After a string of regional preparations and a three-day summit at the headquarters of the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in Washington DC, the leaders of some 50 research agencies yesterday announced the establishment of the Global Research Council (GRC), a forum that will examine issues important to science-funding agencies worldwide.
At a press conference on 15 May (webcast), NSF head Subra Suresh said that the GRC was not just a place to discuss shared goals and aspirations, but was “the first step toward a more unified approach to the scientific process.” (In an editorial in Science last August, he argued that differing standards for science funding and practice were the “most fundamental barriers to … international collaborations”).
The GRC’s first output is a consensus on six common principles for using merit review (peer review) to assess and fund scientific research projects — including transparency, integrity, impartiality and confidentiality. “For funding agencies, peer review is our bread and butter. We have to pick the best ideas and people in the most transparent and ethical manner,” Suresh says.
Next year, after more regional gatherings, the forum will meet in Berlin, where Germany and Brazil will co-host discussions on research integrity, and on how to promote open access to research data and publications. Participants expect the number of nations involved to double, and six other countries are already hoping to host the council in 2014, Suresh says. Topics to explore then could include the funding of research infrastructure and how best to manage intellectual property.
Quite what the GRC will become, no one yet knows. It might blossom into an influential organization that brokers detailed agreement on best practices for managing and conducting research, and promotes collaboration and co-funding between nations.
Suresh says he hopes that if dozens of countries articulate principles for peer review, data sharing, integrity and data access, then these might be adopted by any institution negotiating trans-national research, including universities and private organizations. Other participants in the meeting said that the council could make it easier for heads of research funding worldwide to design multilateral projects. The GRC will not be controlling any funding itself — at least, not for now.
On the other hand, the GRC could just evolve into a useful but limited talking shop, where research agencies agree on broad-brush issues but do little to resolve practical differences. Despite the close links between research agencies across Europe, for example, there’s a large variety in their practices, as a detailed study on peer review by the European Science Foundation has revealed. Some of the GRC work was based on this study. “A large variety of practices is to be expected, cherished and celebrated,” Suresh says.
After the first meeting — carefully prepared for by four regional gatherings across the globe — participants were optimistic. For a start, everyone invited turned up (except two people stymied by a cancelled United Airlines flight), noted Suresh — including participants from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and China. And Glaucius Oliva, president of Brazil’s National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), noted one potential impact already: the international agreement that peer review should be kept confidential might help his funding agency to hold out against potential freedom-of-information demands under Brazil’s new open-government policies, he said.
To Pär Omling, vice-president of Science Europe, the voluntary and informal trust-building involved in the new forum felt a bit like the start of EUROHORCS, a group made up of the heads of European research councils. “With time that developed — we wanted to start collaborative research programmes — and at the end of the day it turned out we required a more solid organization, which is Science Europe,” he said. “Maybe in the future, we’ll see those same sorts of developments internationally.”