Political science

More opportunities needed for U.S. researchers to work with their foreign counterparts

February 09, 2010|By Thomas R. Pickering and Peter Agre

Leverage Science Diplomacy Now to Boost U.S. Foreign Policy

In 1979, a science and technology agreement between the United States and China paved the way for bilateral scientific cooperation that continues to benefit American science and society more broadly.

Now, science diplomacy may help America open a door toward improved relations with Pyongyang, too. In December, six Americans representing leading scientific organizations sat down with their North Korean counterparts. The meeting took place on the heels of U.S. Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth's first official bilateral meeting with North Korea.

Science, an international enterprise that relies on a lively exchange of ideas and data, can help build trust and expand understanding when government-to-government contacts may be strained. The North Korea visit, plus the first-ever U.S. science envoys, represent a fine beginning to a new era of international research cooperation. But the White House, the State Department and Congress must do far more to bolster science diplomacy.

In particular, the U.S. government should quickly and significantly increase the number of H1-B visas being approved for specialized foreign workers such as doctors, scientists and engineers. Their contributions are critical to improving human welfare as well as our economy. Foreign scientists working or studying in U.S. universities also become informal goodwill ambassadors for America globally - an important benefit in the developing world, where senior scientists and engineers often enter national politics.

More broadly, we urgently need to expand and deepen links between the U.S. and foreign scientific communities to advance solutions to common challenges. Climate change, sustainable development, pandemic disease, malnutrition, protection for oceans and wildlife, national security and innovative energy technologies all demand solutions that draw on science and technology.

Fortunately, U.S. technological leadership is admired worldwide, suggesting a way to promote dialogue with countries where we otherwise lack access and leverage. A June 2004 Zogby International poll commissioned by the Arab American Institute found that only 11 percent of Moroccans surveyed had a favorable overall view of the United States - but 90 percent had a positive view of U.S. science and technology. Only 15 percent of Jordanians had a positive overall view, but 83 percent registered admiration for U.S. science and technology. Similarly, Pew polling data from 43 countries show that favorable views of U.S. science and technology exceed overall views of the United States by an average of 23 points.

The recent mission to North Korea exemplified the vast potential of science for U.S. diplomacy. Within the scientific community, after all, journals routinely publish articles co-written by scientists from different nations, and scholars convene frequent conferences to extend those ties. Science demands an intellectually honest atmosphere, peer review and a common language for professional discourse. Basic values of transparency, vigorous inquiry and respectful debate are all inherent to science.

Nations that cooperate on science strengthen the same values that support peaceful conflict resolution and improved public safety. U.S. and Soviet nongovernmental organizations contributed to a thaw in the Cold War through scientific exchanges, with little government support other than travel visas.

The U.S. government is off to a good start in leveraging science diplomacy, with 43 bilateral umbrella science and technology agreements now in force. The Obama administration further elevated science engagement, beginning with the president's June speech in Cairo. Then, in November, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appointed three science envoys to foster new partnerships and address common challenges, especially within Muslim-majority countries. She also announced the Global Technology and Innovation Fund, through which the Overseas Private Investment Corporation will spur private-sector investments in science and technology industries abroad.

These steps are commendable, but the White House and the State Department need to exercise even greater leadership to build government capacity and partnerships that advance U.S. science diplomacy globally. Congress should lead as well, with greater recognition of science engagement and increased funding for science capacity-building. Both chambers must work together to give the executive branch the resources it needs.

In an era of complex global challenges, science diplomacy is a critical tool for U.S. foreign policy. The opportunity to strengthen that tool and advance our diplomatic goals should not be missed.

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