World map with yellow dots and green lines depicting the annual number of Network for Computational Nanotechnology users.
Annual number of Network for Computational Nanotechnology users. Greater activity is indicated by larger dots with a more yellow than red color. Photo Credit: Network for Computational Nanotechnology, Purdue University;

How Collaborating in International Science Helps America


International collaborations embed American scientists and students in vibrant, globally collaborative networks that strengthen the U.S. science, technology, and innovation (STI) enterprise, while benefiting both America and the world. Because such benefits have not been systematically explored in the United States, we present a framework for organizing and enumerating them, with national-level examples provided to illustrate scientific, economic, health, national security, educational, societal, and diplomacy and development advantages that can result from international STI collaborations. Our objectives in presenting this organizing structure are threefold. First, the framework can help those in government, academic, and private sectors who make decisions with national impact better understand how and what kinds of positive outcomes can result from international STI cooperation. Second, given the distributed and decentralized nature of the U.S. STI community, the framework can serve as a starting point for subnational decision makers to identify benefits of STI internationalization at their operational scales. Third, this organizing structure and its examples can serve as a call to action for scientists to more clearly articulate to decision makers and the public how working in areas of mutual scientific interest with international colleagues can advance U.S. national, regional, local, or institutional interests.

As a group of individuals who have worked across national and global science landscapes for many decades, we were motivated to develop a framework for better understanding and communicating the benefits of international science,1 technology, and innovation collaboration to the United States. The global STI system has seen dramatic change in the last several decades. For example, it is now marked by worldwide growth in investment that is significantly reducing U.S. global scientific market share, e.g., in expenditures, globally mobile students, publications, patents, and technology revenue.”23 The construction of advanced STI infrastructure is now more often built outside the United States by other nations or consortia. And the geography of scientific knowledge creation and use has shown new dynamics within and across many world regions.45 These changes have kindled a dialogue in the United States about how the nation, facing both a more worldwide distribution of STI excellence and domestic budget constraints, can best adapt to the twenty-first-century environment of international partnerships and globally distributed knowledge networks.678910 Missing thus far from this dialogue has been a comprehensive and deliberate exploration of how international STI collaboration provides benefits to America at many levels.

We undertake such an effort by presenting an organizing structure or framework for such benefits that we hope achieves three objectives. First, given the complexity of the U.S. STI enterprise, this framework can help decision makers (including government officials at all levels, as well as academic and private sector leaders) better understand how and what kinds of positive national impacts can result from international STI cooperation. We do this by providing examples within our framework of who can benefit, in what ways, from which types of activities undertaken by different sets of U.S. and foreign partners working in various policy sectors. Second, the framework can serve as a starting point for subnational decision makers to identify benefits of STI internationalization at their operational scales. Third, this organizing structure and its examples can serve as a call to action for scientists to more clearly articulate the benefits of their international collaborations to decision makers and the public.

The Underappreciated Value of International Scientific Collaborations at Home

The United States has been slow among developed and emerging economy countries to recognize how increased international collaboration can advance domestic science excellence.111213 This is likely due to America’s historic STI dominance, relative geographic isolation, and critically, to a complex STI community that is large, diverse, and decentralized. Much U.S. scientific activity is of a bottom-up, merit-based nature, driven by scientists working in domestic or international teams to address specific scientific challenges, rather than being dictated by centralized, top-down mandates.

The nation distributes federal support for basic scientific research from a number of agencies and across many universities and research institutions. U.S. higher education is a private or state, not a federal, responsibility, so academic STI internationalization is characterized by strong competition among states and institutions, few national policy levers, and little coordination among and within institutions.”14 Likewise, the various U.S. government science agencies operate in a relatively decentralized manner, undertaking international activities to meet their different missions with little policy direction, and with limited central and strategic coordination.”1516 Congress and State Houses respond to local constituencies, yielding few broad national advocates for international STI collaboration. Finally, because STI results and impacts, especially those that occur in overseas collaborations, are primarily communicated across networks of scientific professionals, little feedback on international STI outcomes is available in forms that are accessible to decision makers or the general public.

Given these historical and structural considerations, we chose to focus on benefits derived from federal government and university involvement in international STI activities that advance national objectives such as national security, economic vitality, and diplomacy.17 We focus on Americans going abroad for STI collaboration because this has received less attention than the impact of foreign STI researchers and students working in America. We recognize that the mutual benefit realized by the collaborating foreign partner(s) is essential to this STI cooperation, but we do not address that here.

