Why collaboration is key to scientific discovery

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Alessandro Curioni, Vice President Europe and Africa and Director, IBM Research Europe


  • Collaboration has long been key to scientific discovery and innovation, in both academia and industry.
  • The Stick to Science campaign is calling for there to be an association agreement struck with Switzerland and the UK over Horizon Europe.
  • Such a deal would help create an open, inclusive and excellence-driven research environment across the continent, it argues.

Science knows no borders. It may sound obvious, perhaps even clichéd, but this mantra is something that must be remembered in ongoing political negotiations over Horizon Europe, which could see Switzerland and the UK excluded from EU research projects.

We need more, not fewer, researchers collaborating to solve today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. By closely working with Swiss and British researchers, who have long played key roles, Horizon Europe projects will benefit – as they have in the past.

This is the motivation behind ETH Zurich, which collaborates with IBM Research on nanotechnology, leading the Stick to Science campaign. This calls on all three parties – Switzerland, the UK and the EU – to try and solve the current stalemate and put Swiss and British association agreements in place.

Stick to Science campaign calls for collaboration

More than 240 prominent scientists have already publicly weighed in as ‘first signatories’ in support of the initiative. This includes 12 Nobel prize winners; three Fields medal winners; and prominent figures such as former EU commissioner and ex-director general of the World Trade Organization, Pascal Lamy.

Former director-general of DG Research and Innovation at the European Commission and key architect of Horizon 2020, Robert-Jan Smits, and renowned mathematician and French politician, Professor Cedric Villani, have also signed.

Here at IBM Research, we have always promoted and encouraged collaboration – and now more than ever with our Discovery Accelerators being launched around the globe, as part of our overarching strategy dubbed ‘Accelerated Discovery‘.

‘Hard tech’ used to develop new materials

These Discovery Accelerators are hubs whose purpose is to make available and to integrate breakthroughs in what we call ‘hard tech’ – quantum computing, artificial intelligence (AI), hybrid cloud and high-performance computing.

The idea is to foster quantum and AI ecosystems to develop new materials faster. We need these now more than ever, to create drugs in light of outbreaks like the COVID-19 pandemic; to store energy more efficiently; to feed the world’s surging population; and so much more.

And our chances of successfully addressing all these global challenges increase greatly when we work together, in open collaborations – in a spirit akin to the motivation that has always underpinned Horizon Europe.

Initiatives boost new innovation

Our latest Discovery Accelerator has just been launched in Canada, with an IBM Quantum System One computer deployed in Bromont, Quebec. The initiative will give researchers from across Canada and beyond access to a wide range of AI models and high performance computing systems to explore how to faster discover new materials.

It’s our third quantum system installation and partnership, following those at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute and Japan’s Kawasaki Business Innovation Center. We also plan to build on-premises quantum systems at Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic and Yonsei University in Seoul.

And then there are Discovery Accelerators like the one at Hartree National Centre for Digital Innovation in the UK, which has given researchers access to IBM’s quantum computers through the cloud, as well as access to commercial and emerging AI technologies.

Free flow of ideas key to innovation

All these Discovery Accelerators are rooted in collaboration and a free flow of ideas. We are changing the way we go about discovering new materials, traditionally created using a long and expensive trial and error process.

Identifying a new molecule this way often takes around a decade of research, and creating a material based on that molecule easily costs between $10 million and $100 million. But classical computing, AI and quantum computing are now replacing this cumbersome method.

It’s no longer just theory. Our researchers have recently cut down the material discovery process to just months in Project Photoresist. With the help of AI and robotics systems they predicted, simulated, and tested a new photoacid generator – an important ingredient in semiconductor manufacturing. The scientists created the new material 100 times faster than using more traditional methods.

Traditional rivals team up on research

There are plenty of other good examples of industry-academic collaborations, but there should be more. Stanford University’s AI Lab works closely with a number of industry partners, including IBM Research, Google and Wells Fargo.

And when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the US National Science Foundation, NASA, several US government agencies and national labs, universities and companies came to create the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium.

AI, machine learning, technology

How is the Forum helping governments to responsibly adopt AI technology?

The World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in partnership with the UK government, has developed guidelines for more ethical and efficient government procurement of artificial intelligence (AI) technology. Governments across Europe, Latin America and the Middle East are piloting these guidelines to improve their AI procurement processes.

Our guidelines not only serve as a handy reference tool for governments looking to adopt AI technology, but also set baseline standards for effective, responsible public procurement and deployment of AI – standards that can be eventually adopted by industries.

We invite organizations that are interested in the future of AI and machine learning to get involved in this initiative. Read more about our impact.

The project saw companies who were traditional rivals – such as Amazon Web Services, Google, IBM, Microsoft and Intel, among others – partnering with members of different fields to accelerate research in ways to end the pandemic.

Working together imperative for progress

Again, the most important message here is collaboration. Be it between industry and academia or multiple global partners, working together is imperative for progress.

We urge the EU, Switzerland and the UK to quickly put in place association agreements so that these two leading research countries can once again contribute scientifically and financially to the strength of Horizon Europe, and to truly open, inclusive and excellence-driven research across the continent.

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