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About the Author

Alan Leshner is the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (publisher of Science & Diplomacy) and executive publisher of the Science family of journals.


The Partnership of Scientists and Diplomats

Six years ago, during testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space and Technology, I announced the establishment of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Center for Science Diplomacy, guided by “the over-arching goal of using science and scientific cooperation to promote international understanding and prosperity.” One of its primary objectives is to bring attention to the central role of science in the conduct of foreign policy; this journal, Science & Diplomacy, is one such example. But while the term “science diplomacy” has become more and more en vogue in recent years, its long-term sustainability as a movement will require greater recognition of the value and benefits to the science community in engaging more energetically with the foreign policy community.

My own experiences from almost four decades in science policy have been marked by both the changing nature of the international science enterprise and the importance of science to addressing the major societal challenges of the global community—both the increased internationalization of science and the critical importance of science and scientists in the global policy arena. Virtually every international policy issue has a science, health, technology, or environmental component. As a result, over the past decades we have witnessed an increasing role of scientists within the global policy making community. One need only look towards the recent policy discussions around Ebola and climate change to see how important science and scientists are to discussions and solutions. At the same time, more and more policy makers around the world are looking to science and technology investments and cooperation as ways to jump start their underperforming economies, solve other local problems, and improve the health and welfare of their people. New products come from new discoveries, and more and more of these discoveries are being built on a platform of global science cooperation.

In 2010 I had the opportunity to lead a group to Rwanda for a workshop on regional cooperation in East Africa. The AAAS-organized workshop brought together senior government officials and scientists from Burundi, Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. It was part of a broader political effort undertaken by the heads of state to develop a coherent East African Community. Among a number of other key issues, increasing regional cooperation in science and education was an important goal of the overall initiative, and it was the focus of our own event. During discussions with senior political leaders from the region, it became abundantly clear that to be effective, regional science needed to be imbedded into regional diplomacy. We also recognized that the long term success of any regional integration would require the free movement and cross-national training of people within the region and the sharing of research and data over the long term. A few years after our meeting, and in a win for science diplomacy, the leaders of the East African Community established the East African Science & Technology Commission, recognizing the central role of such cooperation in promoting regional economic development.

Recent news that the United States would begin to relax some elements of its travel restrictions to Cuba demonstrates the importance of science interacting with international policy makers. For too long, science cooperation between the two countries has been impeded by limits on travel and participation in conferences, with important implications for biomedical research on communicable and noncommunicable diseases as well as on joint cooperation in the areas of marine and atmospheric research. As part of a AAAS-led group to Cuba earlier this year, we saw first-hand how important it would be both to Cuba and the United States to ensure that greater opportunities for scientific communication and collaboration are a part of any potential changes in policy. The recently announced policy changes will do exactly that: they will enable much easier communication and much more easily arranged travel for scientific meetings and joint projects.

While the benefits of science to international policymaking are relatively clear, to be sustainable, there also needs to be a more transparent set of benefits to the science community when it becomes involved in international diplomacy. The ongoing globalization of the science enterprise emphasizes the need to bring more scientists into discussions of international policies to ensure that those policies promote and do not interfere with the ability to collaborate across the world. A third of publications involving American scientists now involve international collaborations, and in Europe the percentage is even higher. Those trends are increasing. These partnerships have been formed for many reasons, including simply a shared interest in a particular scientific problem, the need to draw on expertise resident only in some other country, or the need to use facilities or study populations that are located in another country. But most international scientific collaborations now involve partners with comparable credentials and experiences in their own countries, not with scientists in other, emerging scientific communities, even though more and more countries are investing in science and working to build indigenous science capacity. If we want to make the concept of a truly global scientific community a reality—something we need to do to make sure we fully exploit the benefits of the whole enterprise, including the diversity of ideas, the creativity, and insights coming from all locations—more scientists from countries with established science communities will need to forge partnerships with those in emerging scientific communities to help with both collaboration and capacity building.

Efforts to establish the global connections, mechanisms, and norms to take full advantage of this great diversity of scientific resources are still in their infancy and are inadequate. New types of international partnerships, networks, forums, and instruments need to be created and nurtured. This calls for both scientific and diplomatic expertise to ensure that new policies will facilitate, and not inhibit, both the inevitable globalization of science and the application of scientific solutions to global problems. Only through the partnerships of scientists and diplomats can we truly advance global science for the benefit of all peoples.