Crafting a Framework to Capture Benefits of International STI Collaborations

Our framework organizes benefits into seven sectors (i.e., scientific, economic, health, diplomacy and development, national security, educational, and societal) with distinct (or overlapping) policy drivers and potential policy outcomes (e.g., leading, accelerating, building, safeguarding, sustaining).18 Because our primary objective is to inform those whose decisions have major impacts at a national level, most of the examples in Table 1 focus on how international collaboration in national programs can help the United States. The examples illustrate an overarching benefit of international collaboration, i.e., it yields outcomes that no one nation could achieve alone. For example, international groups can leverage more resources (e.g., funding, expertise, facilities) to accomplish something faster and can combine diverse contributions (e.g., unique expertise, data, phenomena, facilities) to allow specialization and reduce duplication. Such collaborations can also increase collective participation (e.g., comprehensive global or regional monitoring) to yield more rigorous scientific synthesis and shared responsibility for future action. The examples also document how international STI collaboration can strengthen relationships (e.g., with improved networks and collaboration tools, and increased trust, generosity, and cultural understanding) with mutual scientific and diplomatic benefit to all participants. Finally, the examples sampled in Table 1 demonstrate the wide potential scope and complexity of projects, with various types and numbers of international partners, and diverse types of scientific activities undertaken to yield the set of benefits described.

Many of the activities cited in Table 1 are part of a rich fabric of cooperation that produces benefits across multiple sectors. For example, in the category of societal benefits, when U.S. engineers work with their Japanese counterparts on building safety, they contribute to society’s resilience to earthquakes by co-designing and sharing data from experiments in Japan on the world’s largest “shake table,” subjecting large, sensor-laden reinforced concrete buildings to different types and severity of shaking. A recent U.S.-Japan workshop on risk communication yielded additional societal benefit by providing cross-cultural insights into how to increase effective engagement with the public in natural disaster preparedness and response. Universities in the earthquake-prone nations of Japan, New Zealand, Chile, and the United States are linked in a virtual network that generates scientific benefit by sharing data on earthquake impacts on various kinds of buildings, as well as educational benefits to the participating countries by engaging their future engineers in jointly taught classes and international collaborative frameworks. The graphic of nanoHUB users around the world (Figure 1, see also Table 1), illustrates another international collaboration that yields multiple types of benefits. In addition to building a community of shared practice around nanotechnology safeguards that spreads the costs of nanotechnology safety across many countries, a main focus of nanoHUB is distributing nanoscience educational materials from around the world and providing access to computing and simulation tools in many areas of nanoscience. The United States benefits from the resultant global knowledge networks and thriving national and international educational and research collaborations in the pre-competitive areas of nanoscience.

We highlight direct positive impacts of STI collaboration for the wellbeing of Americans and emphasize how U.S. leadership in solving global STI challenges can benefit the world. We hope that our focus on the benefits of leveraging increased worldwide STI excellence provides a positive counterbalance to concerns that such global STI growth is primarily a threat that diminishes U.S. advantage.19 We recognize that global technology markets are fiercely competitive, that there are ongoing threats to American intellectual property, and that the nation needs to safeguard its technology for national security. But these concerns need not interfere with global engagement—many safeguards exist and are continually reinforced. There are numerous examples of international cooperation in pre-competitive research that are successfully integrated into domestic technology programs and subsequently implemented by U.S. business and government agencies. Many American industries have adopted a strategy of open collaboration to stay competitive.20 Given the breakneck speed at which STI developments emerge and expand across the globe, we endorse the view that “American security and prosperity now depend on maintaining active engagement with worldwide developments in science and technology, and with the global economy.”21 Embedding American scientists and engineers in robust, global STI networks can add value by placing local knowledge in global contexts and by bringing global knowledge back for local use.22

Embedding American scientists and engineers in robust, global STI networks can add value by placing local knowledge in global contexts and by bringing global knowledge back for local use.

Our second objective in presenting the information in Table 1 is that it serves as a starting point to help various subnational decision makers and stakeholder groups better understand the potential benefits of international STI collaboration at the levels at which they operate. Each state has a unique set of universities, industries, populations, and political and economic drivers. To paraphrase the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, the states can be America’s “laboratories of STI globalization,” where state policies allow experimentation and local fine-tuning, delivering benefits from each state’s distinctive comparative advantages.

