt sensible but run against the trend towards increased access to anonymised data, a shift that has generally improved humanity’s problem-solving ability.

Bloomberg News describes these changes as ‘The Great Fracture’, where globalisation is giving way to geopolitics (Bloomberg, 2023). Journalists are adding new words to their business vocabulary: ‘decoupling’, ‘nearshoring’, and ‘friendshoring’ – where countries refuse to work with each other or work in ‘clans’ of likeminded nation states. Articles in the Financial Times have recently described how ‘dualist’, Manichean perspectives (viewing all things as good or bad, or them and us) held by Western countries get in the way of developing relations with rising economic powers.

Driven by unease over privacy, security, surveillance, and law enforcement, governments are erecting borders in cyberspace, breaking apart the World Wide Web

A graph plotting populations with a ‘traditional-secular’ axis and an ‘individualism’ axis.

Figure 2: In the 1980s, Ron Inglehart devised a simple way to record global values and culture by plotting populations on a graph with a ‘traditional-secular’ axis and an ‘individualism’ axis.

World values

But why is geopolitics going this way? What is at the root of these changes, and do they raise insurmountable barriers to cooperation? A way to understand this is to consider cultural surveys across the globe, of which the largest and most comprehensive is the World Values Survey (WVS; www.worldvaluessurvey.org), conducted every five years. The latest WVS results, representing 2017 to 2022, seem to show that Western values are steadily diverging from those of the rest of the world, and that differences between how people think in different parts of the world seem to be widening.

The WVS was the brainchild of Ron Inglehart, a professor at the University of Michigan, during the early 1980s. Inglehart devised a simplified way of recording values and culture across the world. He proposed that you could plot populations (countries) on a scatter graph with a ‘traditional-secular’ axis and an ‘individualism’ axis (Fig. 2). The WVS describes traditional values as emphasising the importance of religion, family, and nationalism, while secular values place less importance on these aspects. The scatter graphs produced for each survey can be compared through time, so researchers can monitor large-scale shifts in values and culture across the world. The 2017-2022 survey involved 130,000 people in 90 countries. Compared with previous surveys, it showed that countries that are already the most secular and individualistic (countries in northern Europe, as well as Australia and New Zealand) are changing fastest and becoming even more secular and individualistic. Countries that are most traditional are changing less and sometimes becoming more traditional, for example, Brazil and Nicaragua in Latin America, and Bulgaria, Georgia, Moldova, and Montenegro in Europe.

Regardless of current politics and wars, it appears that countries are less and less inclined to work with each other and are retreating into ‘clans’, as the WVS calls them. One bipolar divergence that’s existed for a long time is the Global North and Global South (developed and developing countries respectively); another that’s emerging is the division between the G7 economic grouping (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, the US, and the EU) and the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).

Implications for geoscience

What does this mean for international geoscience collaboration? Perhaps we will need to think more about geodiplomacy. Raji and Stewart (2023) describe diplomacy as building international relationships through cooperation, negotiation, and by forming alliances. They explain how one of the most valuable recent developments in geodiplomacy has been the efforts to decolonise geoscience, by acknowledging historical damage and making geoscience more equitable and inclusive. They’ve also instituted discussions across the world in geoscience conferences, for example a well-attended workshop at the Colloquium for African Geology held in Windhoek, Namibia, in September 2023 (www.gssa.org.za).

Trust can be developed across widely different scientific cultures when people meet and talk, and where there is an overwhelming agreed need for a solution to a problem

But the building of trust is more than this, it is also about recognising that all people do not see the world in the same way – as the WVS shows. My example of the IUGS DDE programme shows that trust can be developed across widely different scientific cultures when people meet and talk, and where there is an overwhelming agreed need for a solution to a problem. COVID is another example: we had to solve it and getting together to talk sometimes meant accepting people’s differences. The opposite of this, where people build barriers, leads to mistrust, an unwillingness to attempt to communicate, and isolation. As a result, a dangerous ‘us and them’, ‘good and bad’ Manichean view then often evolves, which can worsen in an ever-descending spiral into nationalism and jingoism.

Geoscience has many success stories. For example, IGCP projects have brought together Greek and Turkish geoscientists to study the Aegean Sea, despite disagreements between Greece and Turkey over sovereignty and related rights in the region. So even in areas where political and cultural differences run very deep, geoscience solutions can be applied. We just have to see that politics – though important – is often less important than science.


Mike Stephenson

Director of Stephenson Geoscience Consulting and Director and Founding President of the IUGS Deep-time Digital Earth programme.

Further reading

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