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Alliance President France A. Córdova speaks at Science Summit at UNGA

Science Philanthropy Alliance President France A. Córdova recently served as a keynote speaker at the Science Summit at United Nations General Assembly held September 13-30 in New York City.  In her address titled “International collaboration for scientific discovery and sustainable development,” Córdova highlighted philanthropy as an integral part of scientific discovery and the critical role it plays in advancing science across the globe. Included below is a transcript of her address.


International Collaboration for Scientific Discovery and Sustainable Development

“There are three things that to me are remarkable about the UN Sustainability Goals. One is that they exist at all – a tribute to leadership and foresight of the 193 UN member states that adopted them in 2015. A second is that as I review the list of goals, I am struck that the word science is not mentioned explicitly in any of them, yet to achieve any one of the goals requires fundamental scientific research. And third, none can be achieved without the nations of the world coming together with concrete plans – and dedicated people – to address them. This is at the heart of Sustainable Development Goal #17.  

In my remarks I will elaborate on these observations: I will give examples of how scientific research is addressing some of these goals and how this is being done in an international context. Since I presently head an alliance of philanthropic foundations whose mission is to advance discovery research, I will emphasize the contributions of philanthropy to addressing the UN sustainability goals by investing in scientific research.

 Let me first give some background I bring to this discussion. I have served as president or chancellor of two U.S. universities, both having broad international programs, encouraging collaboration and experiential learning abroad. I have served in three federal science agencies: the National Science Foundation, NASA, and a Department of Energy Laboratory – often at the behest of five US presidents and the U.S. Senate. In my positions I have worked in an international science sphere. I have seen at close hand the power that science can have when applied to pressing world problems.

I’ll give three examples. As President of Purdue University, I accompanied faculty member and World Food Prize winner Gebisa Ejecta to the country of his origin, Ethiopia, to meet with the presidents of ten Ethiopian universities and talk to them about development of faculty, including faculty exchanges. Dr. Ejecta won his prize by increasing by five-fold the yield of sorghum, a principal grain of sub-Saharan Africa. His basic scientific research into Africa’s hunger has had far-reaching results for millions of Africans.  

Second, as NASA’s Chief Scientist, its first woman in that position, I accompanied the head of NASA on his frequent trips to Congress to persuade our elected representatives to vote in favor of an International Space Station. Once approved for funding, I led NASA’s science utilization team. The basic research to both build the ISS and utilize it for science in a global context have yielded scientific discoveries. Significantly, the ISS has demonstrated the power and promise of international collaboration.

“I have seen at close hand the power that science
can have when applied to pressing world problems.”

My third example is that as Director of NSF I represented the US at significant international meetings – including G7 science meetings on, for example, climate change. I also partnered with more than 60 international heads of science agencies to promote and sustain the Global Research Council, which has developed policy guidance on many issues related to the conduct of science.  

These examples showed me that science can make a significant impact on both discovery and policy when broadened to include an international approach.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences recognized this when it launched its initiative five years ago called “Challenges for International Scientific Partnerships.” The initiative, supported with funding from several philanthropic foundations, has resulted in three reports. The first report focused on principles for international engagement and the second report focused on international collaboration on large-scale science initiatives. Only one week ago, the Science Philanthropy Alliance, which I head, was pleased to co-sponsor with the Academy a discussion of its third and final report, with foundation heads and others attending. The theme of that report was “Global Connections: Emerging Science Partners.” Its content spoke to the final UN Sustainability Goal, Partnerships, with an emphasis on partnerships with low and lower middle-income countries, as defined by the World Bank (or “least developed” as identified by the UN).

In the words of Academy president David Oxtoby, “…our country must fully participate in all scientific endeavors, including collaborations with talent in all parts of the world, and promote a just and equitable society.” These words echo other UN sustainability goals for equity, as well as peace, justice, and strong institutions.

International research partnerships can take on many forms. As noted in the Academy’s recent report, they are meant to “promote scientific advancement, strengthen global S&T capacity, and enhance global understanding and science diplomacy.” Here are some examples that surfaced from our discussion last week, and other examples from our experience with philanthropies…

As a first example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation forms international partnerships that foster innovation to solve global health and development problems through its Discovery and Translational sciences program. The Gates Foundation launched its first Grand Challenge in Global Health as an open call for proposals in 2003, and since then, the Grand Challenges platform has been expanded to source innovators around the world to address many topics in global health and development, often with multiple international funding partners. Each Grand Challenge builds a grant program that facilitates collaboration among researchers and implementors across projects for accelerated impact.

In our discussion last week, which focused on funding discovery science in Africa, the Gates Foundation highlighted the Grand Challenges Africa initiative, which was created in 2015 as a partnership framework to jointly launch challenges to support African investigators. Grand Challenges Africa works in partnership with the African Union Development Agency – New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) with support from the Gates Foundation and other funders around the world to promote Africa-led scientific innovations to help countries better achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. The Drug Discovery program, for example, has created a network of researchers across the African continent as part of a partnership between Switzerland’s Medicines for Malaria Venture and the University of Cape Town Drug Discovery & Development Centre. Similar Grand Challenge partnership frameworks have been established elsewhere, such as in India and Brazil. Globally, the network of Grand Challenges funders has now awarded nearly 3,600 grants to investigators in 117 countries.