We know that the map of innovation has been “spiky,” with a few key regions (e.g., San Francisco and Boston) dominating.23 Looking ahead, America’s challenge is to sustain existing hubs and incubate new ones that can achieve site-specific local-to-global STI integration; this is especially pressing as more emerging economies devise their own recipes for innovation’s “special sauce,” that is, mega-cities that co-locate workforce, intellectual capital, investment in science, and industrial growth.24 Finally, students, researchers, and technologists are embedded within institutional, local, state, and national structures that vary in how their policies on international STI engagement yield benefit within a global context.242526 Because the dynamic global STI landscape offers American institutions, regions, and states the potential to realize tremendous value in a global context, we encourage these groups to freely consider or modify our framework as they develop their international agendas.

As an example, one can consider in Table 1 the international science and engineering internships that yield national economic benefit by bringing into the national workforce U.S. students with globally relevant work skills, cultural experience, and professional networks. Such internships can also provide great benefit at subnational scales. For example, at a state level, public university international engagement, private sector strengths, demography, and geography can make certain regions of the world natural partners. Students returning from internships in those foreign regions are more able to work in culturally diverse teams, are more knowledgeable about business approaches, customs, and markets of countries there, and are plugged into border-spanning networks and partnerships in that region. They can help meet local American needs by using the international skills, savvy, and connections they acquired during their internships to bolster focused international ventures of a state’s private sector.

Our final objective is that our framework serves as a call to action that stimulates internationally engaged scientists to better document the positive impacts of their international activities at national, state, local, and institutional levels. U.S. scientists and institutions have strong traditions of free scientific inquiry with international colleagues and of training students from around the world. Many are part of global scientific networks and clamor for facilitation of bottom-up international STI collaboration. Better articulation of the positive impacts of such collaboration is needed to inform national priorities, policies (e.g., on visas, intellectual property, data sharing), and funding (e.g., to globally link students, researchers, institutions, databases, and facilities), as well as to build support for and reduce impediments to international STI engagement at subnational levels.

Broad support is needed at many levels for those in the American STI community who want to “go global.” Thus there is an urgent need for scientists to help decision makers and especially citizens understand and value not just the scientific benefits of international research, but also how it meets basic human and national needs.28 In the “Public Messaging” column in Table 1, we provide model language, as suggested by Alan Alda at the 2014 AAAS Annual Meeting, which we believe is straightforward, compelling, and linked to the lives of the American people.29 We emphasize outcomes that can motivate domestic action and political consensus and can be conducive to international cooperation (e.g., national pride, economic and social wellbeing, national security, generosity, the value of knowledge, civics). With the language in that column as a guide, we challenge our fellow scientists to describe, in ways that their relatives, neighbors, institutional leaders, and civic leaders can understand, how their collaborating in international science helps America.

A Forward-looking, Dynamic Conversation

We welcome discussion and further exploration of the benefits of international STI engagement by decision makers at all levels and across all sectors, as well as by scientific professional societies and scientists themselves. We see these activities as an essential part of ongoing consideration of how to develop a broad, comprehensive, globally framed strategy for U.S. STI, as well as the supportive strategies at subnational levels. We hope that our framework will contribute to the nation’s narrative about how the United States can “lead through collaboration” to build and sustain broad and deep partnerships of mutual interest that keep our scientists and students at the forefront of STI, while bolstering synergistic cooperation for the benefit of America and the world.30


Table 1. Organizational Framework for Elucidating Seven Types of Benefits of International Science, Technology, and Innovation Collaboration for America


