Science should be prominent in U.S. foreign policy

From the August 2, 2008 issue of Science News

On May 28, the World Science Summit held in New York City convened an assembly of prominent scientists to discuss some of the critical issues at the interface between science and society. One of the panel discussions at the summit addressed the topic of the role of science in foreign affairs. Among the participants were Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health and now president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York; David Baltimore, former president of Caltech and Rockefeller University in New York; and Nina Fedoroff, a plant geneticist who is the science adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Excerpts from their comments follow below.

Varmus: A component of my life is devoted to trying to make science a more global activity to address many of the unsolved problems that we’ve been hearing about.… Energy or food or water or health, every domain of activity, regionally or globally, can be influenced by science, and it’s become the conviction of many of us that paying attention to science is an element of foreign policy. It is a commandment that ought to be listened to by every administration.…

Science is an attractive way to try to reach out to other countries, even countries with different ideologies, because science practices common methods. Most scientists speak the same languages; science addresses issues that tend to be regional if not global; … science profits from and often depends upon collaborations carried out in an international way; … and science creates global public goods, information that everyone can use for the betterment of the world.…

There are a lot of opportunities for any administration, especially a new one, to foster science abroad and to enhance the status of the U.S. as a partner in doing good in the world.

Baltimore: Science and technology are not limited to a space surrounded by particular political borders. Provision of clean energy in the world is perhaps the most pressing problem we have in the long run. Issues of health are international ones, especially in this era of jet-age travel. Poverty is a problem that countries have individually, but its effects spread throughout the world. Clean water affects rural and urban areas alike, and recently the provision of just basic food rations to the world’s population has become a growing concern.

So we’re living with a constant crisis of having spawned a population of 6.7 billion people on the Earth today and an ever increasing number as time passes. It’s an enormous problem, and increasing the affluence of these individuals is something that each country is working on, and that is producing strains and challenges to stretch the resourcefulness of people throughout the world.…

The AIDS epidemic … by itself strains the resources of the world. Today we’re trying to provide 33 million people with drugs to prevent the progression of AIDS; we’re trying to avoid the deaths of the most productive people in society; we’re trying to avoid the increase in orphaned children.

At the same time, we can’t forget … tuberculosis, malaria, other infectious diseases. We still need to be alert to new emerging infectious diseases. Actually the world has literally millions of diseases, most of which we don’t know much about, in animal reservoirs, any one of which, as SARS showed us, can come out and start taking a toll in human beings.…

All of this requires the marshaling of the resources of the developed world because the research that has to be carried out must be carried out in very sophisticated venues.

Fedoroff: The population has more than doubled since the middle of the 20th century, and the population experts are expecting another roughly 3 billion people to be added to the planet’s population by midcentury. But here’s a sobering factoid: The amount of arable land has not changed appreciably over the past half century. And it isn’t likely to increase much in the future because we’re losing it to urbanization, salinization and desertification as fast as we’re adding it.… And now that we’ve decided that our crops must feed not just humans and animals but our cars as well, it’s perhaps not surprising that food prices have suddenly spiked.…

It’s my view that our research universities and institutes as well as those of other developed nations have a unique opportunity to contribute to building the needed capacity of everything ranging from plant and agricultural sciences to small, medium and large enterprises that add value and diversify livelihoods based on science and technology. This is not just about food prices but about truly flattening the world.… It’s about creating a future in which the citizens of all countries have not just the food security but the educational and economic opportunities that are today restricted largely to the developed world.

Scientists and engineers have a crucial role to play, by creating what you might call a science diplomatic core.… The notion of becoming a science diplomat, taking time out from a busy and competitive career to teach and develop research collaborations in the least advanced countries most in need of our help, is not yet on the academic radar screen.

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