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10 Badass International Science Collaborations That Will Blow Your Mind

How many scientists does it take to change the world?

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1. International Space Station

NASA / Wikimedia Commons / Via commons.wikimedia.org

The International Space Station Program is easily one of mankind’s most remarkable achievements. It's also one of the most ambitious, political, scientific collaborations ever. Since it was first launched in 1998, it’s involved space agencies from the USA, Europe, Russia, and Japan (to name but a few), a rotating crew of astronauts and visitors from 18 countries, and serious scientific expertise from even further afield. And the ISS isn’t just a meeting of minds, it’s a meeting of physical components too. Parts of the ISS are designed and launched from all over the world. Some reach orbit before others have even been designed. Eventually, everything comes together in harmony, at an altitude of around 220 miles. Beautiful.

2. Human Genome Project

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The Human Genome Project officially kicked off in 1990, and biology hasn’t been the same since. Thirteen years, 18 countries, and thousands of scientists later, the DNA of the human genome had been sequenced, giving us the genetic blueprint for an average person. Thanks to the ambition, dedication, and collaboration of those involved in the Human Genome Project, today a full human genome can be sequenced in a single day and at a fraction of the cost. It’s completely revolutionised the way we understand the body, including our understanding of how individuals are affected by disease.

3. Millennium Seed Bank Partnership

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In Kew Gardens’ purpose-built -20°C deep-freeze chambers lives the greatest concentration of living seed-plant biodiversity on Earth. It's an inventory for research, breeding, and the future of our planet. Because, in the event of a future environmentally apocalyptic event, seeds will be our lifeline. Plants don’t just provide food for humans and animals, but clothing, medicine, and fuel. Prince Charles put it best when he opened the Millennium Seed Bank in 2000 – it’s like a gold reserve where "life itself is stored". The initial aim of collecting all native UK seeds was met in 2009. Its next mission? To conserve 25% of the world’s plant species by 2020. And by collaborating with 95 local biodiversity projects from all corners of the globe, the Millennium Seed Bank is well on its way.

4. European Council for Nuclear Research, AKA CERN

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In the wake of a devastating war, a group of pioneering scientists banded together to propose a radical new approach to revitalise European science. Raoul Dautry, Pierre Auger, and Lew Kowarski of France, Edoardo Amaldi of Italy, and Niels Bohr of Denmark were among the founding fathers of CERN. It’s become one of the longest and most successful collaborations in the history of science.

Sharing ideas and costs for decades, Europe still dominates the field of particle physics, having built the world's highest energy particle accelerator – the Large Hadron Collider – and confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson particle. What else has CERN been responsible for? Oh, not much… Just a little something called the World Wide Web. Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented it to collaborate with peers while working at CERN.

5. Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, AKA SESAME

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Styling itself after CERN, SESAME is a new collaborative research centre based in Jordan. That’s because, in this notoriously tense part of the world, Jordan is the only country to have had a consistently friendly relationship with its fellow founding members – Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority, and Turkey. SESAME is a different kind of collaboration. It’s using science to foster peace in the Middle East. Now united, scientists from across the region will use their new super-intense light beams to study the properties of matter, conducting experiments together in fields from physics to health care to archaeology.

6. International Cancer Genome Consortium

S. Gschmeissner, K. Hodivala-Dilke & M. Stone / Wellcome Images / Via wellcomeimages.org

Cancer happens to every body differently. It’s our unique set of genes that cause one person’s healthy cells to mutate into cancer, while others’ don’t. By sequencing the DNA of cells at distinct stages in the lifecycle of a tumour, the International Cancer Genome Consortium hopes to fully map the genetic impact of 50 common cancers – and, one day, to understand how and why cancer happens, once and for all. It’s one of the most ambitious biomedical research efforts ever, and one with a real-world impact. The huge global effort sees institutions, from Saudi Arabia to Spain, collaborating on each cancer type. If we do ever cure this awful disease, it might be the ICGC we should thank – for truly democratising the fight against cancer.

7. Nuclear Fission – Lise Meitner, Otto Frisch, Otto Hahn, and Fritz Strassman

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Way back in December 1938, these multidisciplinary collaborators brought their incredible knowledge of physics and chemistry together where the two intersect – atoms. Having fled the Nazi regime to Stockholm, physicist Lise Meitner and nephew Frisch made a breakthrough. Her good friend Otto Hahn, a nuclear chemist, had sent her a letter about the unexplained results he and Strassman noticed when bombarding uranium with neutrons. Meitner and Frisch realised that what the chemists had observed was some of an atom’s mass converting into energy when split. They named it nuclear fission. Though her discovery paved the way for atomic warfare, Meitner famously said, “I will have nothing to do with a bomb.”

8. Human Cell Atlas

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What would a map of every cell in the human body look like? That’s a question the Human Cell Atlas wants to answer. This new project involves a collaborative community of world-leading scientists, headed up by computational biologist Dr Aviv Regev and cellular geneticist Dr Sarah Teichmann. Currently, science doesn't even know how many cell types there actually are – probably thousands – so it’s safe to assume it’ll take decades to complete. But when it is, thanks to the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative (yes, that Zuckerberg), it’ll live online, open and free for all. The Human Cell Atlas will be a comprehensive encyclopaedia, housing data on every single aspect of every single type of cell. It’s hard to fathom the impact it’ll have on all aspects of medicine.

9. LIGO Scientific Collaboration

NASA / Ames Research Center / C. Henze / Wikimedia Commons / Via commons.wikimedia.org

The LSC was first founded in 1997, as the organising body for LIGO observatories – notably in the USA, Italy, and Germany. It stands for "Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory". Or, to you and me, "scientists who detect cosmic gravitational waves rippling through space-time, caused by the collision of black holes billions of light years away". Pretty incredible...

Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish, and Kip Thorne are jointly credited with the official discovery of gravitational waves, for which the trio has earned the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics. What's the big deal? Well, now we can "hear" the deep universe. We don’t need to be able to see it. It’s also confirmed the last remaining prediction in Einstein’s theory of general relativity. That kind of badassery just can’t be done without international collaboration. The latest figures put the LSC at 1,167 total members, throughout 103 institutions in 18 countries.

10. The International Brain Laboratory

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It may sound like something out of a dystopian sci-fi novel, but the International Brain Laboratory is solving one of the biggest mysteries in science today. Although only just formed, its findings promise to transform humanity’s understanding of the brain and how decisions are made. The virtual lab’s initial project seems deceptively simple – to study the activity of single neurons all over a mouse’s brain, as it completes a basic task. But because that’s up to 75 million neurons, 21 groups of world-leading neuroscience labs worldwide will be tackling it together, using £10 million in funding from the Wellcome Trust and Simons Foundation. That’s some serious collaboration.

Now more than ever, international collaboration is fundamental to science and innovation. Researchers accomplish more when they work together. Find out more and follow Together Science Can on Twitter at @togetherscican.