Scientific Organizations: Advancing Science and Fostering Global Understanding

bridges Vol. 20, December 2008 / Norm Neureiter on S&T in Foreign Policy

By Norman P. Neureiter

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Norm Neureiter

Last month, I visited Shanghai in connection with the 50th anniversary of the Shanghai Association of Science and Technology (SAST). SAST is a nongovernment and nonprofit organization, representing a multidisciplinary roster of 180 societies, associations, and institutions with more than 175,000 members. SAST has chapters in 19 districts and over 50 large-scale enterprises in Shanghai, now an emerging world research center, and is also a branch of the influential China Association for Science and Technology (CAST). Undoubtedly it is an important social force and a powerful ally in the international advancement of science and technology.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} I had the honor of giving a keynote address on the first day of SAST's two-day international forum on "Social Responsibilities of Scientific Organizations." The forum made me think back to the year 1972, when then-President Nixon initiated America's breakthrough engagement with the leaders of China. After almost 25 years during which China and the US were completely isolated from each other, science was one of the items on the agenda when details of the new US-China relationship were being negotiated.

I was on the White House science staff at that time, and was given the responsibility of preparing the first packet of cooperative science proposals to be presented to Chinese leaders in connection with President Nixon's visit. And the exciting result was that science cooperation was mentioned in the final   Shanghai Communiqué that formalized the conclusion of that historic meeting between the two countries. Subsequently there were several cautious exchanges of science delegations and later that year the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was designated as the principal agent for conducting science exchanges with the Chinese.  Because there were no formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China, the Chinese insisted that the U.S. organization in charge of exchanges be a non-governmental institution. And despite its name, which sounds very official, the NAS is a private organization and not part of the U.S. Government.  However, after formal diplomatic relations were established under President Carter on January 1, 1979, science cooperation between the US and China, and the flow of Chinese science students and graduate researchers to US universities grew at an enormous rate.

The numbers speak for themselves: During the past two decades, 50,000 to 60,000 Chinese students have come each year to study in the United States, roughly two-thirds of them in science and technology. In times past, many stayed, but today most of them are returning home to pursue their ambitions at increasingly sophisticated and well-funded laboratories and research centers.

The senior ranks of the Chinese Government today are dominated by men educated as engineers. As was made very clear in a recent two-hour conversation between Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and former NAS president and presently editor in chief of Science, Bruce Alberts, this leadership is deeply committed to investment in research and science education to build prosperity and to address national challenges. The Chinese leaders fully understand what science and technology can contribute to the development of their country. (See ).

Scientific Organizations and the Internationalization of Science

I used my keynote address in Shanghai to stress once more the importance of science as a global enterprise and to emphasize that science should serve the broad needs of the world's people. In that context I talked about my four-and-a-half years, with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) - a truly fascinating institution. In its many programs and in its flagship journal Science, AAAS pursues the goal of knitting together the global science enterprise. Its guiding motto is “advancing science, serving society.”

AAAS’ wide range of activities spans all of science, engineering, and technology. For a US organization, it is quite old – founded 160 years ago in 1848. It is a membership organization with some 130,000 individual members, about 25 percent of them living outside the US. On a global basis, AAAS is affiliated with 262 other scientific societies and science academies, which means that AAAS represents a community of something like 10 million scientists worldwide.

In this position AAAS can be a very effective public voice on many societal issues of global dimension: energy, climate change, nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, public health, food safety, just to name a few. All of those issues have strong scientific components, and it is clearly appropriate to attempt to make sure that policy decisions on these issues are fully informed by the relevant scientific facts. But one also needs to make sure that science is not misused or misrepresented in such public policy debates – science must be used responsibly.

An excellent example of an AAAS contribution to the policy process in the US is the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships program. As noted above, many Chinese senior political leaders have been educated as scientists or engineers, but this is not the case in the US – there are very few scientists in Congress or the political world. Yet, science and technology are vital elements of almost every aspect of a modern society and their importance must to some degree by appreciated by policymakers. Furthermore, the analytical and deductive skills of the scientist and the problem-solving skills of the engineer can make great contributions to government policy-making.

This AAAS fellowship program is highly competitive, picking excellent people at the postdoctoral level and placing them for one or two years in the Congress or one of the Executive Branch agencies of government where they work on important issues – in domestic or foreign policy, in international development, in national security, in nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, in energy, in climate change – in any of the countless policy areas of government. The program started with seven Fellows in 1973 and, this year, 165 of them were placed in some 11 different federal agencies. There are now over 2000 alumni of this program: About a third of them work someplace in government, a third returned to their research careers either in industry or academia, and a third are involved in other careers. The fellowship program gives these people experience in the complex process of public policy-making, and the Fellows themselves bring much-needed scientific information and thinking into Washington policy circles.

And in the US government a AAAS Fellow quickly becomes part of an exceptional network of highly active, very involved scientists and science policy specialists working on a wide variety of issues in many agencies of government.  In a city where one’s effectiveness often depends on one’s ability to obtain  information quickly across a broad range of topics and agencies, this AAAS Fellows network is very valuable indeed.

One of the most important places for these Fellows is in Congress. Many people outside the US do not understand the importance of Congress in US policy making. Without the approval of Congress, the president cannot spend money and cannot make new laws. Furthermore, the power of some individual congressional committee chairmen is so strong that they can pass a law against the president's wishes or stop a presidential proposal in its tracks by withholding the funding. One of the most valuable lessons a Fellow learns from a year in the Congress is an appreciation of the complexity of this policy process and the subtle balance, as well as the often intense competition, between the executive and legislative branches of government.

Science and technology can function as a very effective bridge, whether it is between a country’s scientific community and its policy and political community, or between and among countries. And scientific organizations can work to build such bridges. Scientists and engineers, regardless of the countries from which they may come, share some very important characteristics: a common understanding of the rules of science, the meaning of certain terms, and the use of evidence to draw conclusions. When scientists meet, this commonality often extends more broadly beyond purely technical circles into other parts of society. These kinds of kinds of dialogs– whether at a conference in Shanghai or in the office of a Congressman in Washington, DC – represent useful steps, modest perhaps, but still significant, toward a more prosperous and peaceful world.


The author, Norman Neureiter, has been the director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy since May 2004.