  1. Hereafter when we use the term “science,” we use it as shorthand for “science and engineering.”
  2. The National Science Board’s 2016 Science and Engineering Indicators (Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, 2016) reported that the United States had 27 percent of world R&D expenditures in 2013. Previous reports (available on the Science Board’s publication website)document 33 percent in 2005 (2008 report), 43 percent in 1997 (2000 report) and 48 percent in 1986 (1989 report).
  3. The Institute of International Education’s 2013 Open Doors (2013) data on global student mobility trends indicated that worldwide growth of mobile students has increased dramatically over the past dozen years, but the percentage coming to the United States in all fields of study had fallen from 28 percent in the 2000-2001 academic year to 19 percent in the 2012-2013 academic year, with much of the decrease taken up by China, Germany, and Canada; by 2014-2015 the U.S. had seen a partial rebound to 22 percent, due in part to strategic initiatives by the U.S., Mexican and Brazilian governments; 2015 Open Doors.
  4. C. S. Wagner, H. W. Park, and L. Leydesdorff, “The continuing growth of global cooperation networks in research: A conundrum for national governments,” PLOS One (2015), doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0131816.
  5. A. Mazloumian, D. Helbing, S. Lozano, R. P. Light, and K. Börner, Global multi-level analysis of the "Scientific Food Webs," Scientific Reports 3, no. 1167 (2013), doi: 10.1038/srep001167.
  6. National Science Board, International Science and Engineering Partnerships: A Priority for U.S. Foreign Policy and Our Nation’s Innovation Enterprise (Washington, DC: The National Academies, 2008).
  7. National Research Council, Beyond “Fortress America”: National Security Controls on Science and Technology in a Globalized World. (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2009).
  8. National Research Council, U.S. and International Perspectives on Global Science Policy and Science Diplomacy, Report of a Workshop (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2012).
  9. National Research Council, Strategic Engagement in Global S&T: Opportunities for Defense Research (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2014).
  10. National Research Council, Diplomacy for the 21st Century: Embedding a Culture of Science and Technology Throughout the Department of State (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2015)
  11. M. Jacob and V. L. Meek, “Scientific mobility and international research networks: Trends and policy tools for promoting research excellence and capacity building,” Studies in Higher Education 38 (2013): 331–44.
  12. R. B. Freeman and W. Huang, “China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ in Science and Engineering,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper no. 21081 (April 2015).
  13. Many other nations, large and small, have already turned to such a course, and many seek to partner with the United States. Examples of regional or national approaches and rationales for international STI cooperation include European Commission, International Cooperation in Science, Technology and Innovation: Strategies for a Changing World, Report of the Expert Group established to support the further development of an EU international STI cooperation strategy (2012).
  14. The scope and trajectory of STI internationalization at U.S. institutions of higher education is not well documented; a recent survey found that about one-third of institutions polled had strategic international plans that explicitly mention science fields, and less than 5 percent had plans where science fields were prominently included. See S. B. Sutton and E. E. Lyons, “Unintentional diplomats: International science engagement and science diplomacy by U.S. higher education institutions,” Association of International Education Administrators, 2014.
  15. G. Hane, “Science, technology and global reengagement,” Issues in Science and Technology 25, no. 1 (Fall 2008).
  16. The recent establishment of the interagency Subcommittee on Topics in International Science, Technology and Innovation (TISTI; under the White House’s National Science and Technology Council) to address issues related to federal international STI activities could provide a greater opportunity to harmonize across the federal STI enterprise.
  17. We recognize the importance of the private sector in international STI collaboration but it was beyond the scope of this endeavor and our expertise to provide detailed treatment of the benefits of such STI collaboration.
  18. The report, European Commission, Drivers of International Collaboration in Research (2009) presents some similar categories and so was a useful comparison against which to compare our U.S. typology. Although our focus is primarily on research collaboration, we include other STI examples, e.g., on education, synthesis and assessment, and public health interventions.
  19. The “Gathering Storm” reports Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5 (The National Academies, 2010 and the original 2006 report cited therein) focused on U.S. competitiveness. They were aimed at catalyzing national investment in domestic STI education and research and government policies that facilitate innovation. Because of the focus on economic competitiveness, the benefits of international STI collaboration to the United States may not have been highlighted to the degree they deserve.
  20. B. Hecht, “Collaboration is the new competition,” Harvard Business Review (January 10, 2013).
  21. National Research Council, Beyond “Fortress America” (The National Academies Press, 2009).
  22. C. S. Wagner, The New Invisible College (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2008).
  23. R. Florida, “The world is spiky,” Atlantic Monthly (October 2005) 48-51.
  24. R. Dobbs, J. Manyika, and J. Woetzel,No Ordinary Disruption: The four global forces breaking all the trends (New York: Public Affairs, 2015).
