The Future of International Science: Four Scenarios


The International Council for Science (ICSU), an organization that includes national scientific bodies from from 140 nations as well as international scientific unions, published International Science in 2031—Exploratory Scenarios, which offers outlines of four distinct scenarios on the possible future of international science.

These scenarios describe four plausible yet very different futures, were the culmination of two years of foresight analysis that invited input from all of ICSU’s members. The focus of the foresight process was to identify the key drivers that will influence international science over the next two decades and to develop strategies to support international science collaboration in a way that advances progress and benefits society.


  • Over the next two decades, addressing global challenges will demand coordinated scientific efforts and often interdisciplinary science.
  • While scientists prefer a future of global cooperation and agendas closely aligned to societal goals, other futures are plausible.
  • Science will be conducted very differently if the world becomes nationalistic and science becomes detached from society.


For ICSU, the foresight process began with a description of the current international science landscape. Citing recent reports issued by UNESCO and the UK Royal Society, it focused on the following trends and baseline assumptions in describing the current landscape:

  • Science is increasingly global. The biggest investors in science remain the US, Western Europe, and Japan, yet other nations—from China, India, and Brazil to those in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, as well as smaller European nations— are strengthening their role in science.
  • A multipolar science world is developing. While traditional centers of science remain strong, the BRIC nations and other new players are emerging.
  • The scientific world is becoming more and more connected. Digital technologies are accelerating the ability of researchers to collaborate.


ICSU identified three important roles in organizing the current (and future) international science landscape:

  • Agenda setting. Major actors in this area include intergovernmental organizations (e.g., the UN); regional bodies (e.g., the European Commission); funding agencies and foundations; industry; and professional societies.
  • Funding. Major actors include regional funders (e.g., the European Commission); national funding agencies (e.g., US science agencies); private foundations; NGOs; and multinational companies.
  • Coordination. Major actors include international science organizations (e.g., ICSU); international science programs; national research institutes; universities; and multinational companies.


After establishing a general context for the future of science, ICSU identified 13 critical uncertainties that could help shape the way that future unfolds. Most of these uncertainties hinge on the relationship between science and society (or the societies of various countries and regions). These “key drivers” include:

  • States and markets: State preferences with regard to socio- economic development—e.g., free markets versus strong state intervention, or sustainability and well-being versus economic growth.
  • Global agendas and arenas: The state of international relations and the focus of political and policy agendas, which will influence how science engages and informs policymakers.
  • State sovereignty, regionalism, or globalism—the continued viability of global policy organizations (e.g., the UN); challenges to state sovereignty by regional groupings; or a multipolar world shaped by strong individual nations.


  • If the epistemic organization of science does indeed change, the emergence of research consortiums or new hybrid organizations that challenge universities and public research institutions as centers of research—as well as the expansion of interdisciplinary approaches to research—will open a host of new opportunities for private companies. To take advantage of such promising intersections as nanotechnology and biology, health and IT, or food and medicine, companies may need to reconsider their R&D structures and boost investment in assembling interdisciplinary research teams (in the manner of Bell Labs in an earlier era).
  • Businesses would be well-advised to track the progress of the “key drivers” (i.e., uncertainties) identified by ICSU and to determine which scenario seems to be unfolding based on these developments. In an increasingly tech-dependent future, in which converging technologies frequently blur the boundaries between disciplines (e.g., biofuels and green chemistry), the development of these drivers and the scenario that unfolds will define the context in which R&D, collaborations, technological developments, and operations will occur—and will direct the prioritization of the needs that science will be expected to address
  • As more and more players assume a role in a multipolar and yet interconnected scientific world, the need for new collaboration tools and services will grow stronger. This could open significant opportunities for new data-sharing technologies (e.g., telecom and cloud services), as well as for creation and refinement of research facilities and technical workspaces (e.g., laboratories) that enable colleagues to collaborate seamlessly both face-to-face and virtually.