It's being posed by the Royal Society, the London-based body now celebrat' />

What's next for international science? That's a wee question to ponder.

It's being posed by the Royal Society, the London-based body now celebrating its 350th anniversary year, whose past fellows include such famous figures as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and our own Ernest Rutherford.

In contemporary times fellows include Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, world wide web inventor Tim Berners Lee and James Lovelock, whose Gaia theory describes the Earth as a living system.

With the suitably sceptical motto "take nobody's word for it" - "nullius in verba", for Latin scholars - the Royal Society funds the work of thousands of scientists in Britain and beyond, advises the British government on science policy and stages numerous public events.

Last month it launched a Global Science Study, one of the main aims of which is to look at how scientific research is being changed by international collaboration.

Collaboration across borders is nothing new, but it is easier and more powerful than ever.

In Rutherford's day collaboration meant sailing off from New Zealand in his late 20s and forging a brilliant career in England. It was our loss and their gain.

Even today, collaboration can be lacking. Lovelock, who has a particularly bleak view of the impact that climate change will have on the world, says the forecast would be less bad if different branches of science worked together better. Perhaps the Royal Society's investigation can help bring that about.

The chairman of the study's advisory group is Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, a professor of theoretical physics with some of the best credentials in the world for pace of research

Individual collaborations are flourishing in a way that was impossible 20 years ago.Sir Chris Llewellyn Smithstudying collaboration. As director general of CERN - the European Organisation for Nuclear Research - in the mid-1990s, he set the ball rolling for development of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

He went on to chair the council of ITER, the international effort to build a nuclear fusion reactor in France, and is president of the council of SESAME, a collaborative effort in Jordan involving Israeli and Palestinian scientists, among others.

The modern collaboration tool is the data network, the most common of which is the internet. Smith thinks the web is lifting the standard of science by increasing international collaboration, and he points to the construction of the LHC as an example of a project that could not have happened without the web.

But not all examples are so grand.

"Individual collaborations are flourishing in a way that was impossible 20 years ago," he says. "For example, I was in the office of an Israeli colleague a fortnight ago who was having one of a series of regular discussions with a collaborator - at CERN? I don't even know where - using Skype.

"In the past, such collaborations were difficult and slow - letters had to be sent - and hence rarer and less productive."

Scientific breakthroughs aren't the only spinoffs of international collaboration.

As his own experience shows - working in Russia in the 1960s, at CERN and with SESAME - Smith says it can help bridge national differences.

"SESAME won't solve the problems in the Middle East, but it will help promote better understanding."

Research institutions around the world - including New Zealand - are already linked by networks many times faster than the internet and, as they get faster still, Smith can see them playing a part in fusion research, not to mention building more credible climate models.

If the study team's gaze extends all the way to this country, they'll be able to see the evidence of collaboration made possible by KAREN, a high-speed network linking Crown research institutes and tertiary institutions.

"The first thing you see on these networks is that people start to use videoconferencing," says Donald Clark, who heads REANNZ, the Crown company that runs KAREN.

"It's high-definition, and it works, and it's great - it's a genuine substitute for travel."

And the network more than pays its way. An independent study of KAREN's economic benefits found that every $1 invested by the Crown returned $4 to the economy, and that by 2015 the benefits would amount to at least $200 million a year.

For the world as a whole, the Global Science Study, to be completed by November, could suggest ways international collaboration could be harnessed to tackle problems such as pandemics, pollution and climate change, "which also know no boundaries", Smith says.

Scientific celebration

You don't have to travel to London to help mark the Royal Society's 350th birthday. Next week the society's president, Martin Rees, the 2010 Rutherford Memorial Lecturer, will speak in Wellington and Christchurch.

Rees, an astronomer, will talk about star-gazing's next 20 years in Christchurch on Monday, and in Wellington on Tuesday he'll sketch out how the world might look in 2050. Details of the free lectures can be found on the Royal Society of NZ website: www.royalsociety.org.nz