Building an International Network of Knowledge

By Vaughan Turekian and Tom Wang

In the decades since the depths of the Cold War, scientists and engineers in the United States and Russia have built a special bond. As relations between their governments have shifted from acute tension to the thaw of détente to friendship and back to mutual wariness, our researchers have worked side-by-side on a range of successful projects.

This cooperation has been critical in building and enhancing relationships that, while outside of the political realm, have helped to promote understanding and trust among the our people. And the relationships produced important science in fields ranging from physics, health, and space exploration to the development of Internet-based information-sharing networks and the control of nuclear proliferation.

Today, the world is a vastly different place than it was 40 years ago, or even 10 years ago. Though tensions remain among countries, we no longer struggle with the strong polarization of national philosophies that characterized the Cold War. At the same time, common issues confront us on a global scale. The current financial crisis, international terrorism, the changing climate, and competition over energy supplies all show how interrelated we are.

National leaders are ever more aware of the reality that solving these and other challenges will require the innovative power of science, engineering and technology. Russia’s leaders understand that, and U.S. President Barack Obama does, too. These developments suggest that science diplomacy is entering an important new era, and that, if it is employed to help nations share knowledge and seek common solutions, it can be a powerful force of prosperity and peace.

Science diplomacy is not a new concept between Russia and the United States. During the Cold War, despite the geopolitical deadlock between the Soviet Union and the United States, the two powers used scientific exchanges to initiate a thaw. The relationships that grew from those first tentative agreements have since produced vast knowledge, billions of dollars in economic activity and real improvement in human well-being.

At a time of financial crisis and renewed geopolitical tension, there is an inclination to pull back from such cooperation. Indeed, there is an unspoken sense among some U.S. policymakers that science cooperation is a one-way street, a form of aid dispensed or withheld to achieve our own national ends. But this view is short-sighted.

Two years ago, the United States and Russia renewed an ambitious science-cooperation agreement; the U.S. Department of State cited a range of valuable accomplishments by the nations’ researchers. A 2002 RAND report prepared for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy concluded that the joint efforts provided great benefits to the United States.

U.S. scientists cite many cases in which Russian colleagues have shared valuable knowledge: Treating radioactive coolants; Using soil and climate data to understand climate change; Developing new treatments for bone cancer.

These past examples show the potential of continuing cooperation. We have broad areas of common interest: Fundamental research in nuclear physics; fusion energy research; counter-terrorism; nanotechnology; the control of infectious disease; arctic science; and development of clean energy sources.

The Russia-U.S. relationship has tended to be bilateral, but as the world grows more interconnected, this will have to evolve. Nations on every continent are investing in science and research capacity: South Korea and China have been transformed, seemingly overnight, by investing in innovation. Cuba has become a world leader in biomedical research. Rwanda is wiring itself for the Internet, and has begun to distribute thousands of computers to its young students. Argentina, as it develops its capacity in biotechnology and nanotechnology, is building cooperative science relationships not just in Latin America, but with Europe, Africa and the Arab world.

However different these nations are, each recognizes that science and technology will be the currency of the future; investments today will pay off in economic growth and societal development tomorrow.

It is in this context that international science cooperation provides the opportunity to build bridges between countries, both through governments and through civil society relationships. To be most effective, such an approach needs commitment from all interested parties—not just scientists and engineers, but policy-makers, the foreign policy community, educators and the public.

This emerging reality inspired the American Association for the Advancement of Science to establish a Center for Science Diplomacy earlier this year. In October, the Center convened intensive meetings with top U.S. leaders from foreign policy, business, education and science to discuss the best ways to pursue international partnerships, even with nations such as North Korea and Cuba, where governmental relationships have been profoundly strained.

Still, an overarching challenge confronts us now: At a time of financial crisis, we must work together to address world problems in a way that contributes to sustainable, long-term economic growth. Governments play an important role in such partnerships, but they cannot succeed without the commitment of individual researchers in Russia, the United States, and many other countries. If scientists and engineers take leadership, we can pursue new discoveries and solutions to shared problems even as we build understanding and trust between our nations.

ISTC is grateful to the AAAS for providing this text.

Vaughan Turekian is the chief international officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and director of its new Center for Science Diplomacy.

Tom Wang is AAAS’s director for international cooperation and deputy director of the Center.