Science Knows No Borders. But Funders Do.

House panel tackles obstacles to scholarly collaboration in light of important role research can play in international relations -- and AAAS announces new center devoted to science diplomacy.
July 16, 2008

James A. Calvin, the interim vice president for research at Texas A&M University, referenced, by way of example, three different summits that brought together Chinese and U.S. scientists, each conference a site of vigorous discussion and debate.

And then what?

“Everyone’s excited, but then after three conferences we’re still at the same phase,” Calvin told the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Research and Science Education during a hearing Tuesday on the role of non-governmental organizations and universities in international science and technology cooperation.

What scientists have, Calvin explained, are “the international conferences to make the introductions. What they don’t have is the mechanism to take the next step.” When pressed by the committee chairman, Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), to offer an example of what such a mechanism would look like, Calvin suggested that, in this context, a granting entity jointly funded by the Chinese and U.S. governments could promote scholarly collaboration (he cautioned, however, that he wouldn’t want to dilute existing research funds available through the National Science Foundation).

Calvin's suggestion got to the heart of two of the challenges to international scholarly cooperation highlighted during Tuesday’s hearing: the difficulty of coordinating research when partners have different governmental agencies to ask of and answer to, and, at least in the U.S. government’s case, the legal limitations on funding foreign collaborators. (“Although we do agree with the view that U.S. taxpayer funds should be used primarily to support American science, there are instances, such as in international science development activities, where we believe this limitation can impede the ability of the programs to achieve their goals,” said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes Science.) Among the other barriers brought up were continuing challenges with visas, although, as Representative Baird pointed out, witnesses at a February subcommittee hearing reported progress on that front.

Witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing also outlined their respective organizations’ involvement in promoting international scholarly collaboration and capacity-building overseas. For instance, Michael Clegg, the foreign secretary for the National Academy of Sciences, described a recent project conducted in conjunction with Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian researchers that produced a report on "Water for the Future: The West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel and Jordan,” and an initiative, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, intended to build the capacity of African science academies. Witnesses framed their own efforts, as well as their advice to the U.S. government, in the context of big-picture, long-term goals, and, specifically, the role of scientific collaborations -- and the goodwill and (at times) tangible results they can generate -- in diplomacy.

AAAS, in fact, used the occasion to announce its new Center for Science Diplomacy, which will initially be supported with internal funds.

“One of the things it’ll do is analyze the success and failures of past efforts and try to distill the fundamental principles,” Leshner, the CEO, said in an interview, explaining that he hopes the center becomes a "focal point" for various science diplomacy activities. AAAS' other initial plans for the center include identifying obstacles to successful science diplomacy, and drawing in the association's affiliated scientific societies (AAAS has 262 of them) to mobilize interest. “If you want more of it to happen,” Leshner said, “it needs a focal point.”


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