  25. A. Hogan, K. Zippel, L. Frehill, and L. Kramer, “Report of the International Workshop on International Research Collaboration,” NSF-funded workshop report (2010).
  26. K. Fischer, “U.S. seen as weak on global research collaboration,” New York Times, July 20, 2014.
  27. The National Academies, Examining Core Elements of International Research Collaborations (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2011).
  28. The case studies published by the National Academy of Sciences in its “Beyond Discovery™: The Path from Research to Human Benefit” project are remarkable for their clear communication of how technological and medical advances have improved American lives.
  29. Following the advice Alan Alda presented at the 2014 AAAS Meetings, Chicago, IL, February 2014), we chose as a first step to present “stories” rather than to present data. The framework could advance the development of metrics for measuring impacts of international collaboration, which are being developed, for example, for students participating in international research projects, for research collaborations, and for economic impacts.
  30. E. W. Colglazier and E. E. Lyons, “The United States looks to the global science, technology, and innovation horizon,” Science & Diplomacy, Vol. 3, No. 3 (September 2014)
  31. ALMA Website
  32. GEOSS website.
  33. Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Pollinators, pollination and food production assessment.
  34. International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors website.
  35. Sigma Xi, “Assuring a Globally Engaged U.S. Science and Engineering Workforce,” NSF-funded Sigma Xi workshop report (2006).
  36. J. M. Grandin and E. D. Hirleman, “Educating Engineers as Global Citizens: A Call to Action; A Report of the National Summit Meeting on the Globalization of Engineering Education” (2009).
  37. Long-term cooperation has occurred within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); see OECD, “Science and Technology Policy: Nanotechnology,” Working Party on Nanotechnology (2014).
  38. More recently the United States and the European Commission (European Research Area) issued coordinated calls for proposals to encourage United States–European collaborations on environmental and health effects of manufactured nanomaterials (
  39. The National Institutes of Health Human Genome Project website.
  40. R. I. Glass, “What the United States has to gain from global health research,” Journal of the American Medical Association (September 4, 2013)
  41. The President’s Emergency Plan of AIDS Relief(PEPFAR).
  42. The President’s Malaria Initiative(PMI).
  43. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria.
  44. Mobile Health research agenda.
  45. B. M. Dolan, “Science and Technology Agreements as tools for science diplomacy: A U.S. case study,” Science & Diplomacy, Vol. 1, No. 4 (December 2012)
  46. The Pew Global Attitudes Project has long shown that people worldwide admire the United States for its science and technology at levels considerably higher than their attitude toward the United States in general.
  47. See the United States Agency for International Development Higher Education Solutions Network website.
  48. National Science Foundation BREAD website.
  49. Department of Defense Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap FY2013-2038 website.
  50. Department of Defense Minerva Initiative website.
  51. Global Futures Partnership website.
  52. Fulbright Programs website. Note: Fulbright programs also bring foreign students and scholars to the United States; such exchanges enrich both foreign and U.S. campuses and build lasting networks and STI expertise.
  53. National Science Foundation Partnerships in International Research and Education (PIRE) website. PIRE supports top-notch international science and engineering research projects that also provide U.S. students with well-mentored international research experiences and strengthen the capacity of U.S. universities to engage in international STI collaboration.
  54. Many American scientists and science students serve as “unintentional diplomats,” improving U.S. relationships through their interactions with collaborators abroad, and also demonstrating how U.S. higher education and scientific institutions embody democratic principles such as inclusion, meritocracy, accountability and transparency, S. B. Sutton and E. E. Lyons, “Unintentional diplomats: International science engagement and science diplomacy by U.S. higher education institutions,” Association of International Education Administrators, 2014
  56. Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) website; GLOBE is a joint program of National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Department of State.
  57. Environmental Protection Agency Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement with bilateral cooperation on science, policy, and action.
  58. National Science Foundation Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) information.
  59. The BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) is a public-private effort involving multiple U.S. agencies, including National Science Foundation, National Institute of Health, and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
  60. National Science Foundation welcomed international collaboration in the BRAIN initiative, noting in particular the more than $2 billion European Union investment in the Human Brain Project:


    The authors thank Alexandra Walczac for her assistance in the early stages of the framework development, Paolo Gargini for his insights into the international dynamics of technology development, and Franklin Carrero-Martínez and Bruce Alberts for their valuable comments on the manuscript.

    Disclaimer: The authors take sole responsibility for the content of this article. For Elizabeth Lyon, E. William Colglazier, and Mihail Roco, the comments, opinions, assessments, and recommendations made herein are strictly those of the authors and are not made on behalf of the National Science Foundation, the Department of State, or any entity of the United States government.

Diplomacy for Science National Approaches Science for Diplomacy June 2016