Collaborate to spur global innovation - Hindustan Times
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Collaborate to spur global innovation

Apr 03, 2023 07:24 PM IST

Rapid advances in fields such as robotics, AI and nanotechnology, along with the threat of China, have made international partnerships key. In this aspect, CERN shows the way forward

Because India has no vested interests to protect and has a culture of giving and sharing, it can do what the West only dreams about.” So says Gary Reedy, former CEO of the American Cancer Society, of the opportunity India has to leapfrog the world in medical research and cure cancer.

The experience with Covid-19 vaccines showed some of the disadvantages of techno-nationalist strategies. China’s refusal to participate in global standard innovation left it with an inferior vaccine (AFP)
The experience with Covid-19 vaccines showed some of the disadvantages of techno-nationalist strategies. China’s refusal to participate in global standard innovation left it with an inferior vaccine (AFP)

In a previous article, I described what Karkinos Healthcare is doing to make this happen. But what if India, the United States (US), and other countries formed a global coalition to cure cancer? We would exceed President Joe Biden’s most ambitious goals in the “cancer moonshot” he first launched in 2016 and relaunched in 2022. The US hopes to reduce the cancer death rate by 50% over 25 years, with many more billions of dollars in investment, but a collaboration with India might enable actual cures for most cancers to be found by the end of this decade — with almost no additional investment.

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This is possible because of exponential advances in fields, such as Artificial Intelligence, robotics, synthetic biology, medicine, 3D printing, and nanomaterials. These are enabling entrepreneurs all over the world to do what once was possible only for governments and large corporations: Solve humanity’s grand challenges, such as curing diseases, boosting agriculture, slowing the climate crisis, reducing poverty, and increasing freedom and security.

And then there is the threat from China, which is largely using technology to further its military objectives. In an analysis of global research output, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) concluded that, of 44 technology areas, China leads in 37. China has “built the foundations to position itself as the world’s leading science and technology superpower, by establishing a sometimes stunning lead in high-impact research across the majority of critical and emerging technology domains,” ASPI wrote.

Fortunately, the think tank is measuring competitiveness by the number of research papers published — a measure deeply flawed because, even in peer-reviewed international journals, a majority of published Chinese research, motivated only by government incentives, is fraudulent or irrelevant. Even so, the colossal scale of the country’s technology theft and of scientists’ relocation back home has made China both a serious contender in science and innovation and a real threat to global security.

The US House has finally recognised that fact, forming the bipartisan Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party. The committee has been focusing on manufacturing capabilities, trade policy, and protection of intellectual property rights, and aims to maintain and strengthen US science and technology leadership by increasing investments in research and development and attracting the world’s best and brightest scientists and engineers to the US.

These are all good moves, but, as with cancer, the US can’t do it all alone any longer: It needs global collaboration. Two US academics, Leonard Lynn, of Case Western Reserve University, and Hal Salzman of Rutgers University, have proposed a structure for global technology partnerships in a paper titled Collaborative Advantage: Creating Global Commons for Science, Technology, and Innovation, in the National Academies of Sciences’ journal Issues in Science and Technology. Lynn and Salzman cited the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) as an example of what can be achieved.

CERN was founded in the 1950s by 12 European countries concerned that progress in subatomic physics increasingly required Big Science experimental facilities available only in the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union, where the work was associated with the development of weapons — which European scientists did not want to support. CERN was able to create a governance structure that gave voice to members that vary greatly in size, wealth, and cultural values, to design a fair funding and reward system.

In addition to pathbreaking research in subatomic physics, CERN incubated technologies that are now used around the world, including the World Wide Web; the first web server; the touchscreen; and medical technologies, such as imaging used in cancer detection.

Lynn and Salzman propose fostering the development of new Science, Technology, and Innovation Global Commons to unite nations and foster innovation for the common good. Through open access to global talent, and organised on principles of democratic governance and equity in participation and access to the resulting knowledge and products, this could provide nations with shared advantages over zero-sum belligerent, extractive, and isolationist strategies.

The recent experience with Covid-19 vaccines demonstrates some of the disadvantages of techno-nationalist strategies. China’s refusal to participate in global standard innovation left it with a dramatically inferior vaccine. The US, Germany, and the United Kingdom (UK), along with other nations, took advantage of years of public investment in developing the mRNA vaccines. But hindered by powerful corporate interests, they placed few responsibilities on the firms that commercialised those vaccines. Most egregiously, Moderna minted a number of overnight billionaires and then, deciding that that wasn’t enough, fought the National Institutes of Health for exclusive patents and denied low-income countries equitable access to their vaccine.

What Lynn and Salzman propose would address both sides of the problem: Uniting nations and global talent for innovation and developing a collaboration that can stand up to the China behemoth as it pursues techno-nationalist policies. Just as with the AUKUS pact between the US, the UK, and Australia, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the US, we need new global collaborations to solve humanity’s problems and ensure the ethical use of technologies.

Vivek Wadhwa is an academic, entrepreneur, and author The views expressed are personal

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