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Efforts by the US government to boost the role of science in US diplomacy, a move that started under the Clinton administration in the late 1990s, have been endorsed by the Secretary of State, Colin Powell.

In an address to the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences, which was held recently in Washington, Powell said that in issues ranging from creating conditions for sustainable development to stemming the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, “the formulation of our foreign policy must proceed from a solid scientific foundation”.

He also announced his support for an inquiry by the National Research Council (NRC) into the role of science within the US Agency for International Development (USAID), similar to an NRC inquiry three years ago that helped pave the way for the reinstatement of a science office within the State Department.

And he promised that at the World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD), which takes placed in Johannesburg in late August, the United States “will stress that good governance, including solid science and technology policies, are fundamental to sustainable development”.

Sceptics argue that, despite a significant increase in the US foreign aid in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 11 September, most of this remains allocated to programmes in which the United States has a direct interest — for example, to promote the use of its technology abroad — and relatively little into areas such as capacity building for science and technology.

Others however say that Powell’s speech consolidates a shift in this direction that will make it possible for others to raise such issues up the US political agenda.

In his speech, Powell pointed out that, as the holder of a degree in geology from City College in New York, he was only the second Secretary I State since Thomas Jefferson to be scientifically qualified. However he added — to laughter from his audience — that “my great contribution to the field of science is that I never entered it”.

“But you don't have to have a geology degree to see that science and technology must inform and support our foreign policymaking in this challenging world,” he said, pointing for example to the key role that the president’s science adviser had played in negotiating politically-important agreements with countries such as China and India.

Powell said out that at the recent UN Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey, Mexico, President George W Bush and other world leaders had shaped a new approach to global development, designed “to unleash the entrepreneurial potential of the poor”.

He added: “The Monterrey consensus stresses the importance to sustainable development of good governance, sound institutions, economic reform, transparency in your system, the end of corruption, responsible leadership, responsible political activity.”

But above all, said Powell, the Monterrey consensus had emphasised the importance of “decision-making based on sound science and the building of science and technology capacity of developing countries.”

Powell promised that the US administration’s “new approach” to development would be visible at the WSSD. At this meeting, he said, the United States will emphasise that governments alone cannot do the job of promoting sustainable development. “Public-private partnerships will be crucial to find the money needed to help nations address the daunting problems that they face in developing.”

Powell said that globalisation — like scientific knowledge — was not “in and of itself” a force for darkness or for light. The issue was how countries respond to this force and use it to create hope for ordinary men, women and children around the world.

”We are convinced that with good governance, solid economic policies, and with the responsible application of science and technical knowledge, globalisation will be a positive force for the overwhelming majority of people on this planet,” he said.

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