It’s a common slice of tech trivia that the Internet began as the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network; ARPANET. Funded by the US Department of Defense, what would come to be known as the first workable prototype of today’s Internet was a vision towards long-distance communication and resource-sharing between research institutions.
The first satisfaction, the birth of ARPANET, was an interconnection of four university computers in America’s West Coast at the close of the 1960s: these were UCLA, the Stanford Research Institute, UC Santa Barbara and the University of Utah. Over time, the network expanded to more institutions across the US, and further experienced the developments in interface and architecture that nurtured it into becoming our Internet; this national project became an international phenomenon while opening up its founding vision to the global stage.
The origins of the Internet in ARPANET evince the significance of collaborative research, being the root of a historic evolution in technology. But why is this significant? What are the motivations behind collaboration in research, particularly on an international scale, and why is enabling this a pivotal concern?
Individuals are inherently biased; groups (…) embody a sum of experiences and exposure.
Among the greatest hazards in scientific research is bias: preconceptions that prevent fully objective analysis. Individuals are inherently biased: theorising—half the work of groundbreaking science—is an inductive process, and one person only has their own lifetime of experiences and exposure to inform their induction. Groups are powerful in that they embody a sum of experiences and exposure—a greater pool of reactions against a shared question. Less is taken for granted between more perspectives, hence a more rigorous critique takes hold from the root of progress.
International collaboration brings an especially unique breadth of inspiration and intellectualism, mobilising thinkers from different groundings and environments. Through diversity, we create more fertile ground for intellectual breakthroughs: new perspectives draw new connections, voice new curiosities and prompt new debates. Appealing purely through statistics, we see this validated in the correlation between frequency of international partnerships and institutional rankings (factoring research performance), as well as the mobility of academics and how frequently their work receives citation.
Beyond the impact on research itself, much of the impetus for internationally collaborative science mirrors that of foreign trade. In an economic context, academia is no less a marketplace than industry; research requires funding and funding is contingent on interest. In many cases, this is easier to satisfy looking outwards: certain areas of research are more prevalent in specific countries, almost to the point of specialisation, owing to public investment or internationally competitive institutions. An international stage for scientific research realises new markets in other countries, i.e new sources of investment. Economic considerations are also apparent in accessing specialist equipment/facilities through international collaborations; not every nation can afford or maintain its own Large Hadron Collider, nor should they need to.
Travel and migration is an obvious outcome of international collaborations. Something less obvious, on the other hand, is that movement is as much a catalyst of these collaborations as it is a result. Many a partnership has been prompted by a casual encounter between travelling academics, with conferences and seminars being predictable hotspots for networking. In other anecdotes, small talk as passengers giving way to discussing careers has turned out to be an unlikely prologue.
We see that travel not only fulfills opportunities—it creates them. Only through global interaction do we fully appreciate that science is a universal endeavour, where differences are more likely to yield a breakthrough than a breakdown.