The United States is making welcome noises about enhancing the role of science in its foreign policy — including overseas aid. But its strategy must reach the core of sustainable development policies, not remain on the surface.
If the way that science is expected to 'inform' political decision-making — to use the current jargon — was a simple process, the United States would now be one of the cheer-leaders whipping up support for the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. Even the conservative administration of President George W Bush has now accepted, albeit reluctantly, the scientific consensus that human activity is causing global warming with potential disastrous consequences for the planet. And when it comes to programmes for international action to avoid these, the Kyoto Protocol is the only show in town.
Unfortunately life is not so simple. Bush and his political supporters may now agree with the rest of the world on the existence of the problem, and the need to do something. The disagreement is not over the 'why?' but the 'how?'. The basic dilemma is that the protocol, which is expected to enter into force without US support at some point within the next few months, has a number of drawbacks as far as US industry is concerned, particularly in the energy sector. Indeed the Bush administration's attitude is in line with the proud — if somewhat insensitive — statement of its Agency for International Development (USAID) that "the principal beneficiary of America's foreign assistance programs has always been the United States".
These facts need to be remembered when interpreting recent remarks by the US Secretary of State Colin Powell on the importance of science to US foreign policy (see Powell backs role of science in US diplomacy). Addressing the annual meeting of fellows of the National Academy of Sciences — something of a coup for academy president Bruce Alberts — Powell spoke at length about the ways in which science plays a key role in international diplomacy. He also outlined how one of the political goals of the current administration was to equip other countries, developed and developing alike, with the means to participate in such dialogues.
The apparent re-awakening of interest in science and technology within US diplomatic circles is to be welcomed. Such interest first emerged in the period after the Second World War, leading to landmark initiatives such as the Atoms for Peace Conference. Having received a domestic and international battering during and after the Vietnam War, it resurfaced briefly under the Carter administration at the end of the 1970s. Since then, however, it has become submerged in other concerns (such an environmental issues on the world stage, and technological competitiveness at home), and only recently has a science office, axed in the 1980s, been recreated in the State Department.
Furthermore, Powell's words were not entirely empty. There is already a deeper commitment on the part of the US administration to engage in international scientific issues than several years ago. This commitment, expressed for example in a heightened willingness to address the global epidemic of AIDS, has undoubtedly been partly spurred by reflections on the political threats that can emerge from endemic poverty elsewhere in the world, triggered by the events of September 11.
But the interest is broader; the United States, for example, might well have rejoined the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) by now if State Department funding intended to finance this had not been diverted into the government's efforts to combat bioterrorism in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Perhaps most promising is the suggestion in Powell's speech that the time is right to boost thinking about aid for science capacity building within USAID (one of the Carter administration's abandoned achievements).
Yet the political agenda has not been, and must not be, forgotten. Whether one is talking about the fact that the bulk of 'humanitarian assistance' distributed through USAID goes to countries such as Egypt, Israel and (more recently) Pakistan, or more directly the administration's outright rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, any enthusiasm in Washington to pursue desirable scientific and technical goals ends up, inevitably, being tempered by political realism.
Even when Powell talks approvingly of the need to promote science-based decision-making, for example, it needs to be remembered that, for many, this is a coded reference to the continuing reluctance of European Parliaments to endorse genetically-modified foods (which currently come primarily from the United States, and are produced primarily under patents owned by US companies).
The wariness this requires of an external observer should, therefore, apply equally to efforts by the US administration to push science and technology issues to the fore during the forthcoming World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD), which takes place in Johannesburg at the end of August. As Powell made clear in his speech, he is keen to see the summit meeting endorse new initiatives in scientific and technical fields (for example in environmentally-sensitive energy technologies). He is also keen for the United States to demonstrate the many ways in which its own technology can assist in promoting sustainable development, for example by helping farmers in poor countries to make effective use of data obtained from remote sensing satellites (through the Geographic Information for Sustainable Development Project programme).
Powell's comments are, in principle, to be welcomed. So, too, is the United States' expected endorsement of pragmatic 'partnerships' between the public and private sector in areas such as health research and the conservation of biodiversity. The downside, however, is that this enthusiasm for the technical side of sustainable development could detract from the more fundamental social, economic and eventually political issues on which viable development policies depend. Indeed, some cynics suggest that this might even be deliberate policy.
If the United States does send a high-level delegation to Johannesburg — and this is still under discussion in Washington — it is not likely to be there to address the needs for reforms in international rules governing intellectual property, technology transfer, or even access to agricultural markets in the developed world. Despite the sea-change that has taken place in attitudes towards foreign aid as a result of the events of 11 September, one can be relatively certain that the primary goal of the US delegation will remain to protect US interests in these areas, even though many maintain that it is the defence of these interests that are the real stumbling blocks to genuinely sustainable development policies.
Any promises for an enhanced role for science in US foreign affairs therefore must be judged eventually on how this promise becomes manifest in practice (particularly within USAID), and even more on its outcome. The shift in the US administration's position will certainly make it easier for those with concrete proposals in this area to find endorsement (if not sponsorship). And the call for a stronger scientific input into political decision-making is one that merits support. But it would be naïve to dissociate either of these from the political agenda that lies behind them. There are times when gift-horses should be looked firmly in the mouth.
© SciDev.Net 2002