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Facing opposition and funding cuts, what will Barack Obama's science diplomacy efforts look like in the future? Heather Maughan investigates.

The Obama administration is expected to continue including science and technology (S&T) in its diplomacy agenda, according to interviews with a number of people recognised for their contributions to international science cooperation.

But in the face of government spending cuts that could occur in 2013, US diplomatic efforts in S&T may be more reliant on collaboration with the private sector.

In his first four years, Obama revamped S&T diplomacy. His 2009 speech in Cairo pledged to make Muslim-majority countries a priority and led to his creation of a programme of science envoys, prominent US scientists who travel as diplomats to "identify opportunities for new partnerships in science and technology". [1]  

Obama's appointments within the US Agency for International Development (USAID) have also strengthened the focus on S&T after "in recent decades, budget cuts and shifting mandates pulled the agency's focus away from emphasising science and technology", according to an article in Science. [2]

But since Obama's 2009 speech, the Arab Spring has occurred and the USAID budget could be cut by more than US$100 million if no compromise is found to avert mandatory cuts due to come into force in late March.

So will Obama be able to continue to use S&T as a force for good in the world?

Business as usual?

Cathleen Campbell, chief executive officer and president of CRDF Global, a non-profit organisation created by the US Congress to promote international scientific and technical collaboration, thinks Obama will continue to be supportive of S&T development.

"I expect him to be investing in R&D, investing in new technology, and I also expect he is going to continue his emphasis on partnerships with countries around the world in the pursuit of research collaboration and entrepreneurship, new business development, and development of technology," she says.

She adds that working with Muslim-majority countries will continue to be a priority, and that Obama indicated on a recent trip to Asia the emerging importance of the region.

Others also think that diplomatic efforts focusing on Muslim-majority countries will improve in the wake of the Arab Spring.

For example, Charles M. Vest, president of the US National Academy of Engineering and an awardee of CRDF Global's 2012 George Brown Award for International Science Cooperation, says: "Anything that opens up communications, as has occurred to some extent in the Arab Spring, increases opportunities for people-to-people science discussion".  

Laurie H. Glimcher, provost of medical affairs at Cornell University and the recipient of Argentina's 2012 Dr. Luis Federico Leloir Prize (for the promotion of the international scientific cooperation), points to another emerging priority: biomedical solutions to global health issues.

"We have an emerging crisis on our hands that is going to affect all of us and that transcends geographic areas or borders: our aging population," she says.

"For example, there are currently 25 million people in the world living with Alzheimer's disease. That's a staggering number and a heavy burden on our global healthcare system ... we have a challenge that could crush our existing global healthcare system if we don't find a solution."

She stresses that "international collaboration, beyond borders and nationalities, is crucial to finding the medical and scientific solutions we need".  

Finding the funds

Identifying key issues is easy. Finding the resources could be more challenging.

"One of the big challenges that we will be facing, like any other country, is the resource question. What kind of financial resources are going to be available to be able to pursue all the work that needs to be done?" asks Campbell.

The White House has proposed to reduce public spending by at least US$1 trillion over the next ten years. This would include the Department of State, through which many diplomatic efforts are funded.

But budgetary constraint need not mean science diplomacy efforts must suffer. As Campbell says, collaboration between organisations and governments, and between the public and private sectors, could make up for some of the shortfall.

But devoting resources to S&T diplomacy may become more difficult as Congress continues to disagree on how to best balance the budget before spending cuts occur in 2013. Changes in membership of Congress committees following the November 2012 election create further uncertainties.

Two bills proposing improved science cooperation and diplomacy have already been presented in Congress but had little chance of being passed and were eventually referred back to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. They propose improving cooperation between the US agencies that fund science, and allocating funds to diplomatic efforts in Middle Eastern, Sub-Saharan African and Muslim-majority countries.

Disagreements between Democrats and Republicans in Congress, and the November 2012 election, delayed the bills' progress. Although 2013 will bring a new chair to the House Committee on ScienceSpace and Technology, Campbell thinks it's too early to predict whether this will increase the chances of passing the bills or other legislation related to S&T diplomacy.

Immigration policies "give people an education and then shove them out of the country" says Draper

Credit: Flickr/ afagen

Sidestepping legislation

Legislation is not the only way forward, and some think the US government should be looking to the private sector for progress.

William H. Draper III, co-chairman of the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, and a 2012 George Brown awardee, says that it is the government's job to prepare the ground for international cooperation that allows "freedom of travel, freedom to exchange ideas [and] to encourage cross border investment".

He says this openness enables the kind of collaboration that can democratise technology, citing the example of his early investment in Skype, where money from the US private sector was invested in technology developed in Estonia and Sweden.  

Draper also feels passionate about improvements to international science cooperation that could be made through changes to US policies. For example, he criticises immigration policies that "give people an education and then shove them out of the country".

"Someone who goes to MIT [and then] graduates must leave our country in 18 months because he doesn't have a green card. We need a very solid and encouraging immigration policy. Every start-up [company I've invested in] in the past 20 years has involved at least one immigrant in the starting team," he says.

For Vest, one of the most powerful diplomatic tools available may not directly involve the government at all, but instead take advantage of "the huge numbers of employees of US corporations, many of whom are engineers and scientists, that are deployed around the world. They live with their counterparts in many countries and spread our values."

Vest also cites programmes such as MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative, which makes almost all of the institute's teaching materials available freely online, that are spreading education — including in S&T — around the world. "These, too, in my broad definition, are acts of public and S&T diplomacy and are very highly valued by people throughout the world," he says.

Campbell says it is crucial not to forget how important young people are in international collaboration, whether in business or academia. Schemes such as CRDF Global's initiative Global Innovation through Science and Technology, which helps fund and mentor promising entrepreneurs, are investing in this idea.

"The more that we can get young people interested and encouraged to do this, the better for the future of all of our countries," she concludes.


[1] First U.S. Science Envoys Begin Travel(Press release, US Department of State, 2010)

[2] Breakthroughs for Development (Editorial, Science, 2011)