Many discussions with faculty and other thought leaders make the case that solving the world’s problems cannot be accomplished by any one sector of societies across the world. It is common in universities for individual faculty to have a rich set of ties with allied scholars in other countries.
The United States’ eco-system of colleges and universities over the past 50 years has been quite effective in nurturing such ties. Some of this comes from the continued support of liberal education in US universities, nurturing research in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. This eco-systme spawned a set of values committed to unfettered inquiry by faculty. The eco-system became a magnet for the best young minds throughout the world. They thus received their critical intellectual formation at US universities. Many stayed, pursuing their own careers in the US, and thereby greatly enriched the eco-system. Others returned to their home countries, kept their ties with their US universities and became collaborators and benefactors of the US faculty. They often became leaders of the academic sectors in their home countries and pushed for increasing support for higher education and its research mission.
At this point, in some of the sciences, large international teams are working together in facilities throughout the world, tackling some of the fundamental questions about how the world is organized and the human-environment interaction. In the humanities, workshops and small international meetings of scholars working in the same field are taking place routinely. Academia is globally connected. It was assisted by governments in the developed world supporting attendance at international conferences by scholars from poorer societies. The US eco-system is a key player in those global collaborations.
These collaborations stitch together nation-states in ways that can counteract inter-state political tensions. For example, ongoing scientific meetings of nuclear physicists in the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War were instrumental in building acceptance of arms-control treaties. Scientific interactions can be a useful catalyst for diplomacy.
As recent events remind us, however, there is fragility in the necessary attributes for global collaboration. First, collaborations do require some freedom of inquiry in multiple countries. In some countries of the world, academics’ freedom to pursue their research is being curtailed. Second, nation-state conflicts have restricted the visits of collaborators to each other’s sites because of visa restrictions. Third, related to this, are growing concerns that some research has national security or commercial value and thus must be overseen by agencies concerns with nation state protection. Fourth, budget restrictions on US universities and agencies have constrained funding support for international work. Fifth, the vast inequality that accompanied the globalization of commerce has led to strong nationalistic movements in several countries, antithetical to global collaboration. In some countries, academic pursuits have themselves been politicized. Sixth, many countries are making large investments in the higher education and research infrastructure. This by itself is wonderful for the larger world. It is, however, forcing a desirable, but altered set of guidelines calling for more equal partnerships across countries. This is producing a culture change in the governance of academic collaboration.
In short, there is no guarantee that the societal conditions for global collaborations will continue. We all need to work to preserve them to continue the intellectual productivity gains from such collaborations.