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A prominent US congressman has proposed that the United States should set up a foreign policy programme to boost international scientific collaboration, especially with Muslim countries.

The Global Science Program for Security, Competitiveness, and Diplomacy Act of 2010 was introduced to the House of Representatives last week (10 March) by Howard L. Berman, Democratic representative and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

It would establish a global grants programme to increase academic exchange and research. It also envisions a "global virtual science library" that would provide online access to international science journals at no, or low, cost for scientists and engineers in developing countries.

The bill calls for global research competitions to address priority issues including nuclear nonproliferation, ocean acidification, multiple drug resistant diseases, water-borne diseases, development of renewable energy, sanitation, food shortages, and water resources.

To be eligible for funding countries would have to be classified as low income, have a Muslim majority or be located in the Middle East. However, the bill limits the amount of money that can be spent in any one country to ten per cent of the total funds.

"United States scientists, engineers, and innovators are an underutilized asset in efforts to advance United States diplomatic objectives," the bill says.

The amount of money that the administration would be able to make available for the project is not thought to be large, given current constraints on the federal budget.

But a spokeswoman for Berman said: "Even small grants can be meaningful. Targeted funds, such as for a professional conference, have many more echoes in creating professional exchange."

The proposal is a result of the growing popularity of science diplomacy -- the use of science for diplomatic purposes -- among scientists and foreign policy experts, as well as advocates in Congress and the White House. So far Berman's bill has garnered bipartisan support and his spokesperson said the bill may soon get a companion bill in the Senate — the bill would have to be approved by both before being enforced.

Republican Richard Lugar is a key senate advocate for a strong science programme as part of US foreign policy strategy, calling the efforts crucial for helping prevent conflict and bolster soft power — the influence the United States can wield because of positive perceptions of its advanced scientific and technical capacities.
But his spokesman Andy Fisher could not confirm if a companion bill will be forthcoming in Senate soon.

Meanwhile, the White House is working to make science diplomacy a key part of its overall foreign policy strategy, in part by enacting a science envoys programme that Lugar crafted in legislation last year (see Obama vows to boost science ties with Muslim world).

President Barack Obama's administration has so far appointed three scientists as envoys, and their first foreign trips were made in January, to Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Indonesia, the Middle East, North Africa and Pakistan are set to receive visits later this year.