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International Research and Large-Scale Infrastructures: An Education Resource

A complete PDF version of this "reader" is available here.

About International Research and Large-Scale Infrastructures

With the enormity of the challenges in addressing regional and global problems, both technically and financially, and the increasingly expansive web of scientific knowledge and expertise, countries often need to cooperate at a large-scale to address the most complex and expensive scientific and shared challenges. These types of projects, particularly because of their expense and scope, require the successful interaction of a diverse group of stakeholders, including scientists and engineers, politicians and policy makers, and diplomats. As such, international research and large-scale infrastructures are often the most challenging but also most visible of a country’s science diplomacy.

The papers included in this reader, which have appeared in the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s policy journal Science & Diplomacy, feature some of these international infrastructures, their historical context, how they came to be, and lessons for future projects. Historically, many are physical facilities centered on the physical sciences. Some were created to bring together a community that has been torn apart by war or political disagreement by focusing on research. Many bring together partners to leverage financial resources or diverse expertise. At the heart of each project is the pursuit of knowledge through scientific excellence.

This reader, which includes a series of discussion questions, seeks to be a useful resource for the teaching and understanding of different types of international research and large-scale infrastructures, especially their different motivations (scientific and diplomatic), goals, and execution.


International Fusion Energy Cooperation: ITER as a Case Study in Science and Diplomacy by Todd K. Harding, Melanie J. Khanna, and Raymond L. Orbach

ITER provides lessons for negotiating large-scale, capital-intensive international projects. Success depends on political goodwill, compromise, and a common understanding of project management.

The Importance of International Research Institutions for Science Diplomacy by Fernando Quevedo

International research institutions like CERN and ICTP play a unique role in bringing scientists together at politically neutral sites to address the most ambitious scientific questions while bridging
cultural, developmental, and political gaps.

Synchrotron Light and the Middle East: Bringing the Region’s Scientific Communities Together through SESAME by Chris Llewellyn Smith

SESAME, the only synchrotron in the Middle East, seeks to achieve scientific excellence, attract and retain scientists, and foster regional cooperation, while overcoming sometimes tense political relationships.

Research and Diplomacy 350 Kilometers above the Earth: Lessons from the International Space Station by Julie Payette

The International Space Station, with partners that surmount their cultural, organizational, and political differences to pursue a collective vision, serves as a model of science diplomacy.

Discussion Questions

Harding et al. (ITER)

  • Why was cooperation on a fusion nuclear reactor such an attractive Cold War project between adversaries?
  • Discuss the challenges that project management presents in international large-scale projects like ITER.

Quevedo (CERN/ICTP)

  • Compare and contrast how these institutions, established during the Cold War, are adapting to the post-Cold War world in their efforts to engage nonmembers and developing countries?

Smith (SESAME)

  • Discuss the international cooperative activities already undertaken and their importance even before SESAME is operational for research activities.
  • Reversing brain drain from the Middle East is an important goal for SESAME. What is the role of nonmembers (i.e., the rest of the international physics community) in supporting this mission?

Payette (ISS)

  • Could such a large program start today, or did the development of the space station benefit from the unique circumstances of the Cold War?


  • These examples of international research institutions primarily sit in the field of physics. Would institutions in other fields, such as in the biological sciences, face similar or different issues?
  • These examples primarily address high capital costs and physical facilities. What about non-physical infrastructures, such as networks? Discuss their strengths and weaknesses in terms of building relationships between member countries.
  • Besides financial arguments for these large international projects, what are other important considerations for a country to invest in these projects?
  • What are a few fundamental lessons shared across these examples that allow international infrastructures to succeed?
  • Describe the different approaches taken to the important issue of facility siting and the benefits and challenges of each.
  • How do nonmembers of projects benefit?