Thursday, March 02, 2017

International Science

I did some counting and the 35 academic faculty members in the Georgia Tech School of Computer Science come from 14 different countries. My co-authors come from at least 20 different nations. My 10 successful PhD students hail from 7 different countries. I have benefited immensely from global collaborations thanks to relatively open borders and communication during most of my academic career and I am hardly the only academic who has done so.

I'm old enough to remember the days of the cold war where travel between East and West was quite difficult. We had considerable duplication of effort--many important theorems were proven independently on both sides of the iron curtain but even worse ideas took a long time to permeate from one side to the other. We could not easily build on each other's work. Science progressed slower as a result. Pushing back the boundaries of science is not a zero-sum game, quite the opposite--we can only grow knowledge. We grow that knowledge much faster working together.

As the United States and other countries take on a more nationalistic point of view, we'll see fewer people travel, fewer people willing or even able to spend significant parts of their career in other countries. We will (hopefully) continue to have an open Internet so information will still flow but nothing can replace the focus of face-to-face collaboration to share ideas and create new ones.

The real loss for America will be an invisible one: the students who won't be coming here to study and later become our professors, scientists and colleagues, to make our universities, industries and society stronger. Sad.


  1. I think on the contrary. International scientific collaborations will only be enhanced under limitation of physical travel through the internet. As of now, people are usually confined to collaborate within their (physical) peers, where the US serves for some parts of CS as the central place. But under a more distributed scenario, equality, collaboration and spreading of ideas will become stronger, through the internet.

    1. This thing has been around a lot that the Internet will bring less physical meetings, but so far exactly the opposite has been the trend: more people get to know each other online and then want to meet in real. This might of course change, but it doesn't look like that.

  2. Yogeshwar Sharma7:15 AM, March 03, 2017

    Of course the use on the Net is important for collaboration, but that does not take away the importance of a face to face relationship. Nothing beats a walk in the park to discuss a problem and build on the chemistry between two individuals. Curtailing travel amongst nations is a mistake...

  3. I believe that you are underestimating different personalities and different life styles and work styles. For SOME people nothing beats a walk in the park, for OTHERS nothing beats reading email messages from time to time, and thinking about questions by themselves in solitude.

    But all this is irrelevant to my point. The point is that actually forcing people to interact online may result in better and more equal distribution of scientific centers, and thus a more cooperative environment.

  4. To echo what others said and add some points:
    - Cold war made not just travel difficult but also communication. How much would we lose if we had just communication but not travel?
    - There was duplication of effort between East and West, but also differing perspectives, different schools of thought regarding education, research, etc. Is there some value in such "speciation"?
    - Travel has huge direct/indirect costs on the environment. Is the current system in which people often travel for trivial reasons optimal?

  5. Interesting: there seem to be at least 2 people with CSProf name. I am not the author of the previous comments, and disagree strongly. We are certainly not "confined to collaborate with (physical) peers" as Lance's post illustrates. I see no advantage to any kind of censorship or control of our freedom.
    Responding to Anonymous, one may argue that developing independent perspectives is a good thing. However, one can develop a unique perspective even if receiving different perspectives. For the record, it is not clear what, if any, benefits the dual perspective of Western and USSR brought to CS.
    The educational systems were different, as were the methods to fund research, and the ways research establishments were organized. But such diversity exists today, say even between Canada and the US.

  6. In the last 1980's Carl Smith managed to get two Latvian Learning THeorists to the COLT conference. Realize that in those days they could not have just round papers on the arxives or on the web.

    There have been two different shifts going on (maybe three)

    1) Political Obstacles to going to a conference are far less.

    2) The need to goto a conference to find out whats going on in a field is also far less.

    Overall I would say both make the world BETTER for science. Here's hoping that both continue in their current trends.

    There is a third shift that may or may not come: Conferences being taped (this already happens some) and people who can't afford to go (for reasons of time or money or whatever) WATCHING those tapes and really getting things out of them and contacting authors of papers out of interest. While this may happen some, its not that widespread yet. While the technology and archive and store is certainly here, people (myself included) seem to say `I'll watch that tommorow', but as Annie says Tommorow, Tommoorw, I'll read it Tommorow, there's always another day.

  7. If all conferences became virtual, that would flatten the world and change the landscape of contributions.

  8. science progress seems to go in cycles. it looks like at least 4 long hard years of a nearly anti science admin. more here