As a second example, the Rockefeller Foundation has a long history of funding agricultural research to support sustainable development. As described in the Academy’s Global Connections report, the Rockefeller Foundation launched the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in the early 20th century, and this Institute helped prevent widespread famine in Asia following the end of World War II. Today, it is part of a network of 15 independent nonprofit research centers around the globe that are part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and it continues to support research to promote food security internationally through innovative agricultural research.

“… science can make a significant impact on both discovery and policy when broadened to include an international approach.”

More recently, in May 2022 the Rockefeller Foundation launched a new food science funding partnership – the Periodic Table of Food Initiative. Recognizing that only a small percentage of the known food biochemicals are described in current food composition databases, this collaborative initiative provides tools and infrastructure for the global community to catalog the biochemical composition of the world’s food supply. The vision for this initiative is to overcome society’s greatest food challenges through data-driven solutions for the improvement of human and planetary health. The initiative takes a sustainable food systems approach to understanding the drivers of food composition, collecting metadata on environmental, agricultural, social, and economic variables that impact food composition. The Periodic Table of Food Initiative is building a global ecosystem of Centers of Excellence on each continent to drive research and innovation, lead capacity strengthening, and champion the translation of science. Further, the initiative seeks to partner with government research institutions as National Lab Partners to integrate food composition analysis into ongoing public health and agricultural work, contributing to several of the Sustainable Development Goals.

My last example is the Bertarelli Program in Marine Science, a collaborative program that brings together scientists from around the world to work in the Indian Ocean. Through this program, the Bertarelli Foundation provides long-term funding to advance marine science that can be applied to conservation, directly addressing Sustainable Development Goal #14 (Life Below Water) and contributing to several others. This work began in 2010, when the British Government, with the help of the Bertarelli Foundation, declared the creation of the world’s largest “fully no take” marine protected area in a mostly uninhabited region of the British Indian Ocean Territory. Recognizing the value of this marine protected area for scientific discovery, in 2013 the Bertarelli Foundation convened an international and interdisciplinary group of scientists to develop a coordinated approach to scientific research in the region.

The first phase of the Bertarelli Marine Science Program, established in 2017, has transformed our understanding of the benefits of large marine protected areas for ocean conservation and ecosystem health. Its research themes include coral reef resilience, sentinel species research, translating science into marine protected area management, and science communication. Now in its second phase and in partnership with another philanthropic funder, the Bertarelli Marine Science Program supports scientists from dozens of institutions across six countries to advance our understanding of marine ecosystems. As in the first phase, the program uses its research findings to inform the management of marine protected areas and support the international commitments to Sustainable Development Goal 14. The Bertarelli Foundation is also a key partner in the UN Decade for Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030), an international collaboration of scientists, funders, and policymakers to facilitate the ocean science needed for sustainable development.

These examples also emphasize not only the importance of international collaboration but also the importance of investing in fundamental research (including both pure and use-inspired basic research). As the Academy report recommends, such investment “should also be expanded … [because] understanding the foundation of physical, life, and chemical sciences can lead to productive innovation and technology…”

“[The] Science Philanthropy Alliance, which is composed of nearly 40 foundations that fund science, calls for philanthropic support for discovery science, including both curiosity-driven and use-inspired research with a quest for knowledge. Importantly, we recognize that fundamental science and its applications co-evolve and catalyze each other. Investment in both fundamental and applied science is required for a vibrant future.”

To further illustrate this point, last week, the Gates Foundation held its annual Goalkeepers event, which is dedicated to tracking progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals, with a focus on Goals 1-6. While this year’s Goalkeepers report demonstrated that the crises over the last several years, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, have greatly hindered progress towards these goals, it also emphasized the incredible potential of innovation and scientific breakthroughs. As Melinda French Gates and Bill Gates note in the 2022 report, “No projection can ever account for the possibility of game-changing innovation because when those breakthroughs happen, they change all the fundamental assumptions embedded in that equation.”

This is the power of discovery-oriented inquiry. We give an example of this in the Science Philanthropy Alliance’s newly released strategic plan. “In the COVID-19 era, we are amazed at the speed with which mRNA vaccines were deployed to address the pandemic, but if we step back and look at all the elements that came together to develop these vaccines, we see a web of scientific discoveries, creatively stitched together… Today’s COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are built on a long chain of fundamental science: understanding how a chemically simple molecule, DNA, can pass genetic information down through generations; the insight that another simple molecule, RNA, is the key to expressing that information in the body; the realization that making, reading, and discarding the RNA message must be closely regulated so the wrong instructions are not followed at the wrong time. This amazing feat of bioengineering, viewed as having occurred in the span of nine months, stands on the back of 60 years or more of scientific discovery. Investing in basic research yields a remarkable return on investment.”

