bridges vol. 22, July 2009 / Norm Neureiter on S&T in Foreign Policy

By Norm Neureiter

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Norman Neureiter

In Washington, when something makes it into a presidential speech it becomes important. And on June 7, 2009, in President Obama's wide-ranging address to the Muslim world, science diplomacy went "big-time."  Yes, "science diplomacy," which we have written about in previous bridges columns.  In this case it refers to the use of science and technology (S&T) cooperation as a means of peaceful engagement with Muslim communities around the world - S&T cooperation as a potentially very effective instrument of a constructive foreign policy.  

Referring specifically to S&T, President Obama spoke of launching "a new fund to support technological development in Muslim-majority countries, and to help transfer ideas to the marketplace so they can create more jobs."  In addition, he said, we will "open centers of scientific excellence in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, and appoint new science envoys to collaborate on programs that develop new sources of energy, create green jobs, digitize records, clean water, grow new crops." He announced "a new global effort with the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to eradicate polio ... and to expand partnerships with Muslim communities to promote child and maternal health."

He also emphasized that "all these things must be done in partnership" and said  that "Americans are ready to join with citizens and governments, community organizations, religious leaders, and businesses in Muslim communities around the world to help people pursue a better life."   

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The audience applauded when he said that "all of us must recognize that education and innovation will be the currency of the 21st century."  Commenting on the importance of education, he said "we will expand exchange programs and increase scholarships like the one that brought my father to America."  Also "we will encourage more Americans to study in Muslim countries" and "we will match promising Muslim students with internships in America, and invest in online learning for teachers and children around the world ..."  And there was also applause when he added: "I am convinced that our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons," affirming that the US would "partner with any Muslim-majority country to support expanded literacy among girls and to help young women pursue employment through micro-financing that helps people live their dreams."

Because President Obama recognizes that entrepreneurship is a key element of the innovation process, he also intends to "create a a new corps of business volunteers to partner with counterparts in Muslim-majority coutnries." And he said that he will personally "host a Summit on Entrepreneurship this year to identify how we can deepen ties between business leaders, foundations, and social entrpreneurs in US and Muslim communities around the world."

To those of us interested in science diplomacy, this was an extremely important speech. It confirmed the President's strong belief in the value of S&T for addressing global problems and reflected the same degree of confidence in the ability of scientists that we saw early this year in his appointment of strong scientific leaders to key advisory, cabinet, and agency leadership positions. But now the great challenge for the US is effective implementation. Regrettably, the history of US implementation of high-level international scientific initiatives is a mixed bag. There have been money problems, conflicting agency priority problems, export control problems, security problems, and disagreements with Congress. So it is absolutely vital that the implementation of these multiple proposals be carefully and effectively done.

To me, the most important statement in his speech was the call for partnerships in executing these programs. These cannot be purely US assistance programs paid for by the US and handed off to the Muslim countries whether they really want them or not. In many cases, the Muslim counterparts have more money available than the US. Secondly, even though every technical or scientific US government agency and many scientific organizations are now thinking about how each of them can implement these proposals, where to find the money, whom to involve, etc., my own view is that planning should be preceded by a dialogue with the Muslim country or countries involved. It must be clearly understood on both sides what a partnership means: First of all, it means agreement on common goals and objectives and then acceptance, on both sides, of the principle of shared costs and the mechanisms for shared decision making.  

In the OIC there are 57 Muslim-majority countries - with great differences in history, culture, economic status, population, and political systems. Programs may be bilateral (but not with 57 countries) or multilateral (likely with small groups of countries with some interests in common). So there are some challenges on how to begin. I would start by working through our US embassies in each of the countries (except where we have no diplomatic relations, as with Iran) and asking them to begin a dialogue with their host country's leaders about their reaction to the speech and, generally, where their own interests might lie. And, based on the inputs coming back from the various posts, I would begin to formulate a plan - seeing what programs the US could accommodate, how they might be executed, what scientific organizations and agencies (public and private) could be counterparts, and what resources would be required.  

Although not mentioned in Obama's speech, it seems to me that another interesting dimension is the possibility of cooperation involving other developed countries such as the EU countries or Japan. The EU has shown great vision and statesmanship in providing dedicated funding under the 7th Framework Program for multilateral cooperative projects. While the accompanying bureacracy may seem oppressive, the opportunities for projects involving the US, an EU country or two, and one or more Muslim countries would certainly be possible and, in my view, definitely worth trying to develop.  

President Obama has given all of us in the developed countries' scientific community a great scientific and diplomatic challenge. While the initial response and conceptualization of how to implement these programs will be generated in the State Department and the Interagency (meaning all of the interested and involved technical agencies of the US Government) under overall leadership from OSTP and the White House, I would hope that AAAS, the NAS, and other non-governmental scientific societies will work to define their own, potentially highly significant, role in this process. All of us in the scientific community - both government and non-government - must rise to the occasion. Under the Obama Administration, the science community has been given an opportunity to address global issues to a degree that has not existed since American and Soviet physicists dominated the debates of the Cold War - and, in my opinion, contributed in a major way to its final resolution.  

Here is what the President said about the rich heritage of the Islamic world with which he now asks us to engage. "It was Islam that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe's Renaissance and Enlightenment.  It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra, our magnetic compass and tools of navigation, our mastery of pens and printing, our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation. And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality."

Such a heritage, if its recent distortions and corruption can be overcome, should be a fine platform on which to build. For the scientific community, this is an opportunity which must not be missed; nor can its implementation be allowed to falter through mismanagement or benign neglect. 
The author, Norman Neureiter, has been the director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy since May 2004.