The United States and Mexico each have their own national infrastructure to support science, although the most compelling and urgent research questions are rarely contained by borders. How can we better align U.S. and Mexican research agendas to promote discoveries that will benefit our entire region? In this month’s Knowledge Transfers, we tackle that question—let’s dive in.
Case in point: Is there an “international” mission for a “National” Science Foundation?
The U.S. National Science Foundation has an annual budget of US $8.5 billion, which it uses to support science and engineering research throughout the country—and indeed, often beyond its borders.
“International collaboration is part of NSF’s mission, vital to the success of the U.S. and global science and engineering enterprise,” NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan explained to Knowledge Transfers. “From defeating Covid-19 to addressing climate change, we cannot solve the challenges of our time without international partnership.”
The NSF and its Mexican counterpart, the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACyT), have collaborated on various joint research projects, the largest being the High Altitude Water Cherenkov Gamma-Ray Observatory (HAWC). According to Panchanathan, the observatory —funded through a US $16 million investment by the NSF, CONACyT, and the U.S. Department of Energy— is “the most sensitive gamma ray observatory of its kind in the world.”
The HAWC observatory, located on the Sierra Negra volcano near Puebla, is tasked with observing high-speed interstellar travelers: gamma and cosmic rays. For those of us not up on our astrophysics, the difference between the two comes down to the type of traveler—cosmic rays are subatomic particles or bundles of subatomic particles (atomic nuclei) that are going near the speed of light, while gamma rays are high energy instances of electromagnetic radiation itself. Both cosmic rays and gamma rays are thought to be created or accelerated by similar cosmic/interstellar events that generate massive amounts of energy, such as supernovae (exploding stars). “High-energy gamma-ray observations are an essential tool in the study of the origins of cosmic rays, because gamma rays are created when cosmic rays interact with material near their acceleration sites,” notes the HWAC website.
If all this has your head spinning, don’t worry—the 13 Mexican, 17 American, four European, two Asian and one Brazilian universities and research institutions collaborating on the project have got you covered. They’re hard at work answering crucial questions about gamma and cosmic rays that will help us all better understand our universe.
In addition to the HWAC, the NSF has partnered with Mexican and Canadian counterparts to support both the Banff International Research Station for Mathematical Innovation and Discovery in Canada and the Casa Matemática Oaxaca. In 2014, the NSF collaborated with Mexican institutions in launching a version of its Innovation Corps program, which trains researchers on the business and entrepreneurship strategies needed to take an idea “from the laboratory to the marketplace.” Mexican organizations have also participated in NSF Industry-University Cooperative Research Center partnerships, with a special eye on materials technology and manufacturing.
Still, the areas for further collaboration—and the researchers who would benefit from such support—are abundant.
“There are challenges that we will overcome through collaboration with Mexico – and all of our international partners,” said Panchanathan, who served as chief research and innovation officer at Arizona State University before taking the helm at the NSF. “Critically, one of my three pillars for NSF—ensuring accessibility and inclusivity—requires all of us to find ways to eliminate barriers that preclude the inclusion of a broad spectrum of talent and ideas. The global scientific enterprise is strengthened when diversity of thought and diversity of participation combine to become a driving force for STEM.”
Numbers to know:
- 28 percent: The proportion of U.S. “high-quality patent-holders” that are immigrants, according to 2017 research from Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project. “[Immigrants’] high degree of patenting is not surprising given their disproportionate share of PhDs. In fact, 31 percent of PhD holders in the United States are immigrants,” notes the analysis.
- 2,724: The number of master’s and doctoral students who received CONACYT scholarships to study in a foreign country in 2020, according to reporting from Animal Político. This number is down from 3,313 students in 2018.
- 39 percent: The proportion of U.S. scholarly articles on science and engineering in 2018 that were developed in collaboration with at least one researcher outside the U.S. (most frequently from China), according to the National Science Foundation. This is a significant increase from 19 percent in 2000. Impressively, 56 percent of 2018 science and engineering articles from Canada and 62 percent from the U.K. involved international collaboration.
- 321: The number of athletes in the Tokyo Olympic games who were former, present or committed students or current coaches of Pac-12 Conference universities. These athletes represented 54 countries in 30 sports, and would have come in fifth place in the medal count had they competed as a single national team. The Pac-12 Conference, known as a key development pipeline for Olympic athletes from around the world, includes universities from Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. The Pac-12 Conference’s global talent scouting for student athletes who learn and improve by competing alongside each other while benefiting from some of the best coaching and facilities in the world provides an intriguing case of an ambitious, ongoing sport knowledge transfer.
Be sure to follow…
…“The Next 75 Years of Science Policy,” a special section in Issues in Science and Technology, a journal published by Arizona State University and the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The section is an ambitious collection of proposals on “how to structure the resources of science to enable the best possible future.”