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Delivering on its 'science for development' promises will help the Obama administration regain trust within the developing world.

In November 2008, Barack Obama stormed to victory in the US presidential elections on the back of commitments to radical political changes that would, he promised, remove the sour taste left by eight years of Republican rule.

Almost two years later, and despite victory on issues such as health reform, Obama's popularity has plummeted. That's partly due to failures in other areas. The most recent example is the administration's inability to pass a broad-ranging bill on climate change through Congress last week, significantly reducing the prospects for strong international action.

It would be a tragedy if the same fate met Obama's commitment to put science at the heart of his foreign aid policy. Expectations are high, particularly after his speech in Cairo last year, when he promised an enticing agenda of science-based initiatives to establish new links with the Muslim world, including the creation of centres of excellence and partnerships with US research institutions.

Promises on science for development were also reinforced, two weeks ago, by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a speech about the US Agency for International Development.

Obama still has time to make good on his promises — but perhaps not long. More conventional diplomatic approaches are seeking to re-establish their dominance, and the international scientific community's patience is in danger of wearing thin.

Enthusiasm for action

Last week, a meeting of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) in Washington, highlighted both the commitment to science for development, and the urgent need to meet expectations.

Chaired by physicist and presidential science adviser, John Holdren, the PCAST meeting heard about an overwhelming enthusiasm from parts of the developing world for science-based collaboration from Obama's three 'science envoys' — Bruce Alberts, former president of the National Academy of Sciences and current editor of Science, Elias Zerhouni, former director of the National Institutes of Health, and Ahmed Zewail, the Egyptian-born Nobel prize winner from the California Institute of Technology.

Each envoy had been tasked by Obama to visit different regions of the Muslim world, and each described to PCAST members the enormous potential, and demand that they had encountered, for productive partnerships with the US scientific community.

Alberts, for example, described the opportunities for collaborating with Indonesia, that include promoting both 'merit-based' partnerships between Indonesian and US universities, and the 'inquiry-based' science education he has already pushed for successfully in the United States.

Zerhouni had a similar story to tell about his trip to ten countries in the Middle East. Here, he said, growing awareness of the need to fund science and technology was accompanied by an equal eagerness to learn from the United States how to make such investments effective.

Obstacles and limitations

But while the speakers offered encouragement for Obama's vision of scientific partnership, they also highlighted the challenges of turning these aspirations into reality.

One particular obstacle is the tough entry restrictions now faced by students and scientists wishing to study or work in the United States. This, said the envoys, was encouraging many countries to form scientific partnerships with either European or Asian countries as easier alternatives.

Zerhouni identified the fragmented approach of federal agencies' in Washington to building science-based collaboration as another limitation. He called for a focal point to coordinate activities, urging Holdren's Office of Science and Technology Policy to take on the task of working out how to do this.

And Zewail pointed to the decline of science attachés in the US foreign service. As a result, he complained, US embassies across the developing world lack adequate scientific expertise, making it harder to facilitate effective scientific partnerships.

Robust action to re-establish trust

The relatively upbeat mood of the PCAST meeting reflected the window of opportunity that currently exists for a new era of partnership between US and developing world scientists. The demand for effective collaborations with the US scientific community is out there, and it is growing. And, at least in its rhetoric, the Obama administration seems willing to both listen and respond.

Now, nothing would do more to assure developing countries that US aid efforts are genuinely intended to help them — rather than simply promote US interests — than a robust, long-term commitment to support true scientific alliances, backed by the type of funding that seems to emerge all too easily when it comes to supplying military assistance.

To flourish, such partnerships need a strong framework that also protects them from the short-term horizons and political contingencies of much of foreign policy. Establishing such a framework now could help re-establish some of the rapidly-eroding international trust in the Obama administration.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net