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Progressive scientific diplomacy focused on building research capacity is in everybody's political interests, but significant challenges remain.

Two bills awaiting review by the US House of Representatives could significantly impact how the United States engages and supports research in the developing world. Essentially, their purpose is to help scientific co-operation support US foreign policy goals.

One bill proposes the creation of a coordinating body to advance US priorities through international research co-operation, while the other focuses on scientific support to the global south and Muslim-majority countries.

Bills like these would greatly improve the US standing on commitment to development. According to the Center for Global Development, the country ranks tenth among wealthy nations in its use of research and innovation in support of development. [1] 

What is interesting about the bills is the way they seek explicitly to draw together three significant policy strands: foreign policy, global development and research investment.   

The prospect of using science to build goodwill, and as a route to peace-building, is noble and sensible in many ways. For example, in addressing the consequences of inequality and increasing opportunities for prosperity across the world, science might lessen some of the international tensions driven by ideological differences.

This, however, begs questions about the kind of research a government should invest in and, in so doing, exposes the potentially overweening ambition of such an exercise.

The choice of research agenda will be of particular concern if the purpose of the collaboration is to serve national foreign policy. Which research projects are likely to have the greatest success in winning hearts and minds? Will the selection of issues lead to a kind of censorship that could undermine the whole peace-building exercise?  

But to place too much emphasis on the content of the research would be misguided.

Validating the agenda

The issue is not so much what to research but how to build research capacity. To impact positively development outcomes in areas such as health and education, it would be best to invest in infrastructure and scientific processes in the global South. This is partly because it is increasingly important to reconcile global crises with local priorities if the research funding community is to foster global citizenship among scientists.

In addition, variations in geographic and political contexts mean that the capacity of local scientists and institutions to adapt science to local conditions is crucial — even more so when selecting the right research topics for a continent. For example, the work coming out of large-scale research programmes, such as the Future Agricultures Consortium, emphasises local appropriateness over scale.

Another reason that capacity matters more than content is that it increases the sustainability of the goodwill associated with scientific diplomacy.

There is a growing feeling that many global solutions to scientific dilemmas are too orientated towards Europe and North America, as was reflected in the angst among some research networks in South Asia in the lead up to the Rio+20 conference in June 2012.

This is, in part, a result of a lack of leading research by southern institutions. One can look to debates on biodiversity or climate justice for examples. And scientists based in the global South are woefully under-represented in internationally accepted citation indices.

It's not that talent is lacking in these countries, but rather that the structures and pathways to success mean that talented southern scientists often head to Europe and the US. Addressing this problem would require significant investment, not to mention worrying about which specific issues to research. It is encouraging, in this regard, that one of the US bills — the 'Global Science Program for Security, Competitiveness and Diplomacy Act' (H.R. 6303) — makes provision for an online open access library to provide greater and cheaper access to research between scientists in the North and South.

Political pay-off

If the US were to invest in building research and scientific capacity, so that developing countries could demonstrate real ownership of scientific innovations for their communities and make consistently substantive contributions to the global body of knowledge, it would be in everybody's political interests — not just those of the US.

In the short term, however, there are two significant challenges to a progressive kind of scientific diplomacy. 

Science is a deeply politicised area of endeavour and many governments, in both richer and poorer countries, keep their scientists on a tight leash. The notion of the US investing heavily in building research and scientific capacity therefore may not always be welcomed as purely altruistic, and national interests around the uptake of research may bring to the surface tensions between countries and sectors. Classic examples of this include patents for drugs or the development of renewable energy sources. 

The specific reference to increasing competitiveness in the title of one of the US bills suggests that such tensions between national commercial interests and ambitions for goodwill between nations will not be easy to reconcile. In fact, according to the Center for Global Development, US commitment to development is regularly undermined by "restricting the flow of innovations into bilateral free trade agreements". This is also common practice for some members of the European Union.

The three per cent

As it turns out, we may have rather more time to have this discussion than some of us would like: GovTrack, a website that tracks the deliberations of the US Congress, gives the bills a less than three per cent probability of being enacted, because of the dynamics of the political landscape in the US.

This presents the second challenge: an era of austerity and economic conservatism around the world does not present policymakers in rich countries with many opportunities for big investment in scientific diplomacy. The economic timing hardly seems right.

We should be wary, though, of saying that this is an idea whose time has yet to come. In the United Kingdom there is the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences, a coordinating body that seeks to raise the profile of multi-disciplinary development research among research councils in the United Kingdom and yield more scientifically-literate government departments. Its concern is science but its operations are embedded in the politics of diplomacy. And it has just received a sterling review of its first five years of operation by its membership of research councils.

It might not be delivering world peace and an end to poverty, but the consensus it is forging across disciplines bodes well for our collective future.

Nick Ishmael Perkins
Director, SciDev.Net



[1] 2011 Commitment to Development Index (Center for Global Development, 2012)