How science works in the U.S.

(State Dept./Doug Thompson)
(State Dept./Doug Thompson)

For science to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges in improving human health, protecting the environment and ensuring national security, scientific research should be transparent and collaborative.

In the U.S., the openness in which scientists conduct their work mirrors the openness of the American society. This transparent environment attracts top talent from around the world.

Furthermore, the talent of diverse scientists working in the U.S. fosters meaningful collaboration.

“It’s a great thing when people from overseas want to come and work with Americans because they feel we have an extremely positive scientific culture,” said Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard University who has studied the impact of collaboration on research. “You have people from so many different backgrounds and from so many countries — I think that has contributed to the strength of American science.”

In some countries, research is tightly controlled. “You run into all kinds of problems with ethics and oversight when things are done in a closed-off system and without proper scrutiny and without the input of the entire scientific community,” said Alex Joske, a researcher with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre. What’s more, “if the direction of research is too tightly controlled, it doesn’t allow for creativity and new ideas.”

Here are five ways in which the U.S. scientific culture encourages new discoveries:


Two people looking in a light bulb (State Dept./D. Thompson)According to 2018 data from the U.S. National Science Foundation, the U.S. had a 37% international collaboration rate, up 12% from 2006.

Freeman’s research at Harvard has shown that the more diverse research collaborations are, the greater impact experiments have. In a paper published in 2014, Freeman and his colleague Wei Huang found that where co-researchers were from ethnically diverse backgrounds, their publications produced higher citations.

“It may not be that the quality of the paper is better,” Freeman said. “But more eyes are on it, and having more eyes on a paper in and of itself is good.” The attention means other scientists are likely to try to re-create an experiment or extend its findings.

Publicly funded research

According to the same 2018 data from the U.S. National Science Foundation, the federal government remains the largest funder of basic research, accounting for 44% of the total share.

“One of the things about the publicly funded research model that we have in this country is that it really does allow these more esoteric and foundational questions to be pursued,” said Michael Weisberg, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where his research focuses on the philosophy of science. “If this were a private research enterprise, we would never be able to do the kinds of research that we do.”

Weisberg said that because basic science is heavily funded by taxpayers, government funding agencies such as the U.S. National Science Foundation require that researchers applying for federal grants show in their proposals that their work has “broader impacts,” or the potential for the research project to benefit society. This encourages scientists to advance scientific knowledge while being responsible citizens.

Open science

Man with open notebook under microscope (State Dept./D. Thompson)

“Open science is the transparent and inclusive operation of the scientific process,” according to Brian Nosek, head of the Center for Open Science, which provides online tools for its practice. “If you can’t see how it is I got to the findings that I observed, then you can’t replicate them and you can’t challenge them.”

Many initiatives involve global research collaborations. For example, Open Source Malaria seeks to develop new medicines for malaria. Hundreds of contributors from around the world use its online platform to share ideas and data. In 2016, the consortium published a paper on potential antimalarial compounds that was authored by more than 50 authors from seven countries.

“It’s really exhilarating doing things in the open because you get to work with people you’ve never met and people who have amazing expertise,” says Matthew Todd, chair of drug discovery at University College London and founder of Open Source Malaria.

Peer review and publication

When scientists make discoveries, they submit manuscripts to be published in scientific journals, and those papers go through a peer review process in which other scientists in similar research areas evaluate the work. The manuscripts that pass the peer review process are then published in the scientific journal to which the scientist submitted.

In the U.S., scientific journals increasingly make content available free of charge. (The publishing fee is often paid for by the author, laboratory or sponsoring institution.) For example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes Science magazine, launched the open access journal Science Advances in 2015.

Gemma Hersh, vice president of global policy at Elsevier, which publishes more than 2,500 scientific journals, points out that all of Elsevier’s journals now have an open access option, and 10% of them are fully open access.

Outreach to the public

Scientists in the U.S. are dedicated to communicating their research to the public.

“You see more and more serious attention paid to this,” said Weisberg. He cites community science initiatives and volunteer work with middle or secondary school teachers to help them bring better lessons to their students.

The University of Pennsylvania, for example, has an office dedicated to helping researchers find concrete ways of doing outreach.

“The more engaged people are in understanding how science operates, not even so much scientific facts, but just what the process of science looks like, and what scientific methods look like, the more responsive they are to thinking critically about science,” Weisberg said.

This article is by freelance writer Linda Wang.