Over two foggy days in April, a group of high-ranking Chinese
science and education leaders and some American counterparts met at a
University of California San Diego faculty club to discuss an issue
crucial to both nations: educating future generations in the ethical
standards surrounding the conduct of research.
The meeting was low-key – no TV cameras, no headlines – but from the
start, its potential for high impact was clear. Not so many years ago,
during the Cold War, the two nations were locked in conflict. Now they
were collaborating to strengthen science for the 21st century.
The talks were emblematic of a promising global trend that features
researchers, diplomats and others collaborating on science and, in the
process, building closer ties between nations. Even countries with
tense government-to-government relations share common challenges in
infectious diseases, earthquake engineering, energy production and
The White House and Congress have made welcome moves to embrace the
potential of science diplomacy, but in the months and years ahead, they
will need to exert still more leadership and make sure the effort has
the resources needed to succeed.
Science diplomacy is hardly a new idea. A 1979 agreement between the
United States and China paved the way for bilateral scientific
cooperation that has generated vast benefits for both nations,
including reduced tensions and billions of dollars in economic
activity. U.S. and Soviet nongovernmental organizations contributed to
a Cold War thaw through scientific exchanges, with little government
support other than travel visas.
Now, science diplomacy may help America open a door toward improved
relations with Pyongyang, too. Last December, six Americans
representing leading scientific organizations sat down with their North
High-level science delegations from the United States in recent
months also have visited Syria, Cuba and Rwanda, not to mention Asian
and European nations.
America’s scientific and technological accomplishments are admired
worldwide, suggesting a valuable way to promote dialogue. A June 2004
Zogby International poll commissioned by the Arab American Institute
found that a deeply unfavorable view of the U.S. in many Muslim
nations, but a profoundly favorable view of U.S. science and
technology. Similarly, Pew polling data from 43 countries shows that
favorable views of U.S. science and technology exceed overall views of
the United States by an average of 23 points.
Within the scientific community, journals routinely publish articles
cowritten 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
the professional exchange of ideas. Basic values of transparency,
vigorous inquiry and respectful debate are all essential.
The North Korea visit, organized by the U.S.-Democratic People’s
Republic of Korea Science Engagement Consortium, exemplifies the vast
potential of science for diplomacy.
The U.S. government already has 43 bilateral umbrella science and
technology agreements with nations worldwide, and the administration of
President Barack Obama is elevating the profile of science engagement.
In June, in Cairo, he promised a range of joint science and technology
initiatives with Muslim-majority countries. In November, Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton appointed three science envoys to foster new
partnerships and address common challenges, especially within
In addition to providing resources, the government should quickly
and significantly increase the number of H1-B visas being approved for
foreign doctors, scientists and engineers. Foreign scientists working
or studying in U.S. universities make critical contributions to human
welfare and to our economy, and they often become informal goodwill
ambassadors for America overseas.
Science is a wide-ranging effort that naturally crosses borders, and
so scientist-to-scientist collaboration can promote goodwill at the
San Diego boasts a remarkable initiative at High Tech High charter
school. Twice in recent years, biology teacher Jay Vavra has led
student teams to Africa to study the illegal trade in meat from wild
and endangered animals. Working with game wardens and tribal leaders,
they use sophisticated DNA bar coding techniques to analyze the meat
and track down poachers.
Such efforts advance science while supporting peace and the health
of the planet. In an era of complex global challenges, science
diplomacy can be crucial to finding solutions both to global problems
and to global conflict.
Pickering served as undersecretary of state from 1997-2000 and chairs the advisory council of the
Civilian Research and Development Foundation. Agre, a Nobel laureate,
is a physician and director of the Malaria Research Institute at the
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He is president of the
American Association for the Advancement of Science.