For these reasons, the Science Philanthropy Alliance, which is composed of nearly 40 foundations that fund science, calls for philanthropic support for discovery science, including both curiosity-driven and use-inspired research with a quest for knowledge. Importantly, we recognize that fundamental science and its applications co-evolve and catalyze each other. Investment in both fundamental and applied science is required for a vibrant future.

Further, engaging more talent in discovery science through international collaboration creates more opportunities for breakthroughs to occur. Transformative ideas can come from anywhere, and research shows that a greater diversity of perspectives leads to increased innovation. Thus, increased international collaboration among researchers, funders, policymakers, and other stakeholders will be critical for accelerating the discoveries and breakthroughs that are needed to achieve the sustainable development goals.

So how can we best support international scientific partnerships, particularly with partners in less developed countries? Here I’ll highlight some of the recommendations from our recent philanthropy roundtable on this topic.

As background, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences report provided several overarching recommendations for strengthening collaborations with low and lower-middle income countries, referred to as emerging science partners. While the recommendations are for the U.S., they can be applied to other higher-income countries as well. The first is that we should actively foster collaborations with emerging science partners, including by welcoming researchers and graduate students from these countries to our universities and research institutions. Rather than brain drain, the goal is to promote brain circulation, where each country’s researchers learn from each other and develop new skills to advance research in their home countries. The second is that we should contribute to efforts that build global research capacity and a global STEM workforce. And finally, collaborations with emerging science partners should reflect the values of transparency and equity. Our discussion highlighted the importance of gender equity in science, relevant to Goal 5.

“The benefits of international engagement are many, including learning from different models, expanding capacity to accelerate innovation, and collaboratively addressing global challenges. I am inspired by the many examples of scientists, funders, policymakers, and others in the community who are engaging in these types of collaborations …”

The report makes specific recommendations for different types of collaborators, including for foundations and the private sector. In addition to providing funding, foundations can be thought partners for building scientific infrastructure. The report recommends that foundations support university collaborations, including exchange programs, and scientific society programs that facilitate global science and expand interactions between scientists in different countries. Foundations could also support training for lawyers at emerging science partner universities, so these institutions are better positioned to establish MOUs, IP, and other formal agreements. And particularly relevant to our conversation today, the report recommends considering basic science investment for emerging science partners as an indirect but key path toward innovation and economic growth.

Since our roundtable discussion focused specifically on funding discovery science in Africa, the chairs of the study highlighted what they see as a transformational opportunity to develop scientific infrastructure in Africa. They made the case for building a synchrotron light source in Africa, which would enable researchers across the continent to conduct investigations in fields such as materials science, physics, chemistry, structural biology, and medicine, with many translational and clinical applications. While outside funding and partners are needed, the project would be locally led, creating opportunities to develop and retain talent in Africa.

Building on these recommendations, we then facilitated a roundtable discussion with funders and scientists working in Africa. They emphasized several points:

First, the importance of philanthropy for strengthening institutions. Our panelists noted that there is immense scientific talent in Africa, demonstrated for example by the extremely high quality and number of applications for a new NASEM U.S. Africa Frontiers of Science, Engineering, and Medicine program. Yet, many institutions lack the capability to support researchers in competing for and managing major grants. Philanthropies can support partnerships between institutions in the U.S. and Africa, as well as other efforts that build institutional capacity to support African scientists throughout the research process.

Second, the discussion highlighted the value of philanthropy for creating pathways that incentivize African scientists to pursue scientific careers in Africa, even after training elsewhere. An example is the Gates Foundation’s Calestous Juma Fellowship, which provides five years of funding, networking opportunities, and leadership and skills trainings for scientists permanently located at African research organizations. Our discussion also acknowledged the need for programs that provide mentorship to early career African scientists, who benefit from having mentors both within the continent and in higher income countries.

Finally, we discussed the role that philanthropy can play in enabling African-led scientific efforts. Currently, 50% of the funding for science in Africa comes from outside of the continent, and historically this has shifted the research agenda. Equitable funding approaches are needed to put the scientific agendas of African scientists back at the forefront by catalyzing African-led programs and research collaborations. This approach is especially relevant for achieving the sustainable development goals, as African researchers, policymakers, and funders have the local knowledge needed to establish research priorities and translate science into solutions for sustainable development. Further, philanthropies should think long-term and develop partnerships to help ensure the sustainability of new initiatives.

In closing, the Global Connections report and this roundtable discussion provided a strong foundation for developing international partnerships to advance scientific discovery and ultimately, sustainable development. As one of our panelists noted, science is a global endeavor, and many of the most important issues that humanity faces can only be solved through international collaboration.

The benefits of international engagement are many, including learning from different models, expanding capacity to accelerate innovation, and collaboratively addressing global challenges. I am inspired by the many examples of scientists, funders, policymakers, and others in the community who are engaging in these types of collaborations, and I look forward to a near future where international scientific partnerships are increasingly leveraged to realize the sustainable development goals. Thank you.”