Saturday, July 24, 2010

Early Results from an Obama Administration Science Diplomacy Initiative

Bruce Alberts was appointed Science Envoy to Indonesia, Elias Zerhouni Science Envoy to Algeria, and Ahmed Zewail Science Envoy to Egypt by the Obama administration. All very distinguished scientists, they serve in their personal capacity and are not government employees (although there are science attaches in some embassys). Now, according to the American Institute of Physics, they have reported on their early experience to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. I quote from the AIP report:
Alberts has had some initial success, including the establishment of an annual “Frontiers of Science” meeting with 40 US and 40 Indonesian future science leaders, and a new US program to support university exchanges. There are presently 7,000 Indonesians in US universities and Alberts hopes to triple that number. Indonesia is considering creating a new merit-based research funding agency similar to the National Science Foundation. This is another opportunity for the US which aided China’s creation of a similar agency. Furthering science education cooperation, Indonesia recently sent an envoy of scientists and educators to a US conference on science education....

Three areas—water, food and energy security, health and environment, and how best to establish evidence and merit-based systems—have emerged as common priorities across countries. To address these issues, Zerhouni outlines common needs in these countries. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs at every level are also needed; a problem compounded by unqualified teachers and large youth populations that beleaguer already thin education systems. Zerhouni also identified a need to establish stronger scientific cultures of inquiry as opposed to rote learning......

Ahmed, who called Obama’s Cairo speech “historic” and “well received,” argued for a new way of international partnership focused around science. Zewail said that he was surprised by a lack of science expertise at US embassies, a hindrance to science diplomacy. Zewail also urged Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director John Holdren to bring the issue of scholarships and visa issues for foreign students to the attention of the President. Zewail ended with this anecdote, “After the June speech by President Obama the expectations were so high…. In Egypt you sell dates in Ramadan… the dates that were sold in Egypt, the highest priced date was named Obama…. The expectations were extremely high, so quite frankly the people would like to see action. Time is running out….”
The stories sound quite different, and one wonders how much of the difference is due to the diplomatic and bureaucratic skills of each Envoy and how much to the differences in scientific cultures of Algeria, Egypt and Indonesia.

I hope that USAID can work with the Science Envoys to mobilize funds to make something happen. I have never worked in Algeria, but many years ago I coordinated a USAID science sector assessment in Egypt that led to a $140 million loan, and in the 1970s I coordinated a month long visit to the United States by Indonesia's Minister of Science and Technology and the chief scientific officers of a dozen other ministries. My experience indicates that there is a huge potential for fruitful scientific cooperation between each of these countries and the United States, but that money is a requirement to make that cooperation work.

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