Scientists reach out globally to each other and the public

William Seaman
Guest columnist

Billed as one of the largest international scientific projects in the world, a 35-year effort now centered in France aims to realize a long-held dream of releasing energy by atomic fusion—the energy source of the Sun and stars—when the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) goes on line, projected for 2025.

Researchers from 35 countries are seeking a “clean” alternative to the historic use of atomic fission in applications such as nuclear power plants. ITER will operate at temperatures of 150,000,000 degrees Celsius (270,000,032 degrees Fahrenheit).

Its cost could rise to $20 billion, according to a 2016 report in “Science” magazine.

Meanwhile, an estimated 50,000 scientists, students and other technical personnel from 60 nations traveled at various times to Antarctica to pursue 228 diverse meteorological, geological, biological and other projects during the 24-month International Polar Year, according to a 2012 report of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

One of the advantages of working there is the extreme clarity of the atmosphere for making observations on the climates of Earth and space.

And in what may be the largest coordinated group of scientists ever to focus on a single, albeit broad, subject of common interest, hundreds of worldwide experts are contributing research findings, and hundreds more are providing peer review for accuracy, for analysis and application by the International Climate Change Panel, which includes 195 nations as members, and is headquartered in Switzerland.

Scientists truly are working at global scales.

The world’s budget for scientific research and development (“R&D”) is estimated to be U.S. $1.7 trillion by the United Nations.

According to the World Bank, R&D in 2015 made up 2.23 percent of the global GDP (Gross Domestic Product). About 10 countries account for 80 percent of that amount. By contrast, so-called developing countries account for only 28 percent of the world’s scientists, even though they possess 80 percent of the world’s population.

Worldwide the average number of researchers in R&D was 1,277 per million people in 2010. As of 2015 the nations with the highest per capita number of researchers included South Korea, Sweden and Denmark, each with over 7,000 per million residents. The United States, in 1996, reported 3,123.

Among all countries the United States invests the most in research and development, according to the “Science and Engineering Indicators 2018” report of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF).

Its latest R&D expenditures of $496 billion represent 26 percent of the global total. While we may think of universities and governments as principal sponsors of science, in fact the business sector is by far the nation’s largest performer of R&D, accounting for 72% of the total in 2015. 

According to NSF, China has grown its R&D spending rapidly since 2000, at an average of 18 percent annually. Its $408 billion in 2018 ranked it as second with 21 percent of the world total. During the same period U.S. R&D yearly spending grew by only 4 percent.

The North Carolina Science Festival offers a response to reports such as the NSF “Indicators” document that the United States is “losing ground as the world leader in science and technology, and fewer students than ever are pursuing careers in science and technology,” say its organizers.

Claiming to be the first such festival of its kind in the U.S., since 2015 it has attracted over one million participants statewide, and in April 2018 held 400 events across the state.

“Science is fun, science is everywhere, science is for everyone,” said Jonathan Frederick, festival director.

Other nations are doing their part to build public awareness and engagement with science as well. With a population of 22,000 and a location 10 miles off the northern coast of Scotland, the Orkney Islands may at first seem an unlikely and isolated place for the world’s second oldest international science festival.

However, over seven days this month 70 events that included presentations by two Nobel Prize laureates gave over ten thousand attendees (including this writer) the chance to learn about everything from black holes to the physics of mountain rescue, and to have hands-on experience in building a rocket.

Speaking at the ecumenical Orkney International Science Festival service at St. Magnus Cathedral (founded 1137), Reverend June Freeth urged peoples of all faiths and religion in general to “take the findings of science far more seriously” as part of daily life.

“Up till then, science had been something that was good for you, and science events were aimed at scientists and people who were already interested,"  said Howie Firth of Orkney, organizer of the world’s first science festival, in Edinburgh, Scotland. "By contrast a festival was something for the whole community to enjoy, something fresh and creative, with surprises and excitement and sheer enjoyment.”