Humanity’s biggest threats are without borders—pandemics and climate change being only two examples. Yet the science necessary to fight them is often siloed in national efforts. The financial rewards of new discoveries can make national governments eager to protect intellectual property. A rise in nationalism, economic rivalries between the United States and China and the outbreak of war in Ukraine haven’t helped.

Yet even in the face of international tension, science must remain the “global language,” says Sir Peter Gluckman, president of the International Science Council. Gluckman, a pediatrician with a range of discoveries in developmental physiology and evolutionary medicine, defends the legacy of science as a bridge-builder—even during a time of mounting conflicts.

Q: When in history do we start to see science-based diplomacy? 

Peter Gluckman: Perhaps the first international science collaborations of the modern era took place in the 18th century. The creation of the astronomical unit that measures the distance between the earth and the sun, which was critical for navigation, was the result of an arduous collaboration between scientists from all over the world. That included Great Britain and France, and at the time the two were fighting the Seven Years’ War with each another.

In the 20th century, enduring institutions were set up to facilitate scientific collaboration and backchannel diplomacy—the International Council of Scientific Unions in 1931, then in 1952, the International Social Science Council. These two organizations merged in 2018 to create the International Science Council. And in 1972, when the cold war was still relatively hot, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), was created in Vienna, with the explicit purpose of using scientific cooperation to bridge the Cold War divide and to confront human problems on a global scale. Fifty years later, IIASA continues to do work that is very relevant for sustainable development.

Q: Do these collaborations have a track record of getting things done?

Gluckman: Well, the science community advocated for the celebration of the international geophysical year in 1957, which led to the Antarctic Treaty, which assigned the whole continent to peaceful purposes. The original signatories included Russia and America, who weren’t exactly in peaceful relation with each other at the time. And of course, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs were used to convey critical messages between Cold War adversaries in the 60s, 70s and 80s that facilitated cooperation on weapons of mass destruction. Those efforts won the organization the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.

Q: Is scientific collaboration more difficult today?

Gluckman: We are currently afflicted by a number of acute and chronic existential problems that magnify one another. It’s a much more complicated world than it was just a few decades ago. The existential risks we face—pandemics, climate change, rising rates of mental health morbidity, the outbreak of war in Ukraine—merit a lot of deep reflection by policy makers.

And yet at the very time when global science cooperation is needed, we are more divided by nationalism than we have been in a long time. Science is also more partisan than it’s been in my lifetime—certainly in the United States, where accepting or rejecting the advice of science on COVID became a badge of political identity.

Q: Some research projects are shutting out Russian scientists over the Ukraine conflict. What do you think about this kind of political move in scientific circles?

Gluckman: Many countries are absolutely revolted by the atrocities and the horrors of this unnecessary conflict. They want to send strong signals that it is unacceptable. But the effects and implications are complex. We’ve also seen individual scientists in Russia take a stand against the war to the extent they’re able, which is increasingly difficult for them to do. And we can’t expect them to go beyond what is possible in their environment, which appears to be relatively oppressive.

On the other hand, while we’re going through a particularly tense period now, one can be an optimist and hope that sanity, at some point, will prevail. Some sense of stability will return. Ukraine can rebuild its science system and  collaboration can again flourish.

Q: The United States has also been policing its research ties with China over the past few years. Is that a cause for concern?

Gluckman: Yes, political tensions have inhibited what has been a very productive growth in the scientific relationship between East and West. That will take time to work through. Yet even during some of the most tense periods, China and America seem be able to get towards  some coherent views on climate change—perhaps not as progressive or urgent as many would like, but at least they have made some steps in the right direction. And America and Russia still seem to have some ability to cooperate on space. So there are some points at which you can see science transcend these political differences.

Q: What can be done to help strengthen the international ties of science?

Gluckman: Well, that’s where we need the help of so-called track II organizations—unofficial policy groups that engage in backchannel diplomacy—such as The International Science Council (ISC). They can bring together many of the countries of the world, and most of the scientific disciplines, in part because they also have relationships with the more formal parts of the policy and multilateral systems. Such organizations, and individual scientists, should do what we can to nudge, to push, but also to sustain relationships across divides. Otherwise those divides will be the cause of harm to the planet and to